Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 6 Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page

June 2003 


Ain al-Hilweh: Lebanon's "Zone of Unlaw"
by Gary C. Gambill

Ain al-Hilweh

On the eastern outskirts of the Lebanese port of Sidon lies an overcrowded, cement-block shantytown that many consider to be the single most important al-Qaeda base of operations in the Middle East. Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, has been linked to virtually every case of al-Qaeda activity in Lebanon, while renegade terrorists residing in the camp have been tied to the global terror network's operations in Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere in the region. In the eastern sector of the camp, al-Qaeda supporters have imposed an interpretation of Islamic law reminiscent of the Taliban. Over the last month, at least three men have been killed for allegedly smuggling alchohol into Ain al-Hilweh. Dozens of men have reportedly been shaved bald for lesser offenses.

In spite of the dangers lurking within the confines of this terrorist haven, however, the Lebanese government has long refused to send security forces into the camp. While Lebanese and Syrian intelligence agencies have been remarkably adept at infiltrating and emasculating underground dissident groups over the last decade, they have conspicuously failed to disarm the various factions operating in Ain al-Hilweh, arrest fugitives who have taken refuge there, or block the transshipment of arms and terrorist operatives to and from the camp. The Lebanese government's claim that it lacks the resources to enforce its writ in the camp is patently false - it has failed to act because it lacks the authority to do so. Just as Syria has repeatedly refused to permit the Lebanese army to establish order in south Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh exists as an "island of insecurity" because Damascus wants it that way.

The camp's impoverishment is also carefully calibrated by Syria and its puppet regime in Lebanon. While large quantities of weapons manage to find their way into Ain al-Hilweh, the camp's residents are barred from importing construction materials needed to alleviate its severe housing shortages and efforts by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to repair its dismal infrastructure have been repeatedly obstructed by the Lebanese Interior Ministry.

The absence of rule of law in Ain al-Hilweh and the forced impoverishment of its residents have cultivated an atmosphere of unparalleled religious extremism. Even members of Hamas - the Palestinian Islamist organization responsible for the lion's share of suicide bombings in Israel - have been branded as infidels and gunned down by al-Qaeda operatives, while members of al-Qaeda's main affiliate in the camp have themselves been shot by more radical followers of Osama bin Laden.

In terms of its potential to destabilize the country, however, the Palestinian presence in Lebanon is hardly the sleeping lion that Lebanese and Syrian officials claim it is. While it is true that the presence of armed Palestinian factions in Lebanon was a major cause of the 1975-76 civil war, the gangs that control Ain al-Hilweh and other camps have only a tiny fraction of their armed strength. More importantly, whereas Sunni and leftist Lebanese groups openly aligned themselves with the Palestinians in the 1970s, the vast majority of Lebanese today are staunchly opposed to the presence of armed Palestinian groups in the country.

It is precisely because Palestinian armed strength is so weak that Syria maintains tight control over conditions in Ain al-Hilweh. Tacit Western support for Syria's occupation of Lebanon over the last thirteen years is largely a result of its success in selling the idea that Syrian military forces prevent the outbreak of civil unrest. Ain al-Hilweh is not an uncontrollable jungle, but a carefully preserved "zone of unlaw" (as some Lebanese media outlets have called it) designed to suggest what a Lebanon without Syria would look like.

While this anarchic enclave in the heart of Lebanon is intended first and foremost to serve Syrian interests, Damascus does not exert direct control over most terrorists operating in the camp. In fact, the most radical groups operating in Ain al-Hilweh are decidedly anti-Syrian (a striking indication of where residents of the camp place blame for their predicament). For all of its short-term expediency, Syria's controlled experiment in Ain al-Hilweh may produce dangerous, unintended consequences.

The Politics of Poverty

Ain al-Hilweh is not called the "capital of the Palestinian Diaspora" because of its political or economic importance. With over 70,000 refugees crammed into a 1.25 square kilometer piece of land, surrounded on all sides by Lebanese army checkpoints, the camp is the region's starkest symbol of Palestinian impotence.

As with most other refugee camps in Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh was originally established in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to house Palestinian refugees who fled the fighting. After it became clear that no political solution to the refugee crisis would be forthcoming, UNRWA began operating in the camp in 1952 and gradually replaced its canvas tents with concrete shelters.

Under the 1969 Cairo Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was granted exclusive responsibility for administering the refugee camps in Lebanon. Over the next decade, the conditions of Palestinian refugees improved as the PLO, flush with petrodollars from the Arab Gulf states, built an extensive network of social, educational and health institutions, and directly employed as much as 50% of the Palestinian workforce. The ejection of the PLO from Lebanon by Israeli and Syrian forces in 1982-1983 and the collapse of its social and economic infrastructure had a devastating impact on conditions in the camps. Although UNRWA continued to provide some aid, the gap between its financial capabilities and refugee needs widened throughout the decade.

