Recent clashes in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon between Fatah activists and members of radical Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda will determine who controls the camp.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is committed to retaining control of the camp, considered one of its strongholds in Lebanon.
The PA is also pitted in a contest for Palestinian loyalty against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose popularity is rising as they escalate attacks against Israel in the West Bank and along the Lebanese border.
In the background, stirring the pot, loom Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
On July 30, 2023, fighting broke out in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon after the assassination of a senior officer from Fatah, Maj. Gen. Abu Ashraf Al-Aramoushi. The attackers were believed to be members of Jund al-Sham, an Islamist faction affiliated with al-Qaeda. Al-Aramoushi, a commander of the Palestinian national security forces in Sidon, was assassinated in Ain al-Hilweh with his three bodyguards on July 30, 2023.
The Lebanese army called for an immediate ceasefire. Under an agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Lebanese government, Lebanese military forces are prohibited from entering Palestinian refugee camps. Instead, the maintenance of security in these camps falls under the purview of Palestinian factions through a joint security force.
The Fighting Resumed
In the wake of these recent battles, hundreds of families from Ain Al-Hilweh fled their homes. Eight UNRWA-run schools, which would typically provide shelter to the homeless, are in the control of the Islamist forces. At the same time, nearby Sidon does not permit the refugees’ relocation. A tent encampment established there by the UN had to be dismantled.
The Fatah movement has accused extremist Islamic groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS, whose members have crossed over from Syria, of attempting to seize control of the camp—the largest in Lebanon.
Was a PA Official the Catalyst?
Officials in Lebanon contend that the violence erupted following the visit of the head of Palestinian Authority Intelligence, Majed Faraj, to Beirut last month, during which he held discussions with senior officials in the Lebanese government.
The PA is actively working to reinforce its control within Lebanese refugee camps, thwart the takeover attempts by jihadist Islamic groups and Hamas, and establish new Fatah leadership, thereby neutralizing the centers of power aligned with Muhammad Dahlan, a political rival of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas strives to strengthen his position among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
According to Lebanese sources, Faraj brought substantial financial resources to Lebanon to garner support from Fatah activists within the refugee camps.
The Palestinian Authority is apprehensive that the extremist Islamic elements’ potential takeover of Ain al-Hilweh could set a dangerous precedent for other refugee camps.
The ongoing conflict will likely persist as the Fatah movement is determined to prevent extremist Islamic organizations from seizing this crucial power base in Lebanon.
A truce was reached on August 3, but fighting resumed on August 8, 2023, when Fatah demanded that Jund al-Sham turn over Gen. Abu Ashraf Al-Aramoushi’s killers and that gunmen surrender their positions in schools.
Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s interim prime minister, contacted PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on September 9, 2023, to discuss the latest developments in Ain Al-Hilwa following the resumption of hostilities.
Mikati stressed the priority of ceasing all military action and cooperating with the Lebanese security services to address the existing tensions.
The Prime Minister said:
What is happening does not serve the Palestinian cause at all and constitutes a grave insult to the Lebanese state in general, particularly to the city of Sidon, which embraces the Palestinian brothers. What is required in return is that they deal with the Lebanese state in accordance with its laws and regulations, preserving the safety of its citizens.