AP / September 29, 2023
SIDON, Lebanon – A Palestinian security force deployed Friday in a school complex in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country’s south, replacing gunmen who had occupied it since fighting broke out in late July leaving more than 30 people dead.
The deployment raises hopes that a nearly two-week cease-fire can hold at the Ain al-Hilweh camp near the southern port city of Sidon and that school buildings can be restored. On September 14, members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah group and two Islamic militant factions, Jund al-Sham and Shabab al Muslim, agreed to a cessation of hostilities.
The complex includes eight schools. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has been urging gunmen from various factions who had dug into position in around the compound to evacuate the area ahead of the school year that is supposed to start in early October.
In the afternoon, a security force of 55 armed fighters who had been considered neutral in the recent clashes — from factions including Hamas, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Asbat al-Ansar — took over the badly damaged compound.
Some of the school walls were riddled with bullets and rockets.
In late July, Fatah accused the Islamic groups of gunning down a senior Fatah military official, Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, triggering intense street battles . Several cease-fires were agreed but collapsed. The groups still have not handed over militants accused in the Al-Armoushi slaying.
The commander of Shabab al Muslim, Haitham al-Shaabi told reporters that “the situation in the camp will soon return to normal.” He declined to answer questions related to the handover of suspects in Al-Armoushi’s killing.
The latest cease-fire agreement, reached on September 14, came after clashes that killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 100. The previous round of fighting earlier in the summer killed at least 13.
Earlier this week, UNRWA had said that more than 11,000 Palestinian children in south Lebanon were in danger of not being able to join their peers at the beginning of the school year on Oct. 2 because of the hostilities at Ain al-Hilweh. That amounted to a quarter of the refugee school children.
UNRWA’s director in Lebanon Dorothee Klaus said not only had the schools been taken over by armed groups, but that many of the buildings had sustained significant damage.
Since the fighting began in late July, at least 4,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the camp, with many of them seeking refuge in UNRWA facilities.