Islamists of Ain al-Hilweh Distance Themselves from their Surroundings

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Armed gunmen patrol the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh on the outskirts of Saida. Al-Akhbar

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Thursday, January 15, 2015

Discussing the security forces’ raid on the Islamist detainees in Roumieh Prison last Monday, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk said there is a “triangle of death between the hills of Ersal, Roumieh Prison and Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.” On that day, dozens of gunmen gathered in the Taamir neighborhood — adjacent to the camp — in solidarity with the detainees, blocking the road leading to the camp for hours.

If one hot head had fired a bullet in the direction of the Lebanese army at al-Taware entrance, “that might have dragged us into another Nahr al-Bared,” said a Palestinian official, referring to the Palestinian refugee camp that was destroyed during clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist forces in 2007. But the latest incident ended peacefully after the secretary of the Islamist forces, Sheikh Jamal Khattab, who has a lot of credibility among the Islamists of the camp, negotiated with those blocking the road to reopen it and de-escalate tensions. Palestinian faction leaders stepped up their meetings with Lebanese security officials, especially after Machnouk’s comment about the triangle of death, to stress that there is no “support base for hardline Islamists in Ain al-Hilweh,” as one senior Palestinian official put it.

Despite the large number of hardline Islamist organizations in Ain al-Hilweh, “the popular mood is against them,” the official continued. “The residents fear a repeat of the Nahr al-Bared and the Yarmouk scenarios, as thousands of them were displaced from those camps to Ain al-Hilweh.” He stated that “the number of people sympathetic with the Islamists among the camp’s residents does not exceed one percent.”

One leader of the Alliance of Palestinian Forces stressed there is an eagerness to avoid any clashes with the Lebanese army. To this end, contact was made with leaders of hardline organizations and they were informed of the Palestinian factions’ decision to “confront any military action inside the camp that would lead to this kind of clash.” The Alliance leader added: “We agreed with the alliance of Islamic forces to terminate any group that tries to drag the camp to a battle with the army... We don’t want to repeat the tragedy of the Yarmouk camp where some residents became party to a conflict that they have nothing to do with.”

A senior leader from one of the Islamist factions confirmed: “We have talked to Haitham al-Shaabi, Tawfiq Taha, Osama al-Shehabi and Bilal Badr to emphasize to them the seriousness of our decision. These parties vowed not to drag the camp into any confrontation with its surroundings.” He went on: “Most leaders of the hardline groups are from Ain al-Hilweh, they are not strangers to it. They know that it is their last resort and they are aware of the disastrous consequences for their families if the situation gets out of hand.” He stressed that hardline organizations “don’t want a confrontation with the army, and the rational stand taken by Osbat al-Ansar (League of the Partisans) and Sheikh Jamal Khattab in support of this position has made it easier for us to talk to the hardline groups.” In addition, “al-Shehabi played an effective role in convincing Islamist leaders of the need to calm the situation down.”

In response to Machnouk’s inclusion of Ain al-Hilweh in the triangle of death, a senior official from one of the Islamic organizations said: “The camp serves as a mail box for exchanging messages.” He acknowledged that “the camp might provide logistical support by harboring some outlaws, but the problem lies in the ability of these people to cross the Lebanese army checkpoints surrounding the entrances and enter the camp.” He pointed out that the army intelligence chief in South Lebanon, Ali Shahrour, acknowledged during their meeting that “no car bomb came from the camp during the wave of bombings” [witnessed in Lebanon last year].

Despite the return of sound bombs at night, one Palestinian security official affirmed: “We can say that security is under control and nothing is alarming as long as there aren’t outside parties working to destabilize the camp’s security through their informants.” To ensure that the tense security situation does not escalate, the joint security committee stepped up its night patrols in an attempt to catch the bomb thrower. Deputy of the Palestinian national security chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Munir al-Maqdah, told Al-Akhbar that “Palestinian forces are keen on preventing the situation inside the camp from spiraling out of control. There are some names suspected of involvement in the recent bombings and they have been called up for interrogation.” Since the Lebanese security situation has repercussions on the camps, an official in the alliance of Islamic forces said: “calming the escalating rhetoric between the Lebanese parties and the joint security effort to counter terrorism will reflect positively on the camps,” stressing that “supporters of the Lebanese parties in the camp will not take action.” There is a regional decision to keep the situation under control, which will reflect positively on the camps as well.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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