The end of the civil war brought little respite from these hardships. The cut in Gulf Arab funding of the PLO that resulted from Arafat's alignment with Iraq in 1990-1991 was felt acutely in the camps. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat concentrated the PLO's meager financial resources on improving conditions in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), resulting in even less assistance to Palestinians in Lebanon. Prodded by Western governments to support Arafat's authority after the Oslo Accords, UNRWA also skewed its resources toward Gaza and the West Bank. In 1994-95, per capita UNRWA expenditures totaled only $254 in Lebanon, compared to $405 in Gaza.[1]

Conditions in the camps have been further aggravated by Syrian-installed postwar Lebanese governments, which have avoided any action or policy that might be construed as facilitating Palestinian integration (naturalization of the refugees, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, would disrupt Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance). As one report noted succinctly, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon remain "trapped in a situation characterized by the collapse of their traditional support systems (PLO and UNRWA) on the one hand, and the impossibility of self-sustenance caused by the Lebanese denial of social and civil rights on the other."[2]

Unlike refugees in Jordan and Syria, Palestinians in Lebanon are prevented by law from working in over 60 skilled professions and are barred from jobs in construction and agriculture (so as not to compete with the estimated 1.2 million Syrian workers in the country). Palestinian refugees are not allowed to own property or register companies unless they recruit Lebanese partners. The Lebanese authorities have refused to permit the construction of new camps, the reconstruction of three camps destroyed during the war (Tal al-Zaater and Jisser al-Basha in Beirut, and al-Nabatiya in south Lebanon) or the expansion of existing camps. Construction in and around the camps is prohibited. While weapons seem to flow freely into Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanese security forces block shipments of cement and other building materials from entering. As a result, conditions in the camps are severely sub-standard, overcrowded and unsanitary. Palestinians in Ain al-Hilweh and other camps in Lebanon are the most impoverished refugees in the Middle East. Although international attention has focused on the slums of the Gaza Strip, according to UNRWA, the percentage of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who live in abject poverty (11.8 percent) is greater than those living in Gaza (8.6 percent).

The Lebanese government has also acted to subvert efforts by the international community to improve conditions in the camps. UNWRA officials complain that projects to improve the infrastructure of the camps are often put on hold indefinitely while awaiting approval from the Lebanese Interior Ministry. Very often, projects are approved only if they employ contractors with connections to pro-Syrian politicians, producing a culture of corruption within UNWRA.[3] The Refugee Working Group (RGW), established in 1991 as part of the Madrid peace process to channel international funds to the refugees, is openly opposed by Syrian and Lebanese officials, who often refuse to receive its missions. According to one expert on Palestinian refugees, "Lebanese official pressures may have contributed" to a 1992 decision by UNICEF to cut funding for public health and educational projects in the camps.[4]

The Fall of Fatahland

While most refugee camps in Lebanon came under the control of Syrian-backed Palestinian factions during the late 1980s, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement managed to retain control over Ain al-Hilweh due to the camp's proximity to the border with Israel (which discouraged the deployment of Syrian forces) and to Sidon, whose predominantly Sunni residents remained sympathetic to the Palestinians. As its population swelled due to the influx of Palestinian refugees from other parts of the country, Fatah forces ousted by Syrian-backed militias from other camps (e.g. Shatila in June 1988; Bourj al-Barajnah camp in July 1988) redeployed to Ain al-Hilweh. In September 1990, Fatah defeated the Abu Nidal Organization in a bloody three-day war for control of the camp.

Although it survived challenges by rival Palestinian groups as the civil war drew to a close, Fatah's position in Ain al-Hilweh was weakened by local power struggles. Arafat's authority was often ignored by local Fatah commanders. In February 1988, Fatah gunmen kidnapped two Scandinavian UNRWA workers and held them for over three weeks, defying his demands that they be released. In December 1989, Fatah forces stormed and ransacked a Syrian base north of Sidon without the authorization of Arafat (who publicly condemned the operation).

After the September 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat's control over the Fatah movement in Ain al-Hilweh weakened still further. Fatah's top military commander in the camp, Col. Mounir Maqdah, openly rebelled against the PLO chairman and, with Iranian funding and logistical assistance from Hezbollah, began training his own militia, known as the Black September 13 Brigade.[5] By 1995, Maqdah's dissident faction, backed by pro-Syrian leftist groups, had established dominance over mainstream Fatah forces in the camp, in part because many of Arafat's most loyal commanders had been transferred to the West Bank and Gaza.

