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Refugees face enemies within

Observations on the Lebanon

In the cinderblock jungle of Ein el-Hilweh, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon that has found itself at the centre of an international terror controversy, a siege atmosphere is taking hold.

“People coming into the camp get stopped and searched at the checkpoint for up to an hour now. I can’t bring the parts I need in,” says Bilal, a 27-year-old mechanic. “The pressure inside is making us all mentally unstable.”

Syria claims that September’s deadly bus bomb in Damascus was the work of Fatah al-Islam, a Lebanon-based terrorist group whose leader, Abed Mohammed Awad, is believed to be hiding in Ein el-Hilweh.

Whether or not Fatah al-Islam really was behind the attack, the Lebanese security services are under huge pressure to do something about the al-Qaeda affiliated group. It fought a bloody battle with the army at another refugee camp, Nahr al-Bared, last year, and is believed to be behind two recent terrorist bombings in the northern city of Tripoli. Some fear that if Lebanon cannot show that it is containing Islamist terrorism, Syria could use this as a pretext to reinvade the country.

Ein el-Hilweh, which crams roughly 60,000 people into just under two square kilometres, is the largest of the 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Although Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah party is nominally in charge, in recent years poverty and despair have driven people to the better-organised, better-financed, Islamist factions. Because of the authority vacuum, and because the Lebanese army is not supposed to enter any of the camps, Ein el-Hilweh has also been used as a refuge by criminals and foreign jihadis. You get a sense of the spectrum of groups operating here as dusk falls on Lower Street in the southern sector: a wide range
of gunmen suddenly becomes visible, from bearded Islamists to designer T-shirt-wearing wannabe gangsters.

“There is no authority, the young kids don’t listen to the elders any more. They’ve got weapons; they think they’re hotshots,” explains Bilal, who has seen two people shot dead outside his garage in recent months.

Because of the implicit threat that the camp could be destroyed by the Lebanese army, as Nahr al-Bared was, Ein el-Hilweh’s main Islamist factions, some of which used to be more sympathetic to extremism, have begun to co-operate with Fatah on security. The factions are thought to be in intense negotiations on how to deal with the problem of Abed Mohammed Awad’s possible presence.

“When there is pressure in the camp and there is accusing, even if someone is innocent, you have to remove the pressures,” says Sheikh Jamal Khattab, head of one of the camp’s Islamist splinter groups.

But extremist elements are not something that can be surgically removed from Ein el-Hilweh. In the past few weeks, Fatah handed over a suspect to the Lebanese army, which caused an immediate backlash. In the tight-knit social and factional networks of this overcrowded camp, no one is “just” a wanted individual. The
strain is also telling on the factions themselves. Even Fatah is said to be bitterly divided over how to
deal with camp security. It is unclear whether recent attacks on Fatah members, including an assassination, are part of an internal feud or if the victims were targeted by extremists.

“The mainstream groups are aware of the danger and are trying to co-operate,” says the veteran security analyst Timur Göksel, “but an internal fight is very possible, and that scares me.” For most of the camp’s inhabitants, caught in between these conflicting pressures, there is nothing to do but hope the storm will pass. “We are Palestinians,” says one store owner, pouring out thimblefuls of coffee. “Patience is all we’ve got.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?