Splintered Loyalties, Shattered Lives: Bombings and Shoot-Outs in Ain Il-Hilweh, Lebanon's Largest Palestinian Refugee Camp, Are a Portent of a Growing Power Struggle between Arafat's Mainstream Fatah and a New Breed of Islamic Fundamentalism. Giles Trendle Recently Spent Two Months in Ain Il-Hilweh. (Lebanon)

By Trendle, Giles | The Middle East, February 2003 | Go to article overview
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Splintered Loyalties, Shattered Lives: Bombings and Shoot-Outs in Ain Il-Hilweh, Lebanon's Largest Palestinian Refugee Camp, Are a Portent of a Growing Power Struggle between Arafat's Mainstream Fatah and a New Breed of Islamic Fundamentalism. Giles Trendle Recently Spent Two Months in Ain Il-Hilweh. (Lebanon)


Trendle, Giles, The Middle East


Early one morning last November Ibrahim Shayeb and his family awoke, terrified, to the deafening sound of an explosion at their home in the Ain il-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon. Dynamite had been placed outside their front door. The explosion blew out the metal front door and smashed all the windows, as well as those of neighbours in the narrow alleyway. Shrapnel from the blast narrowly missed several butane gas canisters in the front hallway.

"We don't know who did this," said Nariman, Ibrahim's wife. "Thank God it was a Sunday and the children were still sleeping. I wonder what we did for them to put a bomb outside our house."

The reason is likely to lie in the fact that Ibrahim Shayeb is a senior official of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in Ain il-Hilweh. In recent months some 30 bombs have been placed outside the homes and under the cars of various Fatah officials in the camp. The bombs are placed early in the morning in what seems a crude attempt to avoid indiscriminate casualties. No one claims responsibility, but the bombs seem to be a direct challenge to undermine the authority and standing of Fatah in the camp. The bombings have raised the level of tension within Ain il-Hilweh. So too has the sporadic fighting between Fatah gunmen and Islamic militants in recent months. It all points to a power struggle between Arafat's mainstream Fatah and a new breed of Palestinian Islamic fundamentalism with leanings toward the militancy of Osama bin Laden. Approximately one square mile in size, Ain il-Hilweh is Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp with over 70,000 residents, almost one-sixth of the estimated 376,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Based on the outskirts of Sidon in south Lebanon, the camp's geographical location is politically meaningful. The Awali river at the northern entrance to Sidon marks the ostensible boundary of Syrian army presence in Lebanon. In the refugee camps to the north of the river--such as those in Beirut and Tripoli--the Damascus-based rejectionist fronts hold sway. Ain il-Hilweh camp lies south of the Awali river, where the Lebanese army is in control. Being outside the direct sphere of Syrian control allows for greater political opportunities for a myriad of Palestinian factions. The popular committee, which runs the camp affairs, reflects the kaleidoscope of political factionalism.

The committee comprises representatives from Fatah and four other factions loyal to Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation as well as representatives from 10 factions loosely labelled the Palestinian opposition alliance (loyal to Syria). Occasionally representatives from an assortment of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the camp are invited to participate. Fatah aims to be the first among equals in the camp. Ain il-Hilweh has been a stronghold of Ararat for many years and the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority in Lebanon. Yet this predominance is being increasingly challenged.

For a start, many camp residents oppose the peace accords Arafat signed with Israel. The overwhelming majority of refugees in the camp are `48-ers', those who fled (or whose ancestors fled) their homes during the 1947-48 war in Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel. They feel the peace accords obtained to date by Arafat treat their problem as a peripheral matter, when in fact it was the origin, and remains the core, of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The whole cause of Palestine is the refugee cause," says Youssef Maqdah, the camp representative of the Palestine Liberation Front, a Damascus-based faction that split from Arafat and the PLO in 1968. "When we began our revolution in the 1960s, we started from the point of wanting to return to our land. This is the aim of our cause. We can't consider a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as a solution."

Mounir Maqdah, a former commander in Arafat's elite Force 17 who later turned Fatah opposition leader, holds similar views to his uncle.

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Splintered Loyalties, Shattered Lives: Bombings and Shoot-Outs in Ain Il-Hilweh, Lebanon's Largest Palestinian Refugee Camp, Are a Portent of a Growing Power Struggle between Arafat's Mainstream Fatah and a New Breed of Islamic Fundamentalism. Giles Trendle Recently Spent Two Months in Ain Il-Hilweh. (Lebanon)
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