Intra-Palestinian Clashes in Lebanon: Causes and Regional ImplicationsAugust 25, 2023 in Uncategorized
Violent clashes broke out in the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon from late July until early August between Fatah and hardline Islamist factions. Although rooted in local struggles for control of the camp, the events could further weaken Fatah to the benefit of Iran, Hezbollah, and their Palestinian allies. In the context of Lebanon’s deteriorating political, economic, and security environment, this situation risks triggering major regional instability.
The violence at Ain el-Hilweh, near the southern city of Sidon, began on 29 July, when a Fatah member attacked Mahmoud Khalil, a militant of the al-Shabab al-Muslim faction, allegedly to avenge the murder of his brother by Islamists last March. Although Khalil survived, three of his companions were killed. In retaliation, Fatah commander Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, who heads the Palestinian National Security Forces in the camp, and four of his aides were murdered the following day. The situation escalated, with militants engaging in gunbattles throughout the camp using heavy weapons such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The main Islamist groups involved in the fighting against Fatah were al-Shabab and Jund al-Sham. Although a ceasefire was agreed on Monday, mediated with support from pro-Iranian Hezbollah, the clashes continued until the night of 2 August. Overall, at least 13 people were killed most of them militants, and 20,000 were displaced.
Ain el-Hilweh is the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, among 12 in total, and hosts around 55,000 people. Fatah, the largest Palestinian group that dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA), is the most powerful faction in the camp, but other rival groups, such as Hamad and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), also have a presence. Fatah’s dominance over Ain el-Hilweh has been challenged by the more hardline Islamist factions and other criminal elements that have acquired influence in the camp for more than a decade, resulting in multiple instances of fighting like the most recent clashes. Previous rounds of fighting took place in 2015 and 2017. The official Lebanese army did not intervene, as it is prohibited from entering Palestinian refugee camps according to the 1969 Cairo Agreement, although caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in a phone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from Fatah), warned that it may do so if the clashes continued.
Considering the above, what caused the most recent clashes, and what might the implications be for Palestinian politics and regional stability in general?
Regional observers have noted that the various groups in the camp are often motivated by purely local sentiments, seeking to wrest control of the camp’s neighborhoods, while Fatah strives to maintain its control over Ain el-Hilweh. Preserving its sway over the nearly 210,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is key to the group’s status and influence and Ain el-Hilweh, being the biggest refugee camp and strategically located in south Lebanon near the Israeli border, is of significant importance. But the group has not been able to impose a political monopoly on the camp’s population due to the presence of multiple rivals. Apart from violence in the camp itself, the hardline Islamist factions have also been involved in other terrorist attacks in Lebanon and have sent fighters to Syria. The Syrian conflict has also caused an influx of Palestinian refugees who settled in the camp, causing further friction. Tensions in Ain el-Hilweh are thus high, and although it is difficult to find out the exact timeline leading up to the most recent outbreak of violence, it is obvious that it could easily be triggered by a cycle of revenge attacks like those described above. According to some analysts, after the latest round of fighting Islamist factions have put large segments of the camp under their control.
But the timing of the clashes could suggest that there might be broader implications. They broke out while a meeting was taking place in Egypt between Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh aiming to reconcile the two major Palestinian factions, which have been locked in conflict since 2007. The Iran-backed PIJ did not participate, and questions have been raised about its possible involvement in triggering the fighting. The group would have a clear interest in sabotaging the talks and weakening Fatah’s control over Ain el-Hilweh and other Palestinian camps in Lebanon. This would enable the group and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah, to expand the front against Israel and “link” Lebanon’s camps with the militants fighting against Israeli forces in the West Bank, which has been witnessing record levels of Israeli-Palestinian violence this year. With Fatah’s popularity in its West Bank stronghold rapidly declining due to mismanagement, corruption, and deteriorating security conditions, its weakening in Lebanon would further bolster the influence of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” against Israel. Interestingly, a week before the clashes, PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj visited Lebanon, where he reportedly urged political authorities to contain Hamas and other Islamist groups and pressure Hezbollah to cease aiding militants in the West Bank. This event demonstrates Fatah’s concerns over its position in Lebanon being undermined by Iran and its local allies.
On its part, Hamas did not get involved in the clashes, but it tried to exploit them to strengthen its own influence vis-à-vis Fatah. Haniyeh tried to assume a mediating role, urging Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri (a Hezbollah ally) to intervene for an end to the hostilities. By exploiting its partnership with fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah to establish a direct link with both Lebanese state institutions and Palestinian factions in the country, Hamas is likely seeking to further marginalize Fatah. Despite the disputes between PIJ, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Fatah’s decline serves the interests of all those groups and their Iranian patron and it serves their goal of establishing a powerful presence around Israel’s borders. Jihad Tahe, Hamas’ spokesman in Lebanon, pointedly declared that the group would work together with other “invested parties” to maintain security at Palestinian refugee camps and keep them “a bone in the throat of the United States and Israel”.
More generally, the clashes were another indication of Lebanon’s deteriorating political and security environment. The country has been mired in a dire economic crisis since 2019, with the local currency losing more than 98% of its value against the US dollar and citizens unable to afford food and fuel or access their bank deposits. Palestinian refugees, who face widespread discrimination in the country and are legally banned from a wide range of professions, are even more severely affected by poverty and hopelessness. Lebanese politics have also been locked in a stalemate, as political parties have been unable to agree on a new president since October 2022 and have been unwilling to undertake the major reforms needed to lift the country out of its predicament. The Lebanese army has also been almost paralyzed by the crisis, with soldiers reportedly being barely able to get by with their salaries. In these conditions, Hezbollah, Palestinian factions, and other armed groups continue to operate with impunity and resist calls to disarm, raising concerns about even more intense violence and a potential Israeli military reaction if Lebanon’s institutions continue to falter.
In conclusion, the clashes at Ain el-Hilweh are both another flare-up of a long-running struggle between local actors for control of the camp and part of broader regional geopolitics. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their Palestinian allies are likely seeking to capitalize on Fatah’s declining influence in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The expansion of the pro-Iranian “Axis of Resistance” in Lebanon would pose a major threat to Israel’s security. The gradual collapse of the country’s state institutions could further bolster extremist armed groups and thus risk triggering a major regional crisis.