2014-08 - Tensions at Ain el-Helweh | August, 2014 to October, 2018

Publication date: August, 2014
Last updated on: May, 2017

Historical Background

As a result of the 1948 Nakbah, which saw the exodus of over 750,000 Arabs from Palestine, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) established the Ain el-Helweh camp in the Southern city of Saida to accommodate refugees from Northern Palestine displaced to Lebanon. In 1952, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) started operating within the camp, replacing the tented settlements with concrete shelters, and over time, providing additional shelter, along with healthcare, education, and relief and social services through the establishment of clinics, schools, waste collection programmes, women’s programmes and more.

During the Civil War, many Palestinian refugees from other camps within Lebanon fled to Ain el-Helweh, though the camp suffered from great violence itself at that time. In 1974 and from 1982-1991 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the camp fell victim to Israeli bombings, witnessing a great number of casualties and destruction to the camp’s infrastructure.

Despite suffering violence and bombardment throughout the Civil War period, refugee populations in Ain el-Helweh grew rapidly, as did the establishment of Palestinian militant groups, such as the Fatah Movement, with a common goal of liberating Palestine. Palestinian militancy is still present in the camp today, but despite this long-standing presence, new groups have found footing in the camp following the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. Members of transnational groups active in the Syrian crisis, such as Al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and Abdullah Azzam Brigades, are reported to have found refuge in Ain el-Helweh. This has raised concerns of further radicalisation within the camp.

Currently, Ain el-Helweh hosts the highest concentration of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, with approximately 80,000 refugees, however, a census has not been conducted and numbers have often been estimated to reach 120,000 inhabitants following the Syrian crisis. Despite the services that UNRWA provide, many Palestinians hold grievances over poor living conditions, small and crowded shelters, high unemployment rates, and a lack of employment opportunities. This then feeds into high dropout rates, as children drop out of school in order to find work to help support their families.

Ultimately, socio-economic insecurity and continual tensions relating to warring militant and political factions in Ain el-Helweh has perpetuated a volatile security environment that often evolves into armed clashes, heavy artillery exchanges and on occasion, explosions due to bombs placed and grenades being thrown within the camp.

Security Threats

Palestinian camps are predominantly viewed as an internal, Lebanese security threat due to armed Salafist groups hiding and operating within the camps. The concern over the presence of such groups was raised in 2007 when the group Fatah al-Islam, based inside the Nahr al-Bared camp, were suspected of conducting a bank robbery. The Lebanese Army then entered the camp ensuing a 15 week battle which destroyed the entirety of the camp, killing over 40 Palestinian civilians, 167 Lebanese soldiers and 200 Fatah al-Islam members, as well as displacing over 33,000 refugees who fled to different camps. Notably, groups hostile to the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, and that also have ties to Jihadist groups inside Syria, such as Shabab al-Muslim, Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham, amongst others, are now operating from Ain el-Helweh. As such, members of the Islamic State, including prominent leaders, have been captured in the camp since October 2015.

Socio-economic insecurity

The common focus on the Islamist threat to camp security is reductive and prevents an adequate understanding of security issues inside Ain el-Helweh as security issues are not limited to the rise of Islamists group inside the camp, but also involve a rise of violence in general. This is especially true given the arrival of refugees from Syria and the dire socio-economic situation inside the camp. Equally, the concerns over the lack of Lebanese forces inside the camp ignores the attempts by Palestinians to ensure security. A significant proportion of unrest inside the camp can be said to be a product of economic conditions which can exacerbate the risk of radicalisation and outbreaks of violence. Palestinian refugees are banned from working in dozens of professions in Lebanon, severely restricting work opportunities. There are also restrictions on owning property and their freedom of movement. All of the above produces resentment, depression, and psychological stress for those without work prospects or hope for a meaningful future. As such, many youth and adults turn to illegal activity, including robbery, drug trafficking and dealing.

The situation is exacerbated by the influx of Palestinians from Syria into an already limited job market, and accordingly, there are developing tensions with the newer refugees coming from Syria. Additionally, many refugees suffer mental health problems due to the conditions inside the camp, whilst refugees fleeing Syria are also suffering mental health issues from their experiences of conflict there.

Additionally, when violence escalates in the camp it disrupts any form of stability that the community has established within Ain el-Hilweh. While there are mechanisms that offer assistance to youth, families and individuals seeking some form of economic and social homogeneity, operations can not continue if immediate security is threatened. This is often the case with UNRWA who facilitate educational programs for Palestinian youth from kindergarten through high school; in the case of the December 2016 - January 2017, February 2017 and April 2017 clashes, UNRWA closed their offices and, consequently, their school programs were forced to shut throughout the period. For youth, the inability to find a safe zone or sense of stability in their schooling facilities has generated concern and collective action from within the camp. Similar concerns relating to outbreaks of violence extend to other areas of socio-economic development, such as the closure of businesses, access to medical facilities and the temporary displacement of families, which have been similarly protested against on numerous occasions.

Zone of Unlaw”: Security Enforcement in Ain el-Helweh

Due to fears of Salafist Jihadism and the lack of Lebanese governmental control, the camps have a reputation as “spaces of exception” and “zones of unlaw,” where militants can freely operate without government or military intervention.

