Fatah al-Islam may have been defeated, the threat of jihadism remains real in Lebanon: disastrous economic and humanitarian conditions keep pushing sunnite youngsters into the arms of jihadist groups. In the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh, Fatah uses money donated by the Emirates and by Saudi prince Walid bin Talal to work on the social integration of vulnerable youth, and is trying to convince the Lebanese authorities to improve their economic and civil rights, in order to protect them from the influence of extremist ideologies, which are now universally seen as a threat to the survival of the Palestinian refugee camps.
On Sunday 2nd September, the Lebanese army, after a long and exhausting struggle, finally defeated the jihadi fighters of Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared in the north of the country. The operation has taken 106 days and cost at least 427 lives. Since the 20th of May, when the al-Qaeda-linked militia attacked an army checkpoint near Tripoli, 222 of the group’s fighters have been killed and another 202 captured. 163 Lebanese soldiers and at least 42 civilians have also lost their lives. The 30.000 Palestinians who lived in the refugee camp have been made homeless. Defense Secretary Elias Murr declared, in a press conference last Tuesday, that Fatah al-Islam’s fighters were “of various nationalities” and in close contact with al-Qaeda. The head of military intelligence, George Khoury, has asserted there were no indications of Syrian involvement and stated that Fatah al-Islam was not an exclusively Palestinian organisation. But the fact that the islamists were able to establish themselves in a Palestinian refugee camp and attract at least some Palestinians to their cause, illustrates the vulnerability of especially the younger refugees in their economically desperate situation, and has made it clear to all parties in Lebanon that jihadist movements could gain a foothold in other refugee camps too. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has recently announced a reconstruction project for Nahr al-Bared which would refashion the camp as a zone under military control where the currently homeless would be housed in orderly flatblocks separated by wide – tank-friendly – streets. The Palestinians themselves, however, point to their dire economic and humanitarian circumstances as the primary cause of the success of extremist ideologies, and insist that the project include a preventative aspect, an approach which has also been advocated by foreign analysts, such as the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, a thinktank in Washington*. Ain al-Hilweh, on the outskirts of the city of Sidon south of Beirut, is the largest and most militant Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, with an important presence of islamist activists. The soldiers manning the Lebanese Armed Forces checkpoint at the entrance of the camp note my time of arrival and give me a phone number to call ‘if I get into trouble’. But inside the camp I am warmly welcomed by General Munir al-Maqdah, a PLO-man from the age of ten and notorious as the founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades. Although he is a dissident within Fatah, having refused to accept the Oslo accords, he has been the commander of the PLO’s military wing in Lebanon until the reshuffle of the organisation’s Lebanese leadership in August of this year. He has since accepted a newly created function, which makes him responsible for the internal safety in Ain al-Hilweh – a function which also entails a socio-cultural aspect.
After the first clashes with Fatah al-Islam, Ain al-Hilweh has had its own troubles. On the 4th of June, militants of Jund ash-Sham, another jihadist movement, lauched grenades at the Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance of the refugee camp, sparking a firefight. Subsequently, fighting broke out within the camp too, pitting Fatah’s militia, officially charged with the military control within the refugee camp, together with the moderate islamists of Usbat al-Ansar against Jund ash-Sham, which was defeated at the cost of six lives. The Lebanese press was immadiately buzzing with allegations of a ‘civil war in the camps’, something which is emphatically denied by al-Maqdah, an intelligent and strongly motivated man in his forties, who speaks in a soft and controlled but authoritative way. He claims that the military situation is under control, and that the sporadic violent incidents of the past days were caused by personal differences between individuals, unrelated to any disagreement between the different factions in the camp. This was also confirmed on Wednesday by ‘well-informed sources’ from within Usbat al-Ansar speaking to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper.
‘Since I have accepted this function, I have been organising crisis meetings with all different factions represented in the refugee camp. As a first step, we have reaffirmed our military presence in the entire camp to consolidate our control, as a preliminary to the negotiations. Parellel to this, we have also founded a number of new organizations – studenten unions, scouts groups and professional and cultural associations, to work on the integration of our youths by educating them in our own traditions and culture. Our aim is to avoid a repetition of what happened in Nahr al-Bared, for this would lead to the destruction of all our camps. We must banish these external extremist influences. We are dedicating all the financial means at Fatah’s disposal, as well as donations of Palestinian charities and individual sympathizers, to this purpose. With the financial support of Sheikh Khalifa (Emir of the United Arab Emirates) and (Saudi prince) Walid bin Talal, we have recently been able to open a $5 million hospital – a first in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. It features a pharmacy, an emergency department, a research lab and a center for heart diseases. Additionnally, we are constructing a combined sports and cultural center, also the first of its kind in the 60-year history of the Palestinians in Lebanon.’
Al-Maqdah explains that dire economic prospects and a lack of social integration mechanisms are the primary causes pushing the vulnerable generation of 15 to 18-year olds into the arms of extremist factions. In Ain al-Hilweh, where 40.000 (according to the official count) to 80.000 people (according to more realistic estimates) are crowded into the space of a square mile, living in a maze of narrow alleys and rudimentary buildings built of cinder blocks, economic opportunities are scarce.
‘The Palestinians in Lebanon are by law excluded from 73 different professions, they cannot own real estate, and don’t have access to the Lebanese education and healthcare systems. This forces us to live mostly off the support of (the UN refugee program) UNRWA. Some of us here in Ain al-Hilweh have managed until recently to provide for their families by running small repair shops for cars or electronic equipment, but since the recent incidents many Lebanese are afraid to enter the camp and the shops have lost a lot of their clientele. Add to that the economic blockade imposed on Gaza and the West Bank after the election of Hamas, which has also seriously affected the Palestinians in Lebanon, and you can see why we have an unemployment level of 70%, much higher than the Lebanese average. The economic problem is the most urgent question we should solve.’
When asked about the level of cooperation he gets from the Lebanese authorities, al-Maqdah answers:
‘I am cooperating intimately with all Lebanese institutions, including the army, and with all political factions. It is our policy to work with all institutions and all factions,we are not opposed to any Lebanese party. Peace and security in Lebanon means peace and security in our camps. We want to forget the wounds of the past and look forward to the future. We are trying to revive the dialogue with our Lebanese hosts, so that we can tackle the roots of the problems and secure the rights of the Palestinians: civil rights, political rights and human rights. The new government initially reacted positively to our efforts: for the first time in decades, a Lebanese governement has had the courage to reopen the Palestinian file and establish a Palestinian embassy in Beirut. But due to the Israeli invasion and the political problems between the government and the opposition, the discussions have been relegated to the background. However, I have good hopes that we can pick them up again in the near future.’
When I ask him who he thinks is behind Fatah al-Islam, his answer is a diplomatic one.
‘Like everybody else, we would like to know the answer to that question. I hear that the Lebanese court has recently announced it will try over a 100 Fatah al-Islam members. We place our trust in the Lebanese justice system and as soon as they release a statement on this matter, we will know who they are and who is financing them. All we know now is that they are not a Palestinian organisation, they do not fit into our culture and our traditions. They have been ‘parachuted’ into our camps – hundreds of fighters, so thoroughly armed, where did they come from so suddenly? They must have received outside help. The external control on the people and goods entering our camps is the responsibility of the Lebanese authorities.’
* Al-Qaeda’s Terrorist Threat to UNIFIL’, released in June 2007
(copyright Bart Peeters 2007)