The ascendance of Maqdah, who is beloved by residents for his spirited (if unsuccessful) defense of the camp during Israel's 1982 invasion, opened the floodgates to other externally financed extremist groups. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had only a limited presence in the camp until the mid-1990s, coordinated closely with Maqdah and were allowed to distribute Iranian funds to expand their bases of support.[6] Iran was not the only external actor pouring money into the camp - in the late 1990s, al-Qaeda began funding a network of hitherto obscure Islamist groups that would pose a far greater threat to Lebanon and the region.

The Rise of Esbat al-Ansar

Abu Mohjen

Esbat al-Ansar (League of Partisans) was founded in the late 1980s by Hisham Shreidi, a Palestinian leader of Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Association), an urban-based Sunni fundamentalist movement operating mainly in Tripoli, Sidon and Akkar. Shreidi was expelled from the movement in 1986, apparently because of his close ties to Iran. In 1990, his followers supported ill-fated revolts against Arafat in Ain al-Hilweh by the Iranian-backed commander of Fatah's Martyrs' Battalion, Jamal Suleiman, and the Abu Nidal Organization. In December 1991, he was brazenly assassinated in his own mosque by Fatah gunmen.

Shreidi was succeeded by his chief aide, Ahmad Abd al-Karim al-Saadi (a.k.a. Abu Mohjen), who has led the group ever since and is largely responsible for shaping its present ideology (centered around the Salafist belief that the Islamic world must unite into a single state modeled on the Islamic caliphate established by the prophet Muhammad). Significantly, Abu Mohjen moved out of Iran's orbit and established close ties with Sunni Islamist groups in Lebanon.. During the mid-1990s, the group's armed activities were primarily limited to sporadic attacks on liquor stores, reflecting its rather meager resources and the parochial concerns of the Sunni Islamist community in Lebanon. Esbat al-Ansar largely escaped public attention until 1995, when its operatives assassinated Nizar al-Halabi, the leader of Al-Ahbash, an "Islamist" group employed by Syrian intelligence to co-opt Islamic fundamentalists. Three members of the group were subsequently executed for their role in the killing and Abu Mohjen was sentenced to death in absentia for ordering the hit. Since Abu Mohjen disappeared from public view, the de facto leader of Esbat al-Ansar has been his brother, Abu Tarek.

In the late 1998, Esbat al-Ansar began receiving significant funding from al-Qaeda, thoroughly transforming both its infrastructure and its goals. The group's military wing, which now paid recruits monthly salaries for the first time, grew to a force of 150-300 fighters, dozens of whom were sent to bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda funds also allowed Esbat al-Ansar to buy large quantities of weapons and pay the kinds of bribes needed to transport them past Lebanese security checkpoints. It quickly established close links with radical Islamists in the northern port of Tripoli and the nearby Badawi and Nahr al-Bared refugee camps. Abu Mohjen sealed an alliance with Maqdah by assassinating several Fatah officials close to Arafat in the late 1990s.[7]

In June 1999, Esbat al-Ansar gunmen shot and killed four judges, including the chief prosecutor for southern Lebanon, at the Justice Palace in Sidon, then fled back into the camp. The killings sparked a wave of outrage in Lebanon, with politicians across the religious and political spectrum demanding action by the government. Lebanese security forces established roadblocks at all entrances to the Ain al-Hilweh and enforced strict security measures at four other refugee camps in south Lebanon.

Although Damascus again vetoed any Lebanese army incursion into the camp itself, the Syrians were greatly worried about the Islamist ascendance in Ain al-Hilweh. In an effort to bolster the position of secular, pro-Syrian Palestinian factions in the camps, Damascus pressed the Lebanese government to introduce a new measure allowing Palestinians who hold Syrian residency papers to freely enter the country without a visa (giving them, in effect, the same rights as Syrian citizens). Over the next three weeks, an estimated 12,000 Palestinians flooded into the country, sparking fears of a mass migration of Palestinians from Syria to Lebanon, and the measure was quickly rescinded.

