Poor and overpopulated, some of the big Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have become islands of lawlessness, bound to provoke new crises in a country plagued by political instability.
Although most of the 12 camps in Lebanon – housing many of the nearly 400,000 UN-registered refugees – are largely peaceful, security officials warn that the heavily populated ones have become dangerous havens for Islamist extremists.
Off limits to the Lebanese army under a decades-old agreement, the camps are governed by Palestinian political factions, which are often at odds with each other. Of most concern to the authorities have been the camps of Ain el-Helweh in the south and Nahr el-Bared in the north, scene of the current fighting.
“The problem is that the main Palestinian factions are weak, they can’t provide enough services to people and so they can’t control them,” said an official at the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation in Beirut.
The strict restrictions imposed by Lebanese authorities on the refugees, who have no civil or social rights and are banned from many professions, have turned the youths in the camps into easy recruits for radical Islamist groups. Warnings have come from the Beirut government and UN officials that weapons are flowing into the camps, allegedly across the Syrian border.
The pro-western government believes some of the extremist groups are created and manipulated by Syrian intelligence services. Damascus denies the charge, saying that the extremists are a threat to its own security.
Disarming the camps has been a priority for the government, besieged by political assassinations and bombings since the February 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. But initial talks with Palestinian factions were thrown off track last summer when war erupted between Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Shia group, and Israel.
Western officials, meanwhile, have been watching for links between the Islamist groups holed up in the camps and al-Qaeda.
Until recently attention had focused on two extremist groups in Ain el-Helweh. The first, Osbat al-Islam, appeared on the US list of terrorist organisations after the attacks of September 11 2001, and is thought to have sent fighters to Iraq.
The second is Jund al-Sham, which is believed to have branches in Lebanon and Syria and allegedly involved in the storming of the US embassy in Damascus last year. Clashes were reported between the group and the mainstream Fatah movement in Ain el-Helweh last year.
But it is the younger Fatah al-Islam, based in Nahr el-Bared, that is now in the eye of the storm. The group was established only last November by Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian who had been jailed in Syria on charges of plotting attacks and was sentenced to death in his absence in Jordan for alleged involvement in the 2002 killing of a US diplomat. In March the Lebanese government arrested four members of the group, blaming them for the bombing of two commuter buses.
Palestinians familiar with the camp say the organisation took over the operations of Fatah al-Intifadah, a Palestinian group that had compounds in the camp and was itself an offshoot of the mainstream Fatah movement. They add that Fatah al-Islam has taken control of the camp’s entrances.
A senior Lebanese military official said the group was well-trained and included fighters from Somalia, Yemen, Algeria and Syria, some of whom may have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of those killed were wearing suicide belts, he added.
“Inside the camp they can do anything because there’s no government control and they can buy weapons. If you have money you can do anything,” the official said.
The main Palestinian factions have distanced themselves from the group. “This is a gang and only 3-4 per cent of its members are Palestinians,” said Sultan Abul Ainain, head of the Fatah movement in Lebanon. “What they’ve done is an attempt to create a rift between the Palestinians and the Lebanese government.”
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