Ein el Helweh Palestinian camp, Saida, Lebanon
What’s left of Yarmouk Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus will soon duplicate the mounds of rubble and smell of death in Homs, the old city of Aleppo, Idlib, East Damascus, Deraa and along Route 5 from Damascus to the Turkish border and elsewhere across Syria. Damascus based Palestinian officials, joined by an envoy from the PA in Ramallah, have agreed to “a military solution for Yarmouk”, arguing that “dialogue with the Islamists is unrealistic.” What, if anything at all, will survive in Yarmouk no one can know.
Some Lebanese refugee camp residents and political analysts predict a similar fate for Ein el Helweh. Fears are mounting in Lebanon that violent and unpredictable extremist Islamist/Jihadists, including Da’ish (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) will seek to set up bases in Palestinian camps. According to camp residents and local observers, Islamists have now moved into seven of the 12 camps with the highest level of organization being in Ein el Helweh, the largest refugee camp which was set up in 1948 by the ICRC, some 35 miles south of Beirut in Saida.
This week’s camp murder in Ein el Helweh of Marwan Issa, a member of the Hezbollah’s Resistance Brigades, who according to camp sources was negotiating an arms deal, has dramatically raised tensions. Militants from Shabab al-Muslim, which includes Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham extremists with claimed links to Jabhat al Nusra are suspected of involvement. That group’s spokesperson has expressed al Nusra’s intension to expel Hezbollah operatives from Ein el Helweh and from Lebanon.
Among the Palestinian and Islamist factions currently in Ein el Helweh are Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Popular Liberation Front, the People’s Palestinian Party, Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, the Arab Liberation Front and the Democratic Palestinian Union (Fida). Pro-Syrian factions include, but are not limited to, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Saiqa, and Fatah Intifada. Among the Islamic factions among the now nearly 90,000 camp residents (since December 16, 2012, approximately 8000 Palestinians arrived at Ain el Helweh from Syria’s Yarmouk, Sayyida Zeinab and Husseinieh camps) are the Ansar Islamic League-Obbat al-Ansar, Mujahid Islamic Movement, Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Al Jihad al Islamic Movement, Jund al Sham, Fateh al Islam, Shabab al-Muslim” (“the Muslim Youth” whose numbers include militants accused of bombings and assassinations in Lebanon), and the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects. In addition, about a dozen smaller al Qaeda affiliated groups plus Jabhat al Nusra and Da’ish (ISIS) according to camp officials. The teeming camp also hosts nearly 50 popular unions, some political. Estimates by camp officials suggest that perhaps a dozen other secret jihadist groups and unknown number of furtive cells are operating even more clandestinely.
Ein el Helweh is currently divided into eight geographic security zones, three of which have become notorious and some controlled by the larger and stronger groups. In the dangerous al-Tawari neighborhood, a stronghold for Islamists, the black flag of the Islamic State is common and often seen alongside a photograph of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi next to one of Osama bin Laden. In some camp alleys Hezbollah flags have disappeared in favor of IS and other jihadist banners.
Arriving jihadists are making promises and are friendly to locals, promising to immediately grant the civil rights to work and to own a home for Palestinian refugees. They also pledge to be serious about liberating Palestine while telling Palestinians that others in Lebanon just talk while playing the Palestinian card for political benefit while not lifting a finger to help local Palestinians. The Lebanese army is also being condemned by many camp residents as it tightens restrictions at Ein el Hilweh’s entrances, including now banning construction materials urgently needed for repair and expansion of the increasingly packed dwellings housing additional thousands from Syria, Palestinian and Syrian alike.
The war in Syria has transformed parts of Ain el Helweh camp into a safe haven for jihadists traveling to fight there and training in districts where even the new joint Palestinian Security Force (PSF), set up by the Ramallah based Palestine Authority will not venture. One camp official recalled with grimaces and clinched teeth the 2007 battles between Lebanon’s army and Palestinian Islamists in the northern Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli and worries that something similar will come to his camp. Some camp residents report that with young salafists arriving daily, it reminds them of many of the jihadists who suddenly showed up and entered Nahr al Bared not long before that camp war started. The fighting at Nahr al-Bared killed at least 446 people, including 168 soldiers and 226 militants during the 105-day siege of the camp. Between 400 and 500 soldiers were also wounded. Of the more than 215 Fatah el Islam militants captured, dozens remain in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison and several groups, including al Nursa and Da’ish have recently vowed to free them all and destroy the fortress like penitentiary.