The Syrians also allowed Fatah to reassert its authority in the camp (in conjunction with Maqdah, who had rejoined the organization in late 1998). The PA poured funds into the camp, drawing dissident Fatah commanders back into the fold and helping alleviate economic conditions. Within weeks of the Sidon massacre, a 500-strong Fatah police force, commanded by Abu Ali Tanios, was patrolling the streets of Ain al-Hilweh. As the Economist noted, "if Fatah militias are again patrolling Ain Helweh, this must be with the tacit approval of the Lebanese government and its protector, Syria."[8]

Syrian acceptance of Fatah's expanded authority in Ain al-Hilweh abruptly came to an end in the fall of 1999. In October, a Lebanese court convicted the leader of Fatah in Lebanon, Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, of "forming an armed gang" and sentenced him in absentia to death (he has since remained holed up in the Rashidieh refugee camp, near Lebanon's southern-most port city of Tyre). Three senior Fatah officials in Lebanon were subsequently arrested.[9]

Why Syria reversed itself has been the subject of much dispute. Arafat's supporters offered a rather self-serving explanation - that Damascus turned against the group after Fatah officials refused to comply with Syrian demands that they rein in Esbat al-Ansar. This may have been true, but it was also clear that Fatah crossed some red lines. For example, Abu al-Aynayn had held a series of high profile meetings with prominent Lebanese opposition figures, such as Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, conveying each time the greetings of Abu Ammar (Arafat's nom de guerre). In light of Arafat's history of confrontation with Syria in Lebanon, such provocations could not go unanswered.

However, the imminent resumption of direct Israel-Syrian negotiations in late 1999 was the main source of tensions between Fatah and Syria. Whereas tight Fatah control over the camps served Arafat's interests by allowing him to negotiate on behalf of the refugees (or, according to his opponents, concede their "right of return" in exchange for more territory in the West Bank), an unruly Palestinian presence in Lebanon strengthened Syria's negotiating position, even more so after Israel began preparations for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in early 2000. Just six weeks before the pullout, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud sent UN Secretary General Kofi Annan a memorandum stating that Lebanon would be unable to prevent the "possibility of mini-wars on the border, launched by armed Palestinian groups originating from the Palestinian camps inside Lebanon." Lahoud's memorandum "was either penned or dictated by Syria," wrote one commentator in the prominent London-based Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi.[10] On cue, Maqdah declared afterwards that "tens of volunteers from all Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have come for training and attacks on Israel."[11]

In any event, the reluctance of Lebanese and Syrian officials to bring down Esbat al-Ansar after the murder of the judges came at a time when the group was preparing to project itself outside the camp. Jordanian authorities uncovered a plot, linked to Esbat al-Ansar, to attack Western and Israeli targets in the kingdom during millennial celebrations at the end of the year. Maqdah was later indicted on charges of providing military training to the conspirators. Despite persistent Jordanian requests for his extradition, Damascus has refused to allow Lebanese security forces to enter the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp and arrest him.

The Dinniyeh Group

In January 2000, a mysterious band of 200-300 Islamist militants launched a failed attempt to establish an Islamic "mini-state" in north Lebanon. The insurgents, many of whom were non-Lebanese Arabs who had trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, seized control of dozens of villages in the mountainous Dinniyeh district, east of Tripoli, before being defeated by 13,000 Lebanese soldiers in several days of intense combat. During the fighting, a member of Esbat al-Ansar launched a rocket-propelled grenade attack against the Russian embassy in Beirut, killing a security guard and wounding several others, in what appeared to be a diversionary attack. Although the Lebanese-born leader of the uprising, Bassam Ahmad Kanj (alias Abu Aisha), died in the fighting and most of his followers were killed or captured, a small band of 10-20 fighters fled by boat to the one place in Lebanon that lay beyond the reach of the law - Ain al-Hilweh.

According to court documents from judicial proceedings against captured members of the group, Kanj had received financial support from overseas associates of bin Laden through bank accounts in Beirut and north Lebanon. This money was used to buy weapons in the Palestinian camps and from followers of Subhi al-Tufeili, a former head of Hezbollah living under Syrian protection in the Beqaa Valley. Esbat al-Ansar was involved in transporting these arms by sea from Ain al-Hilweh to Kanj's bases. Since Syrian military intelligence has a heavy presence in and around Tripoli and its coastal areas (where the weapons would have been unloaded), the massive stockpiles of arms accumulated by the Dinniyeh rebels could not have escaped the attention of Damascus.

Esbat al-Nour

In October 2001, the late Hisham Shreidi's eldest son, Abdullah, rebelled against the leadership of Abu Mohjen, claiming that his father had never designated the latter as his successor. Initially called Jamaat al-Nour (Association of the Enlightened), Abdullah's breakaway faction later adopted the name Esbat al-Nour (League of the Enlightened). Shreidi attracted only a few dozen of the movement's fighters, as well as the Dinniyeh militants for whom he had provided shelter.

