Sam Menassa

The Incidents in the Ain el-Hilweh Camp and the ‘Missing Link’ 

There is nothing new about the infighting among the Palestinians in the Ain el-Hilweh camp near Sidon, the capital of southern Lebanon. City locals and the Lebanese in general have grown accustomed to the cyclical violence of the Palestinian factions, and their approach to settling differences, major and minor, in this way.

The latest clashes raise many questions. Foremost, will the current ceasefire become a permanent truce (expecting a real settlement is probably excessively ambitious) if the suspected assassins of Fatah’s National Security Commander in Saida, Maj. Gen. Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, are not handed in. Indeed, this would become particularly difficult if the Lebanese authorities were to apprehend them, given the implications this would have for the future of the relationship between the Lebanese state and Fatah on the one hand, and the other Palestinian factions that would resent this on the other.

The second matter that deserves our attention is the timing. Indeed, these clashes erupted in the immediate aftermath of the meeting between Palestinian factions in El-Alamein late last month. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, along with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, brought a broad array of Palestinian groups together in an effort to bridge differences and ensure “Palestinian reconciliation.”

The Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and “As-saiqa” did not attend, and we do not need hints from the stars to find the common affiliation shared by the absent faction and the implications of their non-participation.

The recent incidents seen in the camp were an effort to undercut this meeting that sought to settle some of the disputes dividing the Palestinians and began to take deeper dimensions. In fact, it seemed to suggest divergences within the same front, that is, between those opposed to the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement, and “Axis of Resistance’s” allied or adjacent parties.

As for the third matter (and it may be among the most critical of them all), it is the absence of Hamas. After playing no role during the recent Israeli military operations in Gaza, nor the one that followed then in Jenin, it was not involved in the events in the Ain el-Hilweh camp. To be more precise, it is now playing the role of mediator and peacemaker.

The fourth point that deserves our attention is that the ceasefire in the camp almost certainly means that the Islamic factions opposed to Fatah have come to control large segments of the camp, thereby undermining Fatah’s control and influence over this pivotal camp.

In this context, several matters regarding the Islamic factions, of which there are over ten. They are small factions run by forces from outside the camp. They are trained, funded and armed. They have a lot of ammunition, meaning they can withstand long battles. They notoriously constantly went and forth from combat missions in Syria and Iraq to the Ain el-Hilweh. This time, facing off against Fatah is an added objective, and their motives are irrelevant to Palestine and the Palestinians.

Undermining the capabilities of Fatah and its grip on the camp, as well as other camps across Lebanon, might be part of a broader comprehensive regional policy that fluctuates depending on tactical objectives. Indeed, several indications from across the region suggest that US-Iranian tensions are rising in the Gulf and on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Tensions spilled over to the Lebanese-Israeli border, as Hezbollah set up three tents on the disputed border town of Ghajar and Israel began building a barrier.

Moreover, the battle over who will succeed Abu Mazen in the West Bank is close to boiling point, as are the tensions between the Palestinians and the Netanyahu government. It is not difficult to identify who is fomenting these tensions or why they want to undercut reconciliation and inflame the situation in the West Bank, pushing for conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and even between Hamas and Israel. That is the bottom line, the “missing link” that explains the movement’s appeasement efforts amid all of this.

Indeed, its positions are the result of a leaked Israeli deal with Hamas that long aimed at ensuring durable calm between the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv in exchange for economic and financial benefits for the Strip, on land and sea. This explains the undeclared resentment of the “Axis of Resistance”, which believes that Hamas is disregarding the “united front” strategy in Gaza, Jenin, and the Ain el-Hilweh camp. Is any of this good news?

First of all, we must account for the fact that if the reports about an Israeli deal with Hamas on Gaza are accurate, Palestinian divisions will remain entrenched for a long time, and the position of the Palestinian Authority will be undermined further. This is not good news and does not help the Palestinians on any level. Hamas might eventually become the ultimate beneficiary of the infighting, especially in Ain el-Hilweh.

It would reap the fruits of Fatah’s defeat or the weakening of its political control and military capacity. The “Axis of Resistance” factions, despite their differences and even disputes, have achieved their goals of distancing Fatah and weakening it against Hamas, the strongest of all the factions in every camp. This ultimately serves the interests of the Axis and helps it achieve its goals in the region.

As for the implications for Lebanon, they are grave, even without accounting the hardships of the refugees in the camp. Indeed, some Gulf countries have barred their nationals from traveling to Lebanon because of the clashes. Sidon and its surroundings are now exposed to many political and military threats. The coastal highway leading to the cities and villages of southern Lebanon could also become unsafe during a thriving tourist season.

Nonetheless, the hope is that the incidents in the camp are not a regional and domestic signal that security and political tensions will be heightened further as heels are dug even further regarding the election of a Lebanese president, with all the repercussions this implies for state institutions and other key vacancies.