According to the Mar Elias refugee camp based Palestinian Association for Human Rights which just released its annual report on living conditions of camp residents; there has been no improvement in the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon over the past year. The PAHR findings make plain that for Ein el Hewleh and other camp residents, existence is becoming ever more fragile as they increasingly suffer from poor education and health services and face legally sanctioned discrimination. As another disheartened generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon faces personal and academic dead ends, and barred by Lebanese law from the international humanitarian legal right to work and thus take charge of their lives, they are vulnerable to recruitment into militant cells. Some camp officials claim that this crisis may well be resolved if Palestinian youth are granted the civil right to work by Lebanon’s Parliament because they will see a future for themselves.
One teacher at an UNWRA school explained to this observer that “When Da’ish moves into Lebanon’s Palestinian camps it will be because Lebanon’s politicians have created ideal conditions for these parasites. It is as though they are inviting them into our camps!” This observer agrees, for the reason that some of those arriving are much like virulent opportunistic bacteria and Lebanon has created the right amount of light, moisture and oxygen, for affiliated al Qaeda viruses to take hold, grow, and metastasize.
Seeking to comprehend why Da’ish (IS) appears so attractive to many disaffected young people these days, a growing body of psychological data is being published that is relevant to Lebanon’s squalid camps as the hot suffocating summer weather soon envelops them. A new report by Quantum Communications, analyzing the personal testimonies of 49 ISIS members challenges much of the conventional wisdom. It found that earthly, material motivations – e.g. the pursuit of social status, employment and financial well-being are far more important than religious ideology in attracting recruits to jihadist groups. The applies to camps such as Ein el Helweh as refugees seeking higher status face a world that does not understand or appreciate them as they perceive themselves. Palestinian camp youngsters want jobs and education like kids everywhere. When they are blocked from working by Lebanese law other factors sometimes figure in their calculus including revenge and seeking justice. Some rightly consider themselves to be part of an oppressed group, and thus want to inflict harm on their oppressors. Jihadists present an oversimplified but sometimes appealing vision of how to achieve social justice for themselves, their families and community.
If and when Da’ish (IS) takes over parts of some of the refugee camps in Lebanon, the knee-jerk reaction from politicians can be scripted now. We will probably soon witness the usual “it’s the Palestinians fault- after all-they let IS into their camps!” chest beating and finger pointing.
In point of fact, Palestinians are well known to be among the most moderate Muslims with little if any affinity for takfiri views. A main reason that Da’ish (IS) type jihadists may well create bases in Lebanon will be in large measure because for 67 years Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been bared, by Lebanese law, from the most elementary civil rights to work, and since 2001 forbidden by law from owning a home. Without job prospects they see little hope for their future. What most of the Lebanese sects seem unwilling to admit is that when a political system grinds a population down, and deprives them by law of even the right to work, outside elements will seek to manipulate them and exploit their just grievances.
If one sits with many of Lebanon’s political “leaders” today and asks why they continue, in direct violation of virtually all international humanitarian law, to outlaw Palestinians in Lebanon from seeking jobs, it’s probably best to bite your tongue because you will hear much unadulterated rubbish. The level of ignorance, bigotry, self-righteous arrogance and just plain politically motivated mendacity can be maddening. Yet, this Easter season, some might rather charitably argue that these “leaders” redemption is possible.
To paraphrase the title of the late Edward Said’s 0/8/1997 article in the Nation, there cannot be peace and security in Lebanon until the universally recognized civil right to work includes Palestinians refugees.
Franklin Lamb’s most recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve is in production by Orontes River Publishing, Hama, Syrian Arab Republic. Inquires c/o email@example.com. The author is reachable c/o firstname.lastname@example.org