Al-Haraka al-Islamiyya al-Mujahida

Farouq al-Masri

Another small, but important, al-Qaeda affiliate is Al-Haraka al-Islamiya al-Mujahida (The Islamic Struggle Movement), led by Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the imam of Al-Nour Mosque in the Safsaf neighborhood of Ain al-Hilweh. Khattab, an adherent of bin Laden's radical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, functions as a spiritual guide and intermediary for various Wahhabi Islamist groups in the camp. He is also believed to be in charge of distributing at least some of al-Qaeda's funding in Ain al-Hilweh. In April 2002, police at Beirut International Airport arrested a Swedish man of Palestinian origin attempting to carry a large sum of money into the country. Lebanese security sources said that the courier, who was under surveillance for some time, had traveled repeatedly to Europe to collect money and visited Khattab each time he returned to Ain al-Hilweh.[12]

Closely associated with Khattab was Farouq al-Masri (also known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri), an Egyptian national who operated a restaurant near Al-Nour Mosque. In a June 2002 letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Israel's UN Ambassador Yehuda Lancry identified Masri as the leader of al-Qaeda's operations in Lebanon. Masri, whose real name is Abdel-Sattar Jad, was an explosives expert in Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who had fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s. He fled Egypt in 1992 and, following EIJ's merger with al-Qaeda, was dispatched to Ain al-Hilweh, where he took charge of a group of Arab Afghans living there. Masri was reportedly linked to a group that plotted to attack American and Israeli targets in Jordan at the turn of the millennium,[13] as well as a planned attack on Western targets in Turkey.[14]

Masri was assassinated in the early morning hours of March 1, 2003, when an explosives-laden car parked outside his restaurant erupted into a massive fireball as he went to prayers. Although a previously unknown movement calling itself the Young People of the Palestinian Struggle claimed responsibility for the blast, the assassination was likely either an Israeli or American operation (several witnesses reported hearing a reconnaissance drone prior to the explosion).[15] The London Sunday Times reported that Israel's external intelligence agency, the Mossad, carried out the operation.[16]

Ain al-Hilweh and the War on Terror

In September 2001, US President George W. Bush listed Esbat al-Ansar as one of 27 groups and individuals involved in terrorism. On September 25, Esbat al-Ansar's spokesman, known as Abu Sharif, denied that his group had any links to al-Qaeda. On October 10, Lebanese Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum announced that the judiciary had not ordered the freezing of Esbat al-Ansar's assets and that he did not consider the group to be a "terrorist" organization.[17] Interior Minister Elias Murr ruled out any attempt to apprehend Abu Mohjen or root out Esbat al-Ansar. "It would be much less costly for us to continue exercising preemptive security measures around the camps, rather than risk the lives of many innocents in a frontal military incursion."[18]

The main reason for this action was that the Syrians vetoed any move by the Lebanese authorities to enter Ain al-Hilweh. However, it is also true that Esbat all-Ansar enjoys sympathy from the Sunni community in Lebanon. Mainstream Lebanese Sunni Islamist groups have been supportive, either overtly or tacitly, of al-Qaeda. Fathi Yakan, the leading ideologue of Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya called the September 11 attacks a "heavenly blow" against symbols of American economic and military power and warned that the United States is making war against "Islam and Muslims everywhere" under the guise of fighting terrorism.[19] Bilal Shaaban, the secretary-general of the Islamic Unification Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami), said that the United States invaded Afghanistan "not to get Sheikh bin Ladin, but to attack Muslims now that its myth as a superpower has collapsed. It also wants to besiege and abort the blessed intifadah in Palestine to serve the Jews." Hashem Minqara, the leader of the Islamic Unification Movement Leadership Council (a breakaway faction), warned that "the United States has declared war on Muslims."[20]

In November, the authorities ordered a massive deployment of army troops around the entrances to the camp, after a series of grenade attacks by Esbat al-Ansar militants on Lebanese army checkpoints, but Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi again said that there are no plans for Lebanese security forces to enter the camp.

The Battle for Control of Ain al-Hilweh

On July 11, 2002, three Lebanese intelligence officers died in a botched operation in Sidon to arrest Badih Hamadeh (also known as Abu Obeida), a Lebanese Islamist believed to be responsible for a chain of bombings in and around the city. Hamadeh fled to Ain al-Hilweh and was given shelter by armed members of Esbat al-Nour and the Dinniyeh group at the residence of Abdullah Shreidi. For five days, Lebanese army units tightened a blockade of all entrances to the camp as officials in Beirut demanded his surrender. Hoping to exploit the incident to settle scores with the Islamists and achieve recognition from the Lebanese government as the legitimate authority in the camp,[21] Fatah forces surrounded Shreidi's house and prepared for an assault. Initially, the consensus among al-Qaeda supporters in the camp was that turning Hamadeh over to the authorities was religiously impermissible. Abu al-Aynayn said from his headquarters in Rashidieh that Fatah forces would seize the fugitive "even in a river of blood."