Historically, the camp’s security has been managed internally by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Over the past 20 years, the PLO’s control has waned and security has been managed by a plurality of Palestinian organisations differing in religious and political affiliations, each with their own factions. In July 2014, attempts to unify these groups was a success and the Palestinian Joint Security Force was deployed in the camp, comprising of the the camp’s main factions: Fatah, Hamas, Ansar Allah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Joint Security Force (JSF) operated in Ain el-Helweh from 2014 until 2017, collaborating with the LAF and often arresting wanted persons and handing them to the necessary state body. The JSF did not have the capability to eradicate Salifist Jihadist groups, instead their goal was limited to mitigating and calming outbreaks of violence, and to distancing the camps from the Syrian conflict. The JSF was composed of members from different militias with a common goal of establishing a sense of law and order inside Ain el-Hilweh. It was highly praised for unifying warring factions for a positive cause, offering many a sense of hope that armed clashes and violent conflicts could be reduced by this innovative plan.

Unfortunately, the JSF dissolved in February 2017 after it was deemed only effective in a “few areas”. However, plans have been orchestrated to erect a new “Joint Force” to oversee security in the camp once again.

Even when the JSF was in operation, Fatah was deemed as the dominant security force inside Ain el-Helweh with Fatah members being heads of both the JSF, when in operation, and the Palestinian Security Committee, managing security for all camps. Given Fatah’s wider disagreements with Hamas, this does present tensions with the camp as Hamas also appear to be using some Jihadist groups to undermine Fatah’s dominance. As mentioned, outbreaks of violence are often frequently mitigated by uninvolved groups inside the camp. Whilst ceasefires are often only temporary, the ability for some of these Islamist groups to aid security must be noted.

Actors within Ain el-Helweh

There are a number of Palestinian Islamist groups across Lebanon and within the camp, but most groups’ ideologies focus on the struggles of Palestinians, rather than the Syrian conflict. However, these groups differ in their approach, with some following nationalist ideas, and others pan-Islamic ideologies, for example. Thus, whilst it is true that extreme groups operate from within the camp, the fragmentation of the groups inhibits the rapid growth of radicalisation, and many Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are working to contain the danger of radicalisation by mitigating between groups such as Fatah and Jund al-Sham when violence occurs.

There are up to 17 different militant factions operating within the camp, the majority of which are actively armed. Members of these factions monitor and enforce security in their respective neighbourhoods, and thus, armed conflicts have often erupted as militias vie for supremacy.

The following groups (militant, non-state, state and civilian actors) are considered to be the major influencers and actors at play in the camp in recent to current history:

Fatah Movement: Palestinian Nationalist Political Party that is strongly associated with the revolutionary struggle of Palestinians in the mid 20th century and is considered to be the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Fatah, while representing a social and political ideology, has over time supported and been supported by many militant groups that share common values. The Fatah movement has been the dominating faction in Ain el-Helweh since its takeover in 1990. Fatah also formed the largest proportion of members of the Joint Palestinian Security Force that was the overarching policing body within the camp from 2014 to early 2017.

Osbat al-Ansar: Osbat al-Ansar is a Sunni fundamentalist group, established in 1985 by Sheikh Hisham Shraidi in the similar context of islamisation and radicalisation that other Salafist factions in Ain el-Helweh were born out of. The group is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and is primarily composed of Palestinian members. While it is comparatively small to other Salafist groups in the wider region, its base in Ain el-Helweh and position within the camp is still considered a significant source of conflict and tension given that the group actively vies for power.

Notably, following the assassination of the founding Sheikh, the group split into three subsequent splinter groups, one of which is Osbat al-Nour which has had considerable influence in Ain el-Helweh in the past. Since 2012, however, they have reportedly re-joined forces.

Hamas: An Islamic resistance movement that is inspired by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is one of the most important Palestinian political organisations today. Hamas is still an important actor and influencer over militants in Ain el-Helweh and shares membership in the Joint Palestinian Security Force in the camp. Fatah and Hamas are known to be conflicting factions, often fighting for supremacy both locally in Ain el-Helweh and regionally across various areas of the Middle East.

Al-Ashbal/Fatah Youth: In 2013, the PLO restarted a Fatah youth movement, al-Ashbal, to educate children about Islam, but also to teach them military discipline. Military discipline is described as “physical fitness exercises and basic military training that doesn’t include bearing arms” for participants under sixteen years of age. However, once over the age of sixteen, regular military training following Fatah ideology is initiated. This has been touched upon in a recent series of interviews and articles.

The purpose is seen as one that fights radicalisation. Even so, this initiative can still be criticised on the grounds that militarising youth isn’t considered the ideal method to fight radicalisation, potentially effectuating the opposite.

It is important to note here that the LAF do not operate within Ain el-Helweh according to a signed agreement. However, on occasion, the LAF have had to intervene by blocking access in/out of the camp or retaliating to armed conflict that threatens their position at the entrance of the camp or the surrounding Saida municipality.

Additