The fight against fundamentalist recruitment of Palestinian youth in Ain al-Hilweh

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Children playing in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rana Harbi

Published Thursday, June 5, 2014

Vulnerable, impoverished, socially excluded, politically marginalized, and without hope for the future, Palestinian youth in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, are falling victim to fundamentalist groups and drug dealers.

Located on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, Ain al-Hilweh is a chronically overcrowded camp that houses 70,000 Palestinian refugees, and about 30,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Palestinians, who have fled Syria since 2011.

Squeezed into 1.5 square kilometres, residents of Ain al-Hilweh are living in poorly-built block structures dispersed amidst debris in a maze of indistinguishable alleyways.

Tangled electric wires cover the sky, open sewage flows down the narrow gullies and the smell of gasoline fumes overwhelms the air as cars squeeze through the unpaved streets of a camp that was once the breeding ground of the Palestinian revolution, but has become a safe haven for fugitives and extremist factions.

Plagued by unemployment, and ripe for abuse

Unemployed young men scatter along the roads at midday either holding arms outside the offices of different Palestinian wings, or pointlessly tracing the movement of pedestrians.

“Men in the camp are mostly unemployed, depressed and humiliated by not being able to fulfil the needs of their family,” Rasha Miaari, head of social relations in the Zitouna Association for Social Development (ZASD) in Ain al-Hilweh, told Al-Akhbar. “Children from a young age witness all this frustration and are deeply affected by their fathers and the men in their families.”

Lebanon’s laws and ministerial decrees have established a series of restrictions that deny Palestinian refugees internationally-mandated elementary civil rights. They are deprived from the right to work in most professions, attend public schools, own property, pass on inheritances and move freely in the country.

Palestinian youth specifically suffer from the discriminatory Lebanese labor laws that forbid Palestinians from working in more than 20 professions and restrict them to the most menial of jobs. For example, Palestinians are not allowed to work in the fields of medicine, law, education and other jobs that are regulated by professional syndicates.

“The camp is enclosed around us and we have very little options,” said 17-year-old Mohanad, one of the youths benefiting from the educational opportunities and counseling sessions ZASD has to offer. “As Palestinians we feel marginalized and as youth we are hugely demotivated.”

The overall destructive environment of Ain al-Hilweh renders it ripe for exploitation by gunmen, religious extremists and drug dealers. Palestinian youth are joining armed groups as militants, porters, spies, lookouts and informants inside the camps in exchange for meager pay.

According to Miaari, economic hardships lead to more anger and violence in the household which increases children’s anxiety, accentuates their depression and pushes them out of their homes and into the streets.

“We had a lot of problems at home. My father was unemployed and angry. I felt forgotten and neglected. I decided to quit school and try the street life,” Mohannad continued. “Drug dealers target young unemployed poor men who spend their days and nights on the streets and in cafes looking for solace. One time my very close friend offered me drugs for free. I got very scared. At that moment, I realized I needed to escape the streets before it was too late.”

A demoralized generation

Aware of the drastically reduced educational and labor opportunities, adolescents and young adults are socially disintegrated, desperate and hopeless about their future. Thousands of unemployed and idle youths trapped in the camp are seeking jobs as militiamen.

“Because of the rampant unemployment rates and the substandard living conditions many teenagers are seduced by quick cash into becoming hired guns,” Abou Wael Kleib, head of Al-Takaful for Solidarity and Social Care in Ain al-Hilweh told Al-Akhbar. “They say it gives their lives a sense of purpose.”

According to Kleib, many Palestinians are dropping out of high school especially after seeing those who have obtained diplomas in fields of engineering and medicine working as seasonal farm laborers, taxi drivers, construction workers and in other scarcely paid jobs that are insufficient to lift them out of poverty.

“We (the Palestinians) have been here for over 66 years but we are still treated as strangers by both the Lebanese people and government,” Abdallah al-Dannan, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) commander in Ain al-Hilweh, said as he gazed at the map of Palestine hanging loosely on one his office walls. “Granting us our basic rights doesn’t mean we will forget Palestine or give up the right of return.”

While different social institutions within the Palestinian community like ZASD and al-Takaful are trying to address this issue by advocating serious changes in the Lebanese laws, other political factions in the camp have chosen a different approach.

