News / Middle East

Syria Fallout Raises Tensions in Lebanon’s Palestinian Camps

A Palestinian woman who fled the violence in Syria reacts during a sit-in in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Beirut, Lwbanon, March 21, 2013.
A Palestinian woman who fled the violence in Syria reacts during a sit-in in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Beirut, Lwbanon, March 21, 2013.
Jihadists and militant Sunni Islamists are upsetting the balance of power in the dozen refugee camps in Lebanon housing 400,000 Palestinians. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its rival Hamas, who have long overseen the camps, are straining to keep the peace.

Palestinian leaders say they are striving to prevent violence breaking out between armed factions inside the dozen Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

They say fallout from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria is compromising relations within the camps between Palestinian groups and jihadists sympathetic to opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.

The increasing presence of radical Sunni Islamists risks sparking violence and is straining the ability of the leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas to keep the camps from being drawn into a conflict that is spilling over into Lebanon.

By long-standing agreement, the Lebanese army does not enter the country's dozen refugee camps, leaving security inside to the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinians are stateless and are loosely governed by a variety of leadership.

Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, the political representative for Hamas in Ain Helweh, the largest of the camps set up for Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, says tensions are running high. A deal to keep the peace isn’t always observed.

“There are always meetings between all the nationalist and Islamist groups in the camp. There is an agreement, at least an agreement but you know sometimes some things get out of line and cannot be controlled,” he said.

Last month radical Islamists in Ain Helweh gunned down a member of the Fatah movement of the PLO, according to an official statement from the Lebanese army.  

Also last month, radical Islamists from the camp who back the Syrian rebels battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joined in a two-day firefight in nearby Sidon between armed followers of a fiery anti-Assad Lebanese Sunni preacher and the Lebanese army.  At least 46 were killed, including 18 soldiers.

Ain Helweh’s population before the Syrian civil war numbered about 80,000 but it now accommodates 27,000 more refugees, primarily Palestinian Syrians. The influx includes  Islamists, adding to radical elements that were already there, say Lebanese intelligence sources.

Keeping a lid on tensions

Munir al-Maqdah, commander for the PLO’s Fatah movement in the camp, plays down the presence of jihadists, saying most went off to fight in Syria. But he concedes vigilance is needed, if a lid is to be kept on the simmering rivalries. He said the PLO has no interest in being drawn into any fighting in Lebanon.

“We don’t have any interest in getting involved. We are just guests in our brother country,” he said.

But while the Fatah commander plays down the danger, he and his Hamas counterpart in the camp say they meet frequently with leaders of the 14 other Palestinian and Islamist armed factions.

Al-Maqdah urged Palestinian Syrian refugees and others in the camp to keep their opinions to themselves about Assad.

“Some are with the [Assad] regime; others are against," he said. "I tell people to keep their opinions inside of them, keep it for you, be in sympathy with whoever you want, but don’t create problems here.”

The Palestinian camps have played prominent roles in Lebanon, and in 2007 one camp was taken over by violent Islamists, triggering a three-month-long siege by the Lebanese army in one of the most severe bouts of internal fighting in Lebanon since the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

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