Fighting in Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps Result of Increased Islamist Influence

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 24

Approximately a year has passed since the outbreak of violence between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the armed Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in Northern Lebanon; and yet—one year later—the situation in the camps is far from being stable. On the contrary, episodes of violence have spread to the Ain al-Hilweh camp, and the conflict has broadened to include other Salafist factions, such as Jund al-Sham, or Asbat al-Ansar (Daily Star [Beirut], June 17).

In the past few months fighting has resumed in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, located near the southern city of Sidon. Accordingly, Ain al-Hilweh—traditionally a foothold of Fatah and the former operating base of Yasser Arafat in the 1980s—is now increasingly under the control of Islamist groups (Ya Libnan, June 15). Among such factions, one of the most active has certainly been Jund al-Sham.

Jund al-Sham, literally “the Army of Greater Syria,” is a splinter group of Asbat al-Ansar, a Salafist movement founded in the late 1980s by Palestinian cleric Shaykh Hisham Shreidi in the northern camp of Nahr al-Bared. This takfiri group is mostly Lebanese, although it includes some Palestinian fighters (Naharnet, May 31).

Founded by Abu-Yusuf Sharqiyah, a former Palestinian member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the movement is currently led by Lebanese militant Ghandy Sahmarani (Al-Nahar, June 26, 2004; Naharnet, May 31). Until the LAF redeployment in 2007, Jund al-Sham’s headquarters were located in the al-Tawari camp (next to Ain al-Hilweh) and extended to the al-Ta’mir district in Sidon. Currently, the group is concentrated in Ain al-Hilweh, where its presence is estimated at around 50 men (Al-Diyar, February 22, 2007; Ya Libnan, July 1, 2007). Jund al-Sham joined forces with Fatah al-Islam during the confrontations with the LAF in 2007; the group is also known to have ties with al Qaeda (Naharnet, May 31).

Despite reports of Jund al-Sham rejoining Asbat al-Ansar in July 2007, the group seems to be still active and operating autonomously, challenging other Palestinian factions within Ain al-Hilweh as well as the LAF (Ya Libnan, July 1, 2007).

In March, local newspapers reported internal clashes between members of Fatah and Jund al-Sham. The violence erupted after Fatah official Mahmud Abd al-Hamid Isa detained high-ranking member Jund al-Sham Husam Ma’ruf, and turned him over to Lebanese Army Intelligence in Sidon, where he was questioned about his alleged involvement in an attack against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) (Al-Hayat, March 24). The arrest of the Jund al-Sham member led to a confrontation between the two groups and the violence soon escalated as other Salafist groups in the camp, such as Asbat al Ansar, joined forces with Jund al-Sham (Al-Hayat, March 24).

In the following months the armed confrontation once again spread outside of the camp, partly as a response to Jund al-Sham’s attempts to expand their area of operations and attack the LAF. On May 31 a Jund al-Sham militant was shot dead by Lebanese forces at a checkpoint in Ain al-Hilweh; only two weeks later another clash took place at the checkpoint located at the western entrance of the camp, leading to the death of another Jund al-Sham gunman and the wounding of a second militant and a Lebanese soldier (Naharnet, May 31; Al-Nahar, June 11). The wounded gunman was later identified as Issa Qiblawi, brother of Shaykh Qiblawi, who was killed in Iraq while fighting with al-Qaeda. Interestingly, however, Palestinian officials denied that the deceased militant was Issa Qiblawi, while sources within the camp claimed that the wounded militant was in fact from the Gulf (Daily Star, June 13).

These episodes have to be analyzed in the context of the deteriorating security environment and the rising activism of Salafist groups within the refugee camps, as shown by the increased number of attempted attacks, as well as by the growing presence of international fighters. For instance, in the first week of June, the explosion of a remotely detonated bomb in the proximity of an army post in the northern town of Abdeh (near the Nahr al-Bared camp), and the killing of a would-be suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia in the Ain al-Hilweh camp put the LAF in a state of heightened alert and again brought attention to the question of cracking down on terrorist activities within the camps (Daily Star, June 17; Naharnet, June 2). The army post struck by the blast is at Abdeh, in northern Lebanon, near the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp where the offensive was launched.

The increased polarization and factionalism within the camps and the internal weakening of Fatah’s authority are gradually undermining the historical bargain between the Palestinian factions and the Lebanese government. Historically, in fact, the Palestinian refugee camps have been outside Lebanese authorities’ jurisdiction, with Palestinian factions and Fatah in charge of internal security. In exchange for the de facto autonomy, Palestinians had the responsibility of preventing “spillovers” of internal violence into Lebanon. Therefore, the recent trends of increasingly contested internal authority and the renewed attacks against the LAF seem to confirm that refugee camps have become one of the main security hotspots for the Lebanese government and that the LAF will be increasingly more involved in these areas.