When fighting broke out between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Sunni Islamist militant group Fatah al-Islam on May 20, the main concern was that the fighting would somehow spread from the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp north of Tripoli to other Palestinian camps across Lebanon. Many reasoned that if the LAF was unable to defeat Fatah al-Islam without incurring mass civilian casualties, refugees and militant groups in the other camps might rise up and attack the LAF in response. On June 3, those fears were realized as militants from the Jund al-Sham group, claiming allegiance to Fatah al-Islam, began exchanging gunfire with the LAF in and around the Ain al-Helweh refugee camp outside Sidon. Although the fighting there has abated after the establishment of an uneasy truce, further conflict is likely to ensue. The armed militant groups in the Ain al-Helweh camp and elsewhere represent a serious threat to stability in Lebanon and the broader region. Even more ominously, these groups appear to be armed and manipulated by external sponsors for their own ends.
Over 200,000 Palestinians registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East live in 12 camps spread throughout Lebanon, the largest of which are Nahr al-Barid (30,439 refugees) and Ain al-Helweh (45,004). The first stirrings of jihadi ideologies in the camps originated with the second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (Bernard Rougier’s Everyday Jihad is the best source on the history of Islamist extremism in the Palestinian refugee camps). Since then, Islamist splinter groups have lived in uneasy co-existence with the official Palestinian authorities in the camps, who themselves have been more or less lawless since the withdrawal of Syrian military intelligence in 2005.
Whereas Fatah al-Islam is the best known Islamist group in the Nahr al-Barid camp, in Ain al-Helweh that distinction belongs to Usbat al-Ansar, the rejectionist organization from which the even more radical Jund al-Sham group splintered in 2002. This past week, Usbat al-Ansar was one of the four armed Palestinian groups which contributed to the 40-man “peacekeeping” force deployed in Ain al-Helweh to help keep order (Daily Star, June 7; L’Orient-Le Jour [Beirut], June 7). This, notes French expert Bernard Rougier, is one of the ironies of Usbat al-Ansar: despite being a group dedicated to the destruction of the Arab political order, they clearly have an interest in maintaining the status quo within Ain al-Helweh (Le Monde, June 6).
Since the emergence of Fatah al-Islam as an armed jihadi threat earlier this spring, Lebanon’s Sunni-led March 14 coalition has been forced to answer charges from the Hezbollah-led opposition and others that it—as well as its Saudi and Jordanian allies—has been funding Sunni Islamist groups like Fatah al-Islam in an effort to counter the strength of Hezbollah’s weapons and manpower. Links between Fatah al-Islam and the Syrian regime that emerged following the recent clashes made those accusations easier to counter; with respect to the armed groups in Ain al-Helweh, however, the accusations have been both more frequent and harder to disprove. Bahia al-Hariri, sister to the slain prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the March 14 minister of parliament for Sidon, has been forced to defend against charges that she and her allies have supported Jund al-Sham (Daily Star, June 7; an-Nahar [Beirut], June 5). A piece of evidence surfaced, however, showing that $100,000 was paid this last week to Jund al-Sham by the Palestinian Liberation Organization with money received from Bahia al-Hariri (Daily Star, June 7). This money was allegedly given as compensation for the dislocated families of Jund al-Sham members, but it may have been part of a wider peace deal. In the end, it is unclear how much money and support is currently allotted to these Palestinian militant groups and from whom. Jordanian, Saudi and Syrian sources are all suspected to be supporting militant groups in the camps, as are parties within Lebanon. All of these actors have used proxies to fight their rivalries.
Lebanese sometimes describe their civil war of 1975-1990 as “the war of the others” because copious groups and states outside Lebanon contributed to the violence. The phrase “of the others” suggests that the Lebanese themselves were not at fault, when in fact the author of the original phrase, Lebanese journalist Ghassan Tueni, had written of “a war for the others.” The Lebanese, he argued, were responsible for allowing their country to become a battlefield for outside interests. If the fighting in the Palestinian camps between the LAF and militant groups continues apace or intensifies, the Lebanese themselves will again play a role in this deepening spiral of violence.