The country’s camps are becoming “more and more of a battlefield” between those who are for or against the Assad regime in Syria, said Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut.
Lebanon has 12 official Palestinian camps, housing roughly half of the country’s total Palestinian population, estimated to be between 260,000 and 400,000. Life in the camps is mostly marked by poverty, overcrowding, marginalization and limited opportunities for employment, education or a better future.
During Syria’s occupation of parts of Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, Damascus fostered relationships with several Palestinian groups. Links have since weakened but loyalties still linger.
“In terms of issues around Syria, there are lots of different sparks in Lebanon,” said Cale Salih, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The Palestinian camps are one of them, and they’re one of the more dangerous ones because you don’t really have a state presence in the camps.”
Ain al-Helweh, the largest of the camps, located on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, has a particularly unsavory reputation as a lawless and violent safe haven for extremist factions and people on the run from the government.
In Ain al-Helweh, dire living conditions are worsened by a history of factional quarrels. Assassinations, explosions and gun battles are familiar occurrences for the 70,000 residents. Lebanese security forces maintain a heavy presence at entry points to the camp but do not venture in.
The absence of a single dominant faction, the inability of groups to unite to confront common threats and effective recruitment campaigns by extremist Islamist groups have allowed radical jihadist organizations such as Usbat al-Ansar, Jund al-Sham and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades to take root.
The camp’s potential to disrupt a fragile Lebanese peace came into focus last month when the government said it had uncovered and arrested a cell within the army with ties to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an international jihadist network affiliated with Al-Qaeda. According to the government, members of the cell were planning attacks against military targets. The leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, Tawfik Taha, is believed to reside in the camp.
A little more than five years ago, Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam militants took advantage of organizational weakness and factional divisions in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon to set up an operating base there. In May 2007 after a skirmish between militants and Lebanese security forces in nearby Tripoli — sparked by a police raid on a house used by some of the group’s members — the Lebanese Army laid siege to the camp.
The battle lasted more than three months and cost the Lebanese military 169 lives. When it ended, the camp had been largely destroyed and nearly all who lived there had fled. Nearly half a decade later, much of Nahr al-Bared is still in ruins, despite promises that the camp would be rebuilt.
The Nahr al-Bared episode stoked a climate of mutual distrust with many Palestinians wary of the Lebanese government’s intentions and Lebanese fearful that Palestinian issues could add to instability in the country.
“Instead of encouraging factions to disarm,” Ms. Salih said, the destruction of Nahr al-Bared “has made faction leaders who have arms want to hold onto them even more because they see it as a way to protect their camp.”
After the discovery last month of the militant cell in the army, some politicians called for Lebanese security forces to disarm the Palestinian factions in the camps. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, one of Lebanon’s main Christian parties, demanded action, even if it meant a replay of Nahr al-Bared.
The problem with that, said Ms. Salih, is that for many Palestinians the lesson of Nahr al-Bared was that Lebanese intervention in Ain al-Helweh “doesn’t mean you’re going to come in and take out extremist forces: It means you’re going to make 70,000 people homeless.”
Despite calls for the Lebanese authorities to intervene in Ain al-Helweh, analysts said any such action is unlikely: With the military stretched by the need to contain Syria-related tensions, it would be hard-pressed to take on the additional challenge of the camp.
“It’s not about the willingness or the wish, it’s about the feasibility,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese Army general. “If you want to interfere in a bigger, more armed camp you need more resources that you don’t have.”
In 2007, a few hundred militants in Nahr al-Bared, outnumbered and out-gunned, were able to hold out for months and inflict heavy casualties on the Lebanese military. In Ain al-Helweh, a much larger camp with many more potential combatants, a similar conflict would most likely be a far more difficult fight.
“If they reach a solution it should be an agreement with the intervention of Palestinian political factions,” to apprehend the wanted men, said Mr. Hanafi, echoing what many see as the ideal way out of the current situation.
Palestinian factions, operating in de facto autonomy inside the camps, want Lebanese security forces to stay out — both to maintain their free rein and to avert another Nahr al-Bared. In troubled Ain al-Helweh it remains to be seen if factions willing to act can peacefully apprehend those wanted by the Lebanese state without provoking a conflict in the camp. But in other camps, the will is clearly there.
“We are working not to let what happened in Nahr al-Bared happen in another camp,” said Mustafa Abu Harb, a spokesman for Fatah in Beddawi, a camp in northern Lebanon. “We will fight, strongly, all these parties or members which want to kidnap our camp.”
Before the Al Qaeda-inspired militants set foot in Nahr al-Bared, they initially tried to settle in Beddawi. But factions there united under Fatah leadership in a security agreement to force them out.
“We want to live in peace with our neighbors, with the Lebanese people and the Lebanese Army until we will return to our homeland in Palestine,” he said.
Kazem Hassan, a Fatah official in the Shatila camp in southern Beirut said that the responsibility of turning over wanted men to the Lebanese authorities should fall on the shoulders of the Palestinian groups.
Factions “want to keep security in the camp,” he said, “because we are visitors in this country, we are guests. We are not the rulers.”
“If any disorder happens, where can we go?” Mr. Hassan asked.
(www.nytimes.com / 04.04.2012)