What's behind the fighting in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp?
By Dario Sabaghi, The New Arab, 08 August, 2023
The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon, Lebanon, became the centre of intense fighting between rival armed groups last week.
Between 29 July and 2 August, explosions, rockets, and gunshots shook the camp, resulting in at least 12 deaths, dozens of injuries, and the displacement of 2,000 people.
The camp, housing nearly 50,000 registered Palestinian refugees, is now under a fragile ceasefire.
The clashes reportedly started with an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Islamist militant Mahmoud Khalil, nicknamed Abu Qatada, resulting in the death of one of his associates by a Fatah-affiliated gunman named Muhammad Zubaidat.
Later, Islamist militants ambushed and killed Abu Ahmed al-Armoushi, a Palestinian security official linked to Fatah, along with his three associates. Full-blown fighting then erupted across the camp.
A preliminary ceasefire was established on 2 August. However, clashes resumed later that evening, prompting a renewed, although fragile, ceasefire a day later.
Numerous political figures have called for calm, including Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, Shia political party Hezbollah, Iran, and Hamas. Meanwhile, representative committees of the political factions are mediating to enforce the ceasefire.
To grasp the extensive involvement of both domestic and foreign actors in managing the infighting, and the reasons behind the violence, it's essential to understand what the Ain al-Hilweh camp is and why it is important.
Located near Sidon, a coastal city 44 km south of Beirut, Ain al-Hilweh is the largest among Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps. The camp is enclosed by a wall with guarded entrances and checkpoints monitored by the Lebanese Army.
The 1969 Cairo Accord prohibits the army from entering the camp, a provision still in technical effect despite its annulment by Lebanon in 1987. This explains why Lebanon's Army didn't intervene and halt the hostilities.
While the camp remains under Lebanon's sovereignty, its practical governance lies with Palestinians. This means that security and administration within the camp fall under the jurisdiction of popular committees and Palestinian factions and it serves as a hub for numerous rival armed groups.
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have a long history of conflict. Notably, one of the deadliest episodes took place at Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli in 2007, where Islamist groups clashed with the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Violence spread to other areas of the country, resulting in over 200 deaths and the destruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp.
Ain al-Hilweh has also been the theatre of factional fighting in recent years, similar to the violence last week.
Erling Lorentzen Sogge, a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Studies and author of 'The Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon: A Political History of the 'Ayn al-Hilwe Camp,' told The New Arab that, unlike in Syria and Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) gained substantial political and military influence in Lebanon, although it was then expelled following Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982.
"In the 1980s, the PLO attempted to rebuild its organisation within the refugee camps of Lebanon. But in 1993, the PLO shifted focus from funding camps to building the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and West Bank,” Sogge said.
“Lebanon lacked the authority to disarm camps at that time due to Syrian control post-Civil War. Moreover, Hezbollah has generally rallied against UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Some heavy weapons were later removed, but Palestinians retained lighter arms."
While Fatah, the main faction of the PLO, has traditionally held influence over Palestinian camps in Lebanon, its leadership has faced challenges in recent years. In this context, maintaining control over Ain al-Hilweh is vital to reaffirming their leadership.
Imad Salamey, associate professor of Middle Eastern political affairs at the Lebanese American University, told TNA that the Ain al-Hilweh camp also has a strategic relevance.
"Controlling the camp offers influence over Sidon, access to Beirut via the coastal road, and proximity to Israeli borders. Its strategic importance extends Sunni power in that area. Furthermore, dominance in the camp aids power expansion to smaller camps," he said.
While the details of the recent deadly clashes in the camp are not yet fully clear, a primary cause is the ongoing tension between armed factions. Fatah and Islamist groups are vying for leadership and influence within the camp, driving the fighting.
Ain al-Hilweh contains a plethora of factions that are battling to rule the camp, including Islamist groups such as Usbat al-Nour, Ansar Allah, Jund al-Sham, and Islamic Jihad, among others.
Souhayb Jawhar, a journalist and researcher, told TNA that PLO factions have traditionally controlled the camp due to its significance as a Palestinian stronghold and a strategic route for armed resistance. However, Salafist Islamic groups emerged during the 1980s.