Ray of hope

In an attempt to stop the new generation from drifting away from moderate Palestinian movements, Munir el-Maqdah, senior commander of the Fatah movement in Ain al-Hilweh and the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in South Lebanon, decided three months ago to revive the ancient Fatah youth movement known as the fighting Lion Cubs, or al-Ashbal.

Maqdah sees little hope when it comes to enhancing the discriminatory laws and abolishing the bureaucratic hurdles in Palestinian employment and hence chooses to focus more on immediately “getting the children out of the streets.”

In the absence of a single dominant faction, Maqdah, like most Palestinian commanders, is trying to recruit as many Palestinian youth as possible in the aim of hindering extremist groups from taking root in the camp.

Even though Maqdah isn’t against the militarization of the youth, he believes that the trend of child militarization is getting misused by certain armed groups in an attempt to ignite tensions and drag the camp into a series of attacks.

“Weaponry without education and proper awareness has fatal consequences,” Maqdah, flanked by bodyguards inside a boot camp for al-Ashbal in Ain el-Hilweh, told Al-Akhbar. "There is a need to instruct and give al-Ashbal a proper military education so that they are able to distinguish right from wrong and know when and where it is acceptable for them to use their military expertise.”

“Boys aged 6 to 16 can join al-Ashbal only if they meet a series of requirements and abide by the strict regulations imposed on them,” declared Atallah Ahmad, military observer of al-Ashbal and secretary general of the Palestinian Youth Movement in South Lebanon. “Discipline is everything.”

Recruits under the age of sixteen go through physical fitness exercises and basic military training that doesn’t include bearing arms. When they turn sixteen, they undergo armed military training.

“I want to continue my studies so I can make and evolve advanced weaponry,” said Khalifa, a 15-year-old Palestinian. “I can’t wait until I turn 16 in few months and they let me use a Kalashnikov.”

Ahmad said that “al-Ashbal members are not only obliged to stay in school but they also have to take religion classes, in a mosque Maqdah’s Badr Association recently built, so that they can differentiate between true Islamic teachings and the sectarian ideas of fundamentalist groups.”

“Because I’m committed to the Palestinian resistance, I insist on getting an education,” Ali Abou Khamis, a 15-year-old karate champion and member in Ashbal Fatah said. “This is what Abu Ammar (prominent Palestinian leader and founder of Fatah) taught us.”

It is impossible to overstate how central and fundamental the idea of returning to Palestine is in the lives of these young Palestinians. Because Palestinians face a grim future in Lebanon, the youth believe that the core reason for their existence is not to build a life here, but to free Palestine and build a life there.

“I joined al-Ashbal because I want to defend my mother and sister if the Israelis attack us when we liberate Palestine,” said 11-year-old Youssef as he stood surrounded by his friends.“My grandparents used to live in a big house with a garden in Palestine. I want to go there.”

“Our compass points nowhere except to Palestine,” Youssef’s friends echoed.

“I joined al-Ashbal because I love the military costumes they give us,” exclaimed 10-year-old Mohsen. “My father is a car mechanic but I want to become a Palestinian soldier when I grow up.”

“My parents signed me up so that I don’t wander around the streets in the summer vacation,” said 12-year-old Ammar. “The kids around the block fight each other but I want to fight the Israelis.”

“This is my first day,” 10-year old Loai said, interrupting his cousin Ammar. “I want to do what Ammar is doing.”

“I also told my other cousin to come here but he refused,” Ammar continued. “He spends his day following girls on the streets and he hangs out with angry men at night. One time he showed me a gun with five bullets. His mother didn’t know where he got the gun from. I know but he made me swear on the Qur’an that I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

While al-Ashbal youngsters believe that they are getting ready for the day they leave Ain al-Hilweh and stand face to face with the Israeli enemy, many Palestinians condemn the use of children in all forms of armed action, regardless of its aims.

“The Israeli forces are not in the camp and unless we are launching a war on the Israelis any time soon, the military recruitment of children should stop,” Abou Bassam, an aged man selling coffee few blocks away from al-Ashbal bootcamp, explained. “Either in the name of God or in the name of Palestine children and young men are being exploited as gunmen and used as tools for settling personal feuds and claiming dominance over the camp.”

“Getting children out of the streets will only happen when we defy the Lebanese legal system that systematically undermines the Palestinian community's ability to improve its condition,” Miaari concluded. “Meanwhile, we seek to to equip the youth with short-term vocational training and also long term marketable skills that will help them cope with the current situation.”

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