To the chagrin of Fatah leaders, however, Hamas representatives are said to have convinced Esbat al-Ansar to beat them to the punch. On July 16, Esbat al-Ansar gained custody of Hamadeh and turned him in to the police through an intermediary,. How this was done exactly has been the subject of considerable dispute. Esbat al-Ansar claimed that Shreidi handed him over voluntarily after meeting with Abu Tarek. However, according to one report,[22] Esbat al-Ansar operatives slipped into the building, seized Hamadeh, and stuffed him into the waiting car of Sheikh Maher Hammoud, the mufti of Sidon, who delivered the fugitive to an army checkpoint at the camp's entrance.[23]

In any event, the incident reinforced a split between "mainstream" Islamic militants keen on preserving close relations with the Lebanese Sunni Islamist establishment and the Esbat al-Nour/Dinniyeh coalition. On July 20, army experts defused a bomb planted in Al-Quds mosque in Sidon, which an Esbat al-Nour statement called a "warning to Maher Hammoud."[24] On August 5, an Esbat al-Nour gunman shot and wounded three members of Hamas - one of the few instances in which the notorious Islamist group has been targeted for being too moderate. When Hammoud and others began negotiations aimed at securing the hand-over of the Dinniyeh suspects,[25] Esbat al-Nour issued a statement threatening to "cause a bloodbath in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp and the rest of Lebanon" if other Islamists are turned in. [26]

Concerned that coordination between Fatah and Esbat al-Ansar would jeopardize the fate of the fugitives, Esbat al-Nour and the Dinniyeh militants launched a preemptive attack against Fatah positions. Six people were killed and 14 wounded in outbreaks of fighting during the first half of August. A member of the Dinniyeh group, Abu Ramez Sahmarani, declared: "We will not hand ourselves over to those infidels and we will not leave the camp even if there is a bloodbath. We are on Islamic territory and among Muslims."[27] The fighting came to an end after Fatah and Esbat al-Ansar reached an agreement to disarm the Dinniyeh rebels and place them under house arrest pending their deportation from the camp in 15 days.

Within days, however, reports surfaced that Islamic militants from north Lebanon had infiltrated the camp to reinforce the Dinniyeh group and help it fight off the deportation.[28] Esbat al-Ansar gunmen who approached the area on August 18 to verify the reports came under fire from the Dinniyeh militants and one was wounded. Although the Dinniyeh militants were never deported from the camp, but the events of July-August 2002 nevertheless positioned Esbat al-Ansar as a key partner in all matters related to political and security issues in Ain al-Hilweh.

Tensions erupted again on March 2, when Abdullah Shreidi murdered his cousin, Fatah member Nazih Shreidi, in broad daylight. In the days that followed, Fatah forces ringed Esbat al-Nour strongholds in the camp as Fatah officials pledged to storm Safsaf and arrest Shreidi. "The decision to get him has been taken. The time of the attack depends on logistics," said Abu al-Aynayn from his command headquarters in Rashidieh.[29] Esbat al-Nour, for its part, vowed to "sever the heads of corruption, betrayal, and apostasy, at the top of which are Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, Mounir al-Maqdah, and Abu Ali Tanios, who have . . . brought ruin on the camp."[30] Shreidi disappeared from public view after the assassination, apparently as part of a deal between Fatah and Islamist leaders to prevent a Fatah attack (he reappeared briefly on March 24 after an explosive detonated in front of his home, charging outside with his henchmen to lob grenades and shoot at the homes of two of Nazih's relatives).

Tensions exploded once again on May 17, when another relative of Shreidi loyal to Fatah, Ibrahim Shreidi, was gunned down early Saturday morning by unknown assailants. Later that day, apparently hoping to dispel widespread suspicions that Esbat al-Nour operatives carried out the hit, Shreidi personally attended the funeral of the deceased, which proceeded without event. As Shreidi left the cemetery, however, his entourage was ambushed by Fatah gunmen. Shreidi's uncle and one of his bodyguards were killed instantly, while his brother-in-law and cousin were critically wounded.

Despite suffering numerous gunshot wounds (as many as 18, according to some reports) Shreidi clung to life and was taken to the nearest hospital, which happened to be administered by the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Scores of Fatah fighters surrounded the hospital but did not enter, apparently satisfied by the assurances of doctors that the militant Islamist leader was in a coma, "clinically dead." The next day, however, after hours of emergency surgery, Shreidi miraculously regained consciousness. That night, Esbat al-Nour operatives managed to cut electricity to the camp, punch a massive hole in the wall of the hospital and spirit him to safety as stunned doctors and nurses were held at gunpoint.