"In the last infighting, the elements of the clash were Fatah on the one side, and a group that called itself 'The Muslim Youth' on the other side, which consisted of dissidents from Jund al-Sham, Usbat al-Ansar, and Ansar Allah," he said.
Sogge highlighted the presence of numerous armed groups in the camp, each considering themselves the exclusive voice of Palestinians.
More specifically, Sogge distinguishes two categories of factions. One includes Islamist forces, like Hamas, and local groups with ties to Lebanese entities who are less engaged in clashes. The other category comprises actors who once belonged to these groups but severed ties due to perceived excessive pragmatism.
"These groups have somewhat adversarial ties with other Islamic factions in the camp. They encompass a significant number of indigent people, along with hired gunmen and local militants. Their conflicts revolve around establishing dominance and challenging the Fatah movement," he said.
Yet, Sogge highlights that these groups are often motivated to act by local sentiments, aiming to assert control within camp neighbourhoods against Fatah, their key rival. While some media link them to al-Qaida or the Islamic State (IS), this portrayal is overblown, according to Sogge. Many of these movements primarily stem from localised concerns, engaging in struggles related to the local economy, power dynamics, and resources.
In a broader political context, some experts see the visit of Major General Majed Faraj, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service, to Beirut days before the clashes broke out as closely tied to tensions in Ain al-Hilweh camp.
Jawhar noted that Faraj had urged political authorities to curb Hamas, weaken Islamist influence, and press Hezbollah to halt support for West Bank groups.
"Faraj also attempted to promote the notion of disarming non-Fatah factions in the camps, but the matter was out of the question for Lebanese and regional accounts," he said.
Hamas' talks with Lebanese institutions via Hezbollah, urging the end of the hostilities, aimed to secure a stronger security and political role within Palestinian communities, according to Salamey. While not directly involved in the conflict, Hamas is strategically leveraging the power struggle to position itself as a mediator or influencer in ceasefire and security arrangements.
"In this way, Hamas may benefit from this struggle while other sides get weakened," Jawhar said.
Since renewing ties with Syria in 2022, Hamas has expanded its presence in Lebanon, receiving political and security support from Hezbollah.
"The Hamas leadership is now living under the effective protection of Hezbollah,” Jawhar said, and conversations in Lebanon are emerging on the development of the movement's military capacity in and outside the Palestinian camps.
But for Salamey, Hezbollah and Iran's support for Hamas is cautious.
"Their alliance with Hamas is a means to weaken Fatah, preventing its negotiations with Israel. Hezbollah intends to be the sole negotiating power with Israel," he said.
Given the precarious situation and interests that extend beyond the Ain al-Hilweh camp, Lebanon has little room for manoeuvre in finding a resolution to the ongoing tensions within the Ain al-Hilweh camp.
Since the Lebanese Army takeover of Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007, Lebanon has been cautious about repeating such an action again.
For Sogge, there's limited political will to engage with this issue, with talk of disarmament remaining complex. The main Palestinian factions, like the PLO and Hamas, outwardly permit disarmament, but the presence of various armed groups, some supported by Lebanese actors, complicates matters.
"Disarming camps poses challenges, including potential responsibility for 200,000 Palestinian refugees in the country. Lebanese security agencies, including the army, avoid change," he said.
Salamey argues that both Palestinians and Hezbollah oppose Lebanese Army involvement in camps or disarmament. Hezbollah's reluctance stems from its own disarmament concerns, wary that this move could lead to similar actions against itself.
"Lebanon's faltering state institutions fuel fears of weakened security forces, benefiting groups like camp-based Islamists. The Christian community is concerned. The presence of armed Palestinians raises alerts reminiscent of the 1975 situation,” Salamey said.
“Moreover, the migration of the Islamist leadership, particularly armed factions, from places like Jordan and Syria into Lebanon deepens apprehensions, echoing the past entry of Palestinian armed groups after events like Jordan's Black September in 1970."
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of CEMAS Board.