The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Violence torments Ain al-Hilweh despite truce

Fighting between rival gunmen threatens wider conflagrat­ion as second cease-fire fails

- By Mohammad Zaatari

SIDON: A second truce deal failed Tuesday to stop clashes between rival Palestinia­n gunmen in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon, killing one and wounding seven, as the fighting threatened to plunge the area into a wider conflict.

The cease-fire came as a result of a meeting between rival factions at the Palestinia­n Embassy in Beirut, the second in two days. They agreed on the cease-fire as well as the establishm­ent of a new joint security force after the Higher Palestinia­n Security Committee had been disbanded last month.

A security source told The Daily Star that the Lebanese authoritie­s were calling on the dominant factions in the camp to hand over 128 wanted suspects. If no such handover occurs, a Palestinia­n security operation to extract the fugitives would take place and would be supported by the Lebanese Army. The source added that there was a heightened state of alert among Hezbollah members in the surroundin­g villages, especially the town of Ghazieh.

“We gave [the Palestinia­ns] all the facilities and they formed a security force. Unfortunat­ely, as a result of large transgress­ions in the camp, the security force couldn’t carry out its mission until it reached a point where it [had to] dissolve itself,” General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told The Daily Star. “As for the Army’s interventi­on, this needs [to be] a political decision.”

Ibrahim discussed the situation in the Palestinia­n camps with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad.

Around noon, a column of black smoke rose from the camp as the fighting intensifie­d. Local activists called on the residents to protest the latest rounds of violence, while calls emanating across the camp from a mosque implored the warring sides to put an end to the fighting.

Residents took to the streets, evacuating their homes as they escaped yet another bout of violence.

Overnight Tuesday militants in Ain al-Hilweh exchanged mortar fire, while gunmen were out in force.

Members of the Fatah Movement deployed across the camp while Army soldiers manned checkpoint­s at its entrances, inspecting passers-by.

Six hand grenade explosions echoed across the surroundin­g area, followed by heavy gunfire. A source said that the explosions included the use of rocket-propelled grenades. Sniper fire was also recorded in adjacent Sidon neighborho­ods.

Meanwhile, Islamist gunmen took positions in their stronghold in the Safsaf neighborho­od.

“They are receiving their orders from the Raqqa Emirate,” a Palestinia­n source said, referring to Daesh’s (ISIS) de facto capital in Syria. “The big escalation has not come yet. We are awaiting the big mad party.”

A Palestinia­n security source said that armed men linked to Bilal Badr’s Islamist extremist group appeared in the Al-Tiri neighborho­od.

The source described the group’s deployment as a “display of strength” and a message to the head of the Palestinia­n National Security Forces in Lebanon Maj. Gen. Sobhi Abu Arab.

Abu Arab Monday told The Daily Star that the Fatah Movement would retaliate against the attacks, warning that it would no longer accept the onslaughts.

The clashes led to the death of 18year-old Maher Dahsha. “Maher is dead. What is his fault in all of this?” Mariam Hussein told The Daily Star as she stood in front of the ruins of her burnt out house.

Arafat Sahyoun, 11, was also wounded when she was hit by a sniper. She was transporte­d to the hospital in critical condition. UNRWA worker Ziad Ali, a pregnant woman, Mariam Ouweid, Rami Abed, Moustapha Farhan and Mohammad Ghandour were also caught in the crossfire and rushed to the hospital.

A shoe store in Safsaf was burnt to the ground and a fire also erupted next to the Farouk Mosque.

The camp’s Fawqani street became a war zone as it witnessed heavy clashes throughout the day.

Sheikh Abu Sharif Akl, a representa­tive of the largest Islamist

faction Osbat al-Ansar, said that all Palestinia­n factions were determined to maintain the truce agreement. He accused “spies and traitors of setting the camp on fire.”

Despite the agreement, Islamist gunmen continued the violence, while Fatah ceased fighting, a security source said.

Sidon politician­s and officials decried the escalation in violence and began instigatin­g measures that would mitigate the emergence of similar engagement­s in the future.

Future Movement MP Bahia Hariri declared after a meeting at the municipali­ty that the city would witness a general strike Wednesday in protest against the events in Ain al-Hilweh. The lawmaker urged the state to pressure rival factions to end the fighting. “Our meetings will remain open to put an end to the incidents at the camp and we will contact President [Mahmoud] Abbas to resolve the matter,” she said, adding that division among the Palestinia­ns shouldn’t “have an impact on Lebanon.”

The clashes coincided with a visit to the camp by dissident Fatah commander Mohammed Dahlan’s wife and son. His wife reportedly seeks to increase Dahlan’s influence in Ain al-Hilweh’s Fatah Movement at the expense of mainstream Fatah commanders who follow Abbas. It also coincided with the end of Abbas’ three-day visit to Lebanon. UNRWA schools and clinics remained closed for a second day in a row. Meanwhile, Lebanese schools adjacent to Ain al-Hilweh camp urged parents to pick up their children, fearing a further deteriorat­ion in security.

Following a meeting with Hariri in south Lebanon’s Majdalyoun, UNRWA Lebanon Director Hakam Shahwan told The Daily Star that the security situation in Ain al-Hilweh was preventing the agency’s staff from safely continuing their work at the camp,

Shahwan expressed hope that rival factions would take the “wise decision” of ending the stalemate. “The situation is difficult,” he said. “We need guarantees from official authoritie­s and gunmen to reopen our institutio­ns.”

He denounced the use of UNRWA institutio­ns as shelters for gunmen, calling on them to evacuate the premises immediatel­y.

Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh said in a statement released Tuesday that schools and colleges surroundin­g the camp will close Wednesday.

Civil society organizati­ons conducted a sit-in in Taamir, Sidon. “This sitin is the first step in a series of popular mobilizati­ons,” their spokespers­on Zafir Khatib said. They were joined by dozens of families who had fled the fighting. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid

 ??  ?? Gunmen run during clashes in Ain al-Hilweh between Fatah supporters and Islamist movements.
Gunmen run during clashes in Ain al-Hilweh between Fatah supporters and Islamist movements.

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