Al-Qaeda-affiliate jihadists are redoubling their recruitment in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and are likely to try to further fan sectarian tensions in the country by targeting Lebanese Christians in a suicide bombing campaign that until now has focused on Shia Muslims, warns a top Palestinian official.
Mahmoud Abdul-Hamid Issa, the former top security official for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, says the camps are at “boiling point”, including Ain el-Hilweh, a refugee camp an hour south of Beirut and the largest for Palestinian families that fled to Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israel war.
Known as el-Lino, the 44-year-old Issa says Ain el-Hilweh, which contains 17 armed Palestinian and Islamist factions, is inching towards full-blown fighting. He has been urging the PLO leadership to take a stronger line in the dozen Palestinian camps in Lebanon and uproot jihadists, warning that inaction will risk Lebanese army intervention and a major crisis in relations between Palestinians and the Lebanese. More than 200,000 Palestinians live in the camps and a further 200,000 are spread out across Lebanon.
The Palestinians themselves administer the camps, which have played significant roles in the history and politics of violence in Lebanon, having been used in the past by extremist groups. What plays out in the camps can often aggravate ideological and sectarian splits in Lebanon—and, in turn, rifts among the Lebanese can roil the settlements.
“The situation is very tense and very dangerous,” Issa says, speaking over coffee in his spotless office furnished with black leather chairs on a side street in the teeming camp. The only wall decoration was a large photograph of Yasser Arafat, no stranger to turmoil in Lebanon.
Leather-clad, AK-47-wielding gunmen protect Issa’s small compound and pedestrians are scrutinized as they walk in adjacent pot-holed lanes. In December, Issa was wounded in an assassination attempt in Ain el-Hilweh by jihadists that left one of his bodyguards dead. The bomber, who died in the attack, was an Egyptian. The assassination attempt took place at the funeral of Mohammad al-Saadi, a PLO official who was shot dead along with two companions days earlier outside the camp.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Issa, a father of five young children, including a newborn, says the tensions in Ain el-Hilweh won’t stay under control for long, despite mediation efforts between the camp’s armed factions, and between the PLO and rival Hamas, and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant Shia movement. “All the leaders are worried and we are trying to contain fallout from the jihadists’ bombing campaign,” he says.
According to Issa, jihadists “manipulate cleverly the schism between Sunnis and Shia in their recruitment.”
“There are between to 200 to 300 fighters now in Ain el-Hilweh, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese but there are a few Iraqis and Yemenis among them,” he says. Most of them live in one quadrant in the camp, which is close to the southern seaport of Sidon, although there is a pocket of jihadists elsewhere in an area mostly dominated by Fatah, the most powerful faction within the PLO.
The jihadists are members of a variety of groups—including homegrown ones such as Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham—but all are increasingly “coming under the sway” of the Lebanese wing of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, he says. He names the most important jihadist commander in the camp as Tawfiq Taha, a 52-year-old who is wanted by Lebanese authorities in connection with several bombings including attacks in 2007 and 2008 on UN peacekeepers. Taha owns a house that backs on to Issa’s compound, although he reportedly now lives elsewhere in Ain el-Hilweh.
“I have good information they will start turning their attention to Lebanese Christians and start bombing their districts,” Issa says.
In June, jihadists from the camp assisted supporters of the fiery Lebanese Sunni religious leader Ahmad al-Assir in a three-day battle against Lebanese troops in the Abra district in Sidon near the camp. At least 16 soldiers were killed. Lebanese authorities deny that Assir, who fled his mosque complex in Abra and has urged Sunni soldiers to desert the Lebanese army, is now living in the camp among the jihadists but Issa says, “of course he is here” and that he has made common cause with the jihadists.
Issa was removed as the PLO’s security chief in October after criticizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his lieutenants for not doing enough to aid Palestinian refugees and accusing them of corruption. But he still enjoys strong support in the camp. Even within the PLO the different factions are often at loggerheads and maneuver to gain the upper hand. Issa is head of the Palestinian Armed Struggle group within the PLO in Lebanon.
At the best of times, the politics of the camp complicate the hard life most of the refugees endure in the crowded settlement—a square kilometer of poorly built two-story and three-story dwellings and confined streets. Ain el-Hilweh is seldom stable; ideological conflicts as well as personal grudges can escalate quickly into gunfights, which are all the more jarring taking place in such a confined space. Last Sunday a member of an influential Palestinian family was shot dead near the camp’s vegetable market by two masked gunmen. The motive for the slaying remains unclear.
But these are not the best of times. A fragile and divided Lebanon risks rupture over the civil war raging next door in Syria. The country has been flooded by nearly a million Syrian refugees, straining resources and sparking resentment, and the stirring of the sectarian pot by Al-Qaeda-linked groups with a vicious suicide bombing campaign is spooking Lebanon. The dozen suicide bombings since July have killed 130 people and wounded more than one thousand.
That bombing campaign has been focused mostly on Shia districts in Beirut—retribution, the jihadists say, for Hezbollah sending fighters to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “We do talk with the jihadist leaders,” says an exasperated Issa, “but they are impossible to negotiate with, they are totally convinced about their opinions and insist they are right.”
Kamal Saleem Abed al-Majeed, a member of the PLO’s Popular Committee which oversees services in Ain el-Hilweh, acknowledges the “situation is very complex” and that the “biggest problem” in the camp is the security challenge closely followed by economic hardship. He says Ain el-Hilweh is seeing a rising number of clashes—three or four a month —that can last two to three hours. Many go unreported in the local media.
But he disagrees that the PLO has been weak in response to the jihadist challenge and says President Abbas, during a recent trip to Lebanon, urged the Lebanese to disarm jihadist factions. He admits though the Lebanese are fearful of trying to do so, worried they would provoke “a big bang.”
Issa agrees that a Lebanese incursion into the camp would trigger conflict and adds that it could invite a repeat of the 2007 Nahr al-Bared siege. “The PLO is appeasing,” he says. “The PLO has to take harder action because if it doesn’t, eventually the Lebanese army will have to enter.”
Palestinian youngsters in the camp, regardless of their ideological affiliation, harbor deep resentment towards the Lebanese army—a symbol for them of a country that refuses to accord them full civil rights and perpetuates the permanent state of limbo they feel trapped in.
They resent having to undergo the searching of their cars and the demand for identity cards whenever they come or go through one of the five entrances into the camp. The perimeter is heavily guarded by Lebanese soldiers. “Look,” says 23-year-old Reema, an accountant. “I have to go through this every time. They search my bag and ask me what I am doing? Questions, questions, questions,” she says.
Unemployment is high among Palestinians and drug use by the young is skyrocketing, according to NGO workers and camp residents. In Ain el-Hilweh last week a couple of dozen youngsters mounted a protest on one of the main thoroughfares in the camp demanding the “right to emigrate”, emigrate to anywhere—a shocking rejection for the old guard of the long-running Palestinian demand of the “right to return” to Palestine. Three hundred youngsters in the Beddawi camp in north Lebanon mounted a similar protest.
“The Palestinian leaders didn’t know how to respond,” says an NGO worker, who asked not to be named for this article. “They said nothing publicly in response to the demonstrations. It shocked them.”
Asked by The Daily Beast about the protests, the Hamas leader in Ain el-Hilweh, Fadel Taha, blamed “these suspicious protests” on “foreign provocateurs” trying to undermine the collective Palestinian demand for the “right to return” by getting young Palestinians to give up on it.
But he conceded that many young Palestinians feel hopeless about the future. “The youth are desperate because of the hardship of life here and the joblessness.” It is a desperation that jihadists are exploiting in their efforts to add to their ranks.