Tension is mounting in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps as the top military chieftain refuses to step down on the orders of President Mahmoud Abbas, deepening political rifts within the camps that could be exploited by Syria and Hezbollah.
Abbas warned earlier this month that Ein al-Hilweh, the largest and most volatile of the 12 camps in Lebanon, “might explode at any time” because of intra-Palestinian feuding.
Other Palestinian officials say Islamist groups are gaining strength and growing bolder in challenging the supremacy of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian movement headed by Abbas.
But the complex and increasingly volatile situation within the camps, and particularly in Ein al-Hilweh, in the southern port city of Sidon, is being complicated further by Iranian and Syrian intrigues and the threat of a new conflict with Israel.
With the Palestinian cause deeply splintered, the mutiny by Brig. Munir al-Maqdah, the overall security chief in the camps in Lebanon who is based in Ein al-Hilweh, could seriously undercut Abbas’ already weakened authority and trigger new internal rifts.
Fatah is at odds with the fundamentalist Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in a brief but ferocious civil war in June 2007 and booted out Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
The Palestinians are further divided between Fatah and radical splinter groups based in Syria and largely funded and armed by Damascus. Several of these groups maintain armed bases in Lebanon under Syrian protection.
There are an estimated 400,000-plus Palestinians, mostly Sunni Muslims, living a miserable existence in squalid Lebanese camps. They are banned from most jobs and the government refuses to absorb them because it doesn’t want to upset the country’s precarious sectarian balance.
Tension in Ein al-Hilweh, where an estimated 70,000 Palestinians live, has swelled in recent weeks with the eruption of violent clashes between Fatah, commanded by Maqdah, and two Islamist groups, Jund al-Shams and Usbat al-Ansar.
As their strength has grown, they have increasingly challenged Fatah’s dominance and several people have been killed in gun battles in recent months. The Lebanese fear the violence could spread.
Fatah’s longtime domination of Palestinian politics has been badly undercut by the split with Hamas, particularly since the November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, who founded Fatah in the 1960s.
Following the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon in April 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese moved to disarm the Palestinian factions. Palestinian arms outside the camps were banned but the state has never been able to implement that.
With Syria reasserting its dominance over Lebanon once more, possibly with tacit U.S. approval as part of a rapprochement between Washington and Damascus, the Palestinians in Lebanon are being further splintered because of the various groups’ divided allegiances between the two main regional blocs.
On one side, there are Iran, Syria and their allies Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all allied to one degree or another with the United States.
Abbas has sought to restore Fatah’s control of the Lebanese camps through a recent series of command changes. Maqdah, a veteran Fatah fighter from the Arafat era, was ordered to step down and hand power to his designated successor, Ahmed Saleh.
Saleh is close to Sultan Abu Ainain, who was Fatah’s political chief in Lebanon and Maqdah’s longtime rival.
Abu Ainain also initially resisted Abbas’s changeover but relented and has been replaced by longtime Fatah functionary Fathi Abu al-Aradat. Abu Ainain is now Abbas’s adviser of refugee affairs in Ramallah, Abbas’s political capital near Jerusalem.
Abbas sent Jibril Rajoub, the former head of Arafat’s Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, to Lebanon to persuade Maqdah to step aside but to no avail.
Amid all this, al-Qaida has been seeking to establish a foothold in Lebanon, as it has done in Gaza, in its effort to expand into the Levant.
The Lebanese army crushed a jihadist group called Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp outside the northern city of Tripoli in a fierce battle from May 20 to Sept. 2, 2007, after it embedded itself there.
The group was supposedly decimated but key members escaped and have infiltrated Ein al-Hilweh. Others remain in north Lebanon. The army is building a barrier around the Baddawi camp near Tripoli because of “security concerns.”