The following day, as Fatah forces made visible preparations for a full-fledged assault on Safsaf, ,Esbat al-Ansar and Esbat al-Nour joined forces and went on the offensive against Fatah positions. Six Fatah fighters and one Islamist were killed in the ensuing clashes, which demonstrated (again) that the heavily outnumbered fundamentalists possessed far superior training and discipline than their enemies. By the end of the day, Fatah had agreed to a humiliating cease-fire and promised to withdraw from the neighborhood.

Fatah has continued to abide by the cease-fire, even after the murder of one of its fighters on June 1. However, having reportedly brought reinforcements into the camp from Rashidieh, it is no doubt biding its time for an opportune moment to seek revenge.

Lebanon's Crackdown - Real or Imagined?

While secular and Islamist forces struggled for supremacy in Ain al-Hilweh, the Lebanese government ostensibly launched a massive crackdown on terrorists it says are linked to Esbat al-Ansar. On May 8, the Beirut media quoted judicial and military officials as saying that the authorities had uncovered, with the "cooperation" of Syrian intelligence, a terrorist network responsible for a series of attacks on American fast food franchises and "an abortive attempt" to assassinate American Ambassador Vincent Battle.[31] Officials said that the leader of the network, a Yemeni national known as Abu al-Shahid, had taken refuge in Ain al-Hilweh. A week later, the authorities announced that they had uncovered another terrorist network (again with the "cooperation" of Syrian intelligence) that had plotted to attack the American embassy in Lebanon.

To the chagrin of Lebanese officials, however, the American embassy declined to comment on either announcement. Along with many commentators in the Lebanese press, American officials were clearly suspicious that the crackdown was manufactured to please the United States. For one thing, the timing of both announcements raised eyebrows - the first came just one day after Saudi Arabia announced the arrests of 19 al-Qaeda suspects in the kingdom, while the second came three days after suicide bombings in the Saudi capital killed 34 people. The reluctance of Lebanese officials to reveal details about the arrests, which some sources said occurred weeks or months before the announcements were made, added to suspicions. According to a former Lebanese intelligence officer quoted by the Christian Science Monitor, the crackdown "was for the benefit of the Americans." Damascus originally instructed Lebanese officials to prepare for an arrest campaign against Islamic militants in January, the source said, but the campaign was put on hold in anticipation of stepped up pressure on Syria following the start of the war in Iraq.[32]

The announcements followed a long-standing pattern, in which government statements about uncovering terrorist networks tied to Ain al-Hilweh are followed either by no additional information, or by indications to the contrary. In October 2002, the authorities announced that they had arrested two members of Esbat al-Ansar for "planning terrorist acts, illegal dealing in weapons of war and discharging firearms."[33] However, the two suspects were neither Palestinian nor residents of Ain al-Hilweh, but Lebanese members of a Tripoli-based fundamentalist group, Ahl ad-Daawa (Partisans of the Call). The formal indictment handed down against the two men on October 22 made no mention of Esbat al-Ansar.[34] Esbat al-Ansar was said to be the prime suspect in the killing American missionary Bonnie Penner in November, but no evidence of this ever came to light. Following the shooting of a Lebanese judge in December, the Beirut media quoted Lebanese investigators as saying that the perpetrator, Khalil Sinno, had a relationship with Esbat al-Ansar. No evidence of any ties between Sinno and Ain al-Hilweh was ever produced, however, and it later emerged that the suspect was disgruntled at the judiciary after having served a five-year prison sentence for stealing a cell phone.

The Lebanese government has both the means and the public support needed to root out Ain al-Hilweh's terrorist infrastructure, which by it own (exaggerated) admission threatens Lebanon's security. What it does not have is permission from Syria to go in. Although American officials have not forcefully pressed the issue in public, Damascus has come under renewed pressure to relax the constraints it has placed on Lebanese security policy or, at the very least, not stand in the way of a campaign by Fatah to disarm al-Qaeda-backed forces controlling the eastern sector of the camp.

However, Syria is unlikely to sanction any initiative to establish security in Ain al-Hilweh. With the US-sponsored "road map" gaining momentum, Ain al-Hilweh and other Palestinian camps in Lebanon will be a critical component of Syrian efforts to undermine the authority of PA Prime Minister Abu Mazen. According to UNWRA statistics, less than 1% of Palestinians in Lebanon have origins in the West Bank and Gaza (in contrast to refugees in Jordan, where approximately 40% originate from the occupied territories). With nothing to gain from the establishment of a Palestinian state, Palestinians in Lebanon will continue to be an easy source of recruits by those intent on subverting the peace process.

Notes

  [1] Rosemary Sayigh, "Palestinians in Lebanon: Harsh Present, Uncertain Future," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Autumn 1995, p. 38.
  [2] Palestinians in Lebanon - A Struggle for a Future with Hope, Al-Majdal (Bethlehem), March 1999.
  [3] Palestinians have long complained about corruption and mismanagement within the administration of UNWRA. In November 1998, UNWRA Director-General Wolfgang Plaza declared that his agency "suffers from an unexplainable deficit" and vowed to uncover the "truth" behind reported acts of embezzlement and squandering of funds. Days later, he was summarily dismissed from his position. See "Corruption cover-up in UNWRA?" Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), 1 - 7 April 1999.
  [4] See A. Robinson, "The Refugee Working Group, the Middle East Peace Process, and Lebanon," Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 10 No. 3, September 1997; Sayigh, p. 39.
  [5] "Iran Aids Foes of PLO," The New York Times, 15 June 1994.
  [6] According to "knowledgeable" sources cited by the Palestinian news agency Quds Press, the July 1997 twin suicide bombings in Jerusalem, which killed 15 people, were carried out by two Fatah fighters from Ain al-Hilweh who had "joined" Islamic Jihad just months beforehand. See "Jerusalem bombers came from Lebanese refugee camp: report," Agence France Presse, 6 August 1997.
  [7] In April 1998, Ghazi Adwan, a high-ranking official of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement was murdered. In May 1999, Fatah official Amin Kayed and his wife were killed in a drive-by shooting in Ain al-Hilweh. Two days later, Fatah official Jamal Dayekh lost both his legs in a booby-trapped car explosion.
  [8] "Palestinian refugees; Losers, always," The Economist, 28 August 1999.
  [9] In November 1999, Lebanese security forces arrested Fatah's commander in Ain al-Hilweh, Taha Muhammad Abd al-Qader (known as Khaled Aref), and another senior Fatah official when they tried to visit Abu al-Aynayn at the Rashidieh camp (both were acquitted and released the following year). Another senior Fatah commander, Muhammad Awad (also known as Hassan al-Sheble), was arrested in December.
  [10] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 7 April 2000.
  [11] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 8 April 2000.
  [12] Al-Watan (Muscat), 26 April 2002.
  [13] "Tentacles of terror," The Jerusalem Post, 13 December 2002.
  [14] In March 2002, Turkey's General Directorate of the Police issued a memorandum to the country's 81 provincial police districts warning that Masri was planning attacks against the British and American embassies in Ankara. See "Police on the Alert for Al-Qaeda Militants," Turkish Daily News (Ankara), 15 March 2002.
  [15] "Bomb Kills Alleged Al-Qaeda Man," The Daily Star (Beirut), 3 March 2003.
  [16] "Mossad hardman in first foreign kill," The Sunday Times (London), 9 March 2003. The paper, which hinted that its information came from Israeli security sources, said that the car was detonated by remote control by Mossad agents who had closely monitored Masri's daily movements.
  [17] The Daily Star (Beirut), 11 October 2001.
  [18] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 10 October 2001.
  [19] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 13 October 2001.
  [20] Al-Safir (Beirut), 8 October 2001.
  [21] Arafat reportedly telephoned Lebanese President Emile Lahoud after the killings and promised to apprehend Hamadeh and turn him over to the Lebanese authorities in exchange for permission to open a PA office in Beirut.
  [22] "South Lebanon Heats Up," Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), 18-24 July 2002.
  [23] Hamadeh was subsequently sentenced to death for the three murders. Interestingly, he was never indicted or convicted of the crime for which the authorities originally attempted to arrest him.
  [24] The Daily Star (Beirut), 23 July 2002.
  [25] Lebanese press reports identified the most prominent members of the Dinniyeh group as Ahmed Mikati (a.k.a Abu Bakr), Ali Abdo (a.k.a. Abu Abd al-Rahman) and Saadeddine Seiss (a.k.a. Abu Hamza).
  [26] The Daily Star (Beirut), 8 August 2002.
  [27] Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), 15-21 August 2002.
  [28] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 17 August 2002.
  [29] Al-Safir (Beirut), 5 March 2003.
  [30] Al-Zaman (London), 5 March 2003.
  [31] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 8 May 2003.
  [32] "Lebanon targets Islamic radicals," The Christian Science Monitor (Beirut), 20 May 2003.
  [33] "Lebanese terror suspects come from poor hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism," Agence France Presse, 16 October 2001.
  [34] "Lebanese charged with planning anti-US attacks in Middle East," Agence France Presse, 22 October 2001.


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