The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Violence torments Ain al-Hilweh despite truce
Fighting between rival gunmen threatens wider conflagration as second cease-fire fails
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