Fatah Envoy to Centralize Authority Among Palestinian Factions in Lebanon

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A picture of Fatah founder Yasser Arafat in Shatila camp in Lebanon. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Friday, January 13, 2012

The reconciliation taking place between Hamas and Fatah at the top leadership level may push for unifying political authority among Palestinian factions in Lebanon’s refugee camps to handle political and security matters that went out of hand recently.

Palestinian faction leaders in Lebanon are keenly awaiting the arrival in Beirut of Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah Central Committee member in charge of the “Lebanese file.”

His visit is expected to end the dispute between local Fatah commander Munir al-Maqdah and his rival Mahmoud Issa’s al-Kifah al-Musallah (Armed Struggle) faction. But principally, al-Ahmad is due to announce the formation of a unified political authority, which will act as an umbrella group for all the Palestinian factions in Lebanon.

The authority is set to serve as the Palestinian refugees’ “sole legitimate representative” to the Lebanese state, and assume direct responsibility for the armed wings of all Palestinian factions.

Questions remain about the willingness of all parties concerned to seriously commit to the formation of such an organization at this time. There has long been a recognition that a cross-factional authority should be formed in order to keep the Palestinians in Lebanon out of internecine Lebanese disputes.

But negotiations about this matter repeatedly broke down, invariably reflecting tensions between Fatah and Hamas within Palestine. Officials from factions affiliated with both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the rival Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF) insist that the relationship between these two groups has now changed.

Pending al-Ahmad’s arrival from Germany, various proposals have been put forward about the structure, tasks, and powers of the proposed unified political authority. There is strong support for the idea that it should provide the Palestinians with a unified voice when demanding improvements in social, political, and security conditions from the Lebanese authorities.

“That will force the Lebanese government to respond to us, rather than demurring over our demands on the pretext that we are divided, as used to happen in the past,” says Abu Imad al-Rifai, head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement in Lebanon.

The process of uniting various Palestinian factions will be extended to the grassroots level. The popular committees in the refugee camps, currently split along pro-PLO and pro-APF lines, are to be reunited. The same is expected to apply to security committees, which will be reconstituted and bolstered with elements from all participating factions.

Recent clashes and shootings in the Ein al-Hilwe refugee camp spurred the formation of the authority, amid fears that the security situation there could degenerate, much like it did in Nahr al-Bared in 2007.

“The escalation in the camp, and talk of launching attacks at the Islamist stronghold of the camp referred to as 'emergency' zone, sped up steps to form the political authority in order to ease the tension,” says an official from one of the APF factions. That was on the ground. At the political level, a conducive climate was created by the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement.

Lengthy talks preceded agreements on the formation of the authority, both between the factions themselves and with Lebanese security agencies. A key interlocutor was General Security Directorate Chief Abbas Ibrahim, who also took part in talks when he was the Lebanese chief of army intelligence.

Early on in the negotiations, the APF factions opposed to the PLO turned down a proposal to form two separate authorities. One authority would have dealt specifically with security. It would include the military wings of all Palestinian factions and guarantee control over all Palestinian arms inside and outside the camps. In addition, such an authority would liaise directly with Lebanese state security agencies and be led by al-Musallah. The political authority would be a separate body and its decisions would not be binding on the security authority.

But some factions demanded that the security and political functions be combined, arguing that security in the refugee camps was ultimately “political security.” The Lebanese side was persuaded, and the APF and PLO factions agreed to form a subcommittee consisting of representatives of six factions (Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and PFLP-GC) to draft guidelines for the new authority. The chairmanship of the subcommittee is set to rotate every six months.

This is not the first time Palestinian groups in Lebanon have formed a unified authority. A similar body was headed by Fateh’s Abbas Zaki, with Usama Hamdan of Hamas as his deputy. But it was paralyzed by the feud between Fatah and Hamas, which culminated in the latter party’s military takeover of Gaza. This authority reconvened twice to deal with emergency situations, including during the assault on Nahr al-Bared and the events of May 7, 2008. This body was not used following the latter crisis, until the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation changed the political landscape.

Fatah officials for their part concur that while the PLO will remain the Palestinians’ official representative, the new body will serve as a unified political leadership for all the Palestinian factions in Lebanon.

“There is already a unified leadership at the level of the camps,” says one Fatah figure. “We will now have a unified political leadership at the highest level, [representing Palestinians] in Lebanon as a whole rather than each camp on its own.”

As for reconciling al-Maqdah and Issa, the official maintains that this is “an internal Fatah affair.”

The official expresses surprise at the interest shown by other Palestinian factions in the affair. “If they’re worried about the security situation in Ein al-Hilwe deteriorating, they are capable of preventing anyone from threatening security in the camp if they assume their responsibilities,” he says. “But if they want to protect al-Maqdah, this approach will not help them.”

The Fatah leadership, he adds, is set to take measures against al-Maqdah, “and if he won’t comply with the leadership’s decisions, he should leave the movement.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the Islamist stronghold in the camp known as the "emergency area" as a UNIFIL zone. In Arabic, the word "tawari", which means emergency, is also used to refer to UN forces.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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