Ain al-Helweh: Armed Anarchy Becoming Mundane

Market vendors in the Ain al-Helweh camp have also suffered from the violence and are among the most vocal in demanding that the weapons be brought under control. (Photo: Haytham AlMoussawi)

By: Ahmad Othman

Published Friday, November 2, 2012

The doctors, merchants, and taxi drivers of the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian camp describe their chief complaints about life in the camp. At the top of the list is the never-ending conflict between armed factions and unregulated weapons proliferating on the streets.

The situation is dire at the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Saida. Tensions simmer amongst Palestinian political and religious parties; the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons puts guns in youngsters’ hands; and regional conflicts are played out by proxy in the camp’s streets. All at the expense of Ain al-Helweh’s civilian population: about 70,000 squeezed into a couple square kilometers.

The camp’s residents can no longer tolerate this state of affairs. They’ve had enough of the armed anarchy. While they’re aware how complicated it would be to disarm the gunmen, they’re no longer prepared to keep silent.

Abu Ali, a taxi driver, is furious. When asked what he thinks should be done he said, “Make all the Palestinian factions go and put their weapons in storage like the Lebanese parties did.”

Addressing the Palestinian leadership, he said, “We’ve been listening to you for years, now it’s time to listen to us: Weapons that kill a brother, friend, or neighbor are not necessary. The weapons in the camps were there to prevent more massacres. If they’re for something else, there’s no need for them.”

Still shaking with rage, he continued, “Our neighborhoods have become frontlines. The [factions] lied to us and said they’d withdrawn, making a big deal in front of the cameras about security being achieved by consensus. Where is the security they’re talking about? God only knows the terror we live in.”

Camp resident Mohammad Abu Sitta is of the same mind. “These weapons are there to fight Israel, not to kill each other,” he said. “So I want to ask the factions: Is Israel present in the camp? The weapons here have become tools for murder and settling personal feuds, so this toying with people’s lives must be stopped.”

Um Mohammad Said’s brother, a father of seven, was injured in the most recent fighting. He was caught by crossfire on his way home from work and is now in the hospital. “My brother was wounded in his feet,” she said. “What did he do wrong? Our life has become hell. We live on tranquilizers.”

Asked what should be done, Um Mohammad sighed and said, “I appeal to [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas to intervene personally in Lebanon to put an end to this anarchy. I ask him not to listen to the leaders, but to the people whose suffering is real.”

In the emergency room of the camp’s Al-Nidda Hospital, Dr. Walid Yasin was eager to respond to the same question. “I wish this question of how to regulate Palestinian arms inside the camp had been raised a long time ago,” he said. “Our hospital is the only one in the camp which admits firearms casualties. We perform difficult surgical operations with modest resources. Incidentally, we get no help from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). If we had wise leaders, they would have developed our hospitals. We have our modest hospital in Ain al-Helweh, but our officers and leaders get treated in the grandest Lebanese hospitals.”

The doctor noted that he and his colleagues still show up for work despite not receiving salaries for the past eight months. His chief demand is the eradication of uncontrolled weapons from the streets, and for the weapons of Palestinian resistance – “which are sacred as far as we are concerned” – to be regulated.

Market vendors in the camp have also suffered from the violence and are among the most vocal in demanding that the weapons be brought under control. “This district is one of the frontlines in the camp’s random clashes,” said Ziad Abdul-Ghani, speaking on behalf of fellow merchants. “Our losses have been huge, but there is nobody to compensate us if, for example, a shop burns down because it’s accidentally hit. I sustained losses of $23,000 in the two clashes the Ramadan before last, but nobody has compensated us.”

According to Ghani, when the PLO leadership in Ramallah appointed a committee to assess the damage, the traders applied for a total of $89,000 in compensation, each in accordance with the damage their premises had sustained. But for reasons best known to one member of the committee, the figure in the report sent to Ramallah was inflated to $300,000. When Abbas saw it he refused to authorize payment and ordered a review of the valuation. As a result nobody was compensated.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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