Armed groups take over all schools in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp

Nada Homsi

The National  /  August 21, 2023

Occupation of education facilities in Ain al-Hilweh could delay start of new academic year for 5,900 children, UN agency warns.

All schools in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon have been occupied by armed fighters, a UN source confirmed on Monday.

There are eight schools in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest refugee camp for Palestinians in Lebanon.

The confirmation that all eight had been taken over by armed insurgents follows a statement last week by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) that a second school compound had been taken over.

The occupation by the extremist factions has thrown the start of the academic year “for 5,900 children” into jeopardy.

The UN agency on Friday called for the immediate withdrawal of armed groups occupying its facilities, including its schools.

“We are getting credible reports of severe damage to the school buildings and looting of children’s education material and equipment from the schools,” Dorothee Klaus, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, said last week.

UNRWA temporarily suspended its services in the camp last Friday after reports of armed groups occupying one of its compounds – one day before they overtook a second educational compound.

The suspension lasted for a day.

Lebanon’s refugee camps – over which the Lebanese state does not have jurisdiction due to a decades-old, now defunct agreement – are highly dependent on UNRWA to provide much-needed services such as education, health and waste collection.

The camps have no officially recognized governance but are instead administered by various Palestinian political factions and a network of representatives who make up committees.

The first UNRWA educational compound occupation came during a battle for control of Ain al-Hilweh between armed groups and the powerful political faction Fatah – the party to which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas belongs.

Thirteen people were killed in the week-long battle, while dozens were injured and about 2,000 refugees were displaced, forced to seek shelter in schools and mosques.

Although a ceasefire has tentatively held, armed insurgents have so far refused to leave occupied UNRWA property.

A senior member of Fatah security told The National a meeting would be held on Tuesday between the camp’s political leadership to determine the next steps.

The battle, which began last month but dragged into August, broke out following the death of high-profile Fatah commander Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi and four of his bodyguards.

While clashes between rival factions are not uncommon, this month’s battles have been especially ferocious due to the high-profile nature of the assassination.

Fatah identified those behind the killing as members of the militant group Jund al-Sham and “takfiri gangs”, according to Palestinian security officials.

Jund al-Sham is the name of several Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups, one of which operates in Ain al-Hilweh.

The Lebanese state’s reluctance to enter Palestinian refugee camps has left them vulnerable to infiltration by outlaws and smaller networks of Islamist militants.

Ain al-Hilweh has earned a reputation for being such a haven, although Fatah has for years attempted to contain the presence of insurgents who seek to gain control of the camp.

Clashes between Fatah and rival Islamist extremists are not uncommon in Ain al-Hilweh, which holds more than 50,000 registered refugees.

It is also home to some of the 30,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007 during 15 weeks of fighting between the Lebanese army and Islamist extremists – including Jund al-Sham – which led to the destruction of the camp.

Nada Homsi is a correspondent at The National’s Beirut bureau