Peace guaranteed in Ain al-Hilweh ‘only after assassins surrender’

Nada Homsi

The National  /  August 2, 2023

Residents fear camp violence will continue unless the killers of a prominent Palestinian commander are handed over to Lebanese authorities.

A truce in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp will not be guaranteed until the militants behind the killing of a senior Palestinian commander are handed over to the Lebanese state, a Palestinian political source told The National on Wednesday.

The site is the largest refugee camp for Palestinians in Lebanon.

“The surrender of the criminals responsible for the assassination of Abu Ashraf Al Armoushi is required before a complete and total ceasefire can last in the camp,” the source said.

Eleven people were killed, dozens injured and at least 2,000 displaced in heavy fighting between Ain al-Hilweh’s most powerful governing faction, Fatah, and several militant groups, the UN Relief and Works Agency said.

The battles erupted following the assassination of Al-Armoushi and four of his bodyguards in an ambush on Sunday.

The attack followed a failed assassination attempt on an Islamist leader on Saturday that left one person dead.

The assailants were identified as members of the militant group Jund al-Sham “and takfiri gangs”, said Maj Gen Subhi Abu Arab, commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in the Lebanese camps.

Takfiri is a term authorities usually associate with ISIS and other extremist groups. [takfiri (‘excommunicational’) is an Arabic and Islamic term denoting a Muslim who excommunicates one of his/her coreligionists, i.e. who accuses another Muslim of being an apostate]

By Wednesday afternoon, the fighting had mostly subsided save for occasional bursts of gunfire and shelling, camp residents told The National, as they waited to see whether the wanted groups would surrender the suspects.

Ola, a homemaker living near Ain al-Hilweh, expected the battle to erupt again at a moment’s notice.

“The way I see it, Jund al-Sham won’t surrender the killers. But this time it is a big crime. This time, they killed Armoushi,” she said. “I don’t think Fatah will go back on their word.”

She said hundreds of displaced families continued to shelter in schools and mosques in the coastal city of Saida, where Ain al-Hilweh is located.

“No one is returning to their homes yet because the situation is still pretty scary,” she said.

“Some people are just going back to check on their homes and the extent of the damage, checking for unexploded mortars. But they aren’t returning. There’s still a lot of fear.”

Ain al-Hilweh is home to more than 50,000 registered refugees. Many of them came from coastal towns in northern Palestine.

Notably, the camp is also home to some of the 30,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from the Nahr al-Bared camp, which was destroyed in 2007 during 15 weeks of fighting between the Lebanese army and extremist groups. Some of those militants expanded into Ain al-Hilweh following the conflict.

“They are completely outside the Palestinian national fabric: politically, intellectually and nationalistically,” the Palestinian political source told The National.

Although the extremist militants do have some Palestinian support, they are mostly “associated with takfiri groups from other Arab countries, like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra”, the source said, referring to an offshoot of Al-Qaeda.

Ain al-Hilweh, which is also notorious for harbouring criminals, has been the site of a power struggle between Palestinian factions and a network of extremists for more than a decade.

Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps present fertile ground for such groups to flourish owing to a decades-old agreement that, for the most part, prevents Lebanon’s military from entering the camps.

According to the Palestinian official, the extremist groups have conducted numerous assassination operations in the past that led to clashes with Fatah’s security apparatus.

However this week’s battles were especially ferocious due to the high-profile target of the assassination, which Fatah officials have described as a “pre-planned ambush” and a “massacre”.

“The goal of the assassination operation was the control of Ain al-Hilweh by takfiri terrorist elements,” the Palestinian political source told The National.

“They want to change the political map and to be the launch point for takfiri groups in Lebanon.”

The official was insistent that those responsible for Al-Armoushi’s killing would have to surrender, saying that “terrorist elements” would not be tolerated in the camp.

Asked would happen if the killers were not handed to Lebanese authorities, he shook his head.

“They have to,” he said.

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