Security

Lebanese forces weigh options to contain Ain al-Hilweh violence

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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Damage to buildings in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp is seen here after recent clashes have pitted Fatah against extremist groups operating under the auspices of ‘Osbat al-Ansar'. [Photo courtesy of Nazih Naqouzi]

Lebanese forces have been working to contain a recent outbreak of violence at Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon which has pitted Fatah against anti-government extremist factions, officials told Al-Mashareq.

The clashes began as minor skirmishes on February 23rd and developed into violent confrontations, continuing until a ceasefire was agreed upon on February 28th. The incidents left one civilian dead, eight wounded and dozens displaced.

The clashes pitted Fatah, which controls the decision-making process in the camp, against extremist factions operating under the auspices of anti-government extremist group Osbat al-Ansar.

Though the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which stipulated that the Lebanese army would refrain from entering the Palestinian camps, is no longer in effect, the army generally does not exercise control inside the camps.

The camps are controlled by Palestinian factions, and while the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides services in the camps, it does not administer or police them.

In a February 28th statement , UNRWA strongly condemned the violence.

The recurrent armed violence continues to impact the civilian population in the camp, including children, the statement said, announcing that all UNRWA services had been suspended on February 27th and 28th.

On February 24th, two UNRWA facilities for health and relief services were also closed as a result of the outbreak of violence.

High-level security review

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri convened a February 28th meeting of the Ministers of Interior and Defence and security agency chiefs to review the situation in Ain al-Hilweh.

"Security agencies are doing their part in terms of taking precautionary measures, making calls and containing the situation in the camp," said Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, describing the efforts made so far as "successful".

On February 28th, Lebanese General Security Director Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim met with Fatah movement central committee member Azzam al-Ahmad and Palestinian Ambassador Ashraf Dabbour to discuss the security situation.

In a statement carried by the National News Agency (NNA), the two expressed their desire "to uphold security and stability" and increase co-operation with the Lebanese state "on all political and security levels".

They also pledged "to lift the political cover off those who disrupt security".

With Brig. Gen. Khodr Hammoud, head of the army’s intelligence branch in the south, they discussed a mechanism for the formation of a security force and for the handover of wanted individuals inside the camp.

Dangerous individuals at large

Osbat al-Ansar handed over camp resident Mohammed al-Siddiq, a Palestinian leader who is wanted by the authorities, the NNA reported on February 27th, while another wanted Palestinian turned himself in on March 2nd.

Palestinian sources informed Al-Markaziya Central News Agency on March 3rd that wanted fugitive Shadi al-Mawlawi moves around inside the camp wearing an explosive belt.

Al-Mawlawi, who is wanted by the authorities for his alleged connections to extremists and his role in the 2013 Tripoli bombings, reportedly informed officials at the camp that he refuses to turn himself in to the army.

Palestinian sources also informed the agency that Fadl Shaker, who is under the protection of the Abu Quatada group, refuses to turn himself in. The army has been demanding that he stand trial, along with radical cleric Ahmed al-Assir -- already in custody -- for their involvement in the 2013 Abra clashes.

Al-Mawlawi and wanted extremist Bilal Badr "were seen praying together at al-Safsaf mosque in the camp", Al-Markaziya reported.

Putting an end to the chaos

Lebanese and Palestinian fugitives wanted on both criminal and terrorist charges are hiding in the camp, said strategic and security expert Brig. Gen. Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired Lebanese military officer.

"The situation is liable to get out of control at any time due to the state of lawlessness brought on by the fighting between these groups," he told Al-Mashareq.

Since mid-2013, he said, some extremist elements have used the camp as a safe haven and base from which to carry out terrorist acts, including the Iranian Embassy bombing in November 2013.

Contingency plans have been developed to prevent a scenario such as the 2007 outbreak of violence between Lebanese forces and extremist factions in Tripoli's Nahr al-Barad camp from playing out at Ain al-Hilweh, Abdel-Kader said.

He stressed the need to put an end to "the chaos inside the camp through the implementation of clear measures and understandings between the state and camp officials".

The security measures currently in place at the camp are good, he said, but must be redoubled as they are "not enough to put an end to the lawlessness and assassinations in the camp" or to prevent the entry of terrorists.

Contingency security plans

Ain al-Hilweh is home to 80,000 Palestinian refugees and 20,000 Palestinians displaced from Syria, former commander of the Army’s Airborne Regiment Brig. Gen. George Nader told Al-Mashareq.

"From time to time, the camp witnesses a profusion of armed groups, such as Osbat al-Ansar, Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Muslim Youth Organisation, the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' (ISIL) and ANF," he said.

It also has served as a refuge for fugitives such as al-Mawlawi, he said.

Each of these groups recruit their members from among the poor and destitute.

The army’s 1st Brigade and the intelligence branch have "imposed strict measures around the camp and at its entrances", Nader said, while security agencies have developed contingency counter-terrorism plans.

Should the wanted fugitives turn themselves in to the authorities, "it would be a good step for the camp, its residents and Lebanon", he said.

The danger will remain, however, if terrorists and fugitives from justice, some of whom are openly loyal to ISIL and al-Qaeda, continue to seek refuge in the camp, he added.

A struggle for dominance

The recent conflict in Ain al-Hilweh "is for dominance of the camp", said Hassan Qutb, head of the Lebanese Center for Research and Consulting.

The rival factions are Fatah, Osbat al-Ansar, the Islamic Jihad Movement and affiliated small groups loyal to the Syrian and Iranian regimes with strong ties to Hizbullah, including al-Jihad al-Islami and Ansar Allah, he told Al-Mashareq.

The stated reason for the clashes is "the assassination two months ago of two elements, one of whom was closely associated with Osbat al-Ansar", he said.

The unstated reason "is the desire of every faction to bring the camp and its human and military resources under its control, management and authority and sideline Fatah, which currently controls the decision making process", he said.

"All forces are using their internal and external ties to sustain the tension in the camp, which necessitates the presence of a single political and security authority in the camp to control the situation and co-ordinate relations with Lebanese security agencies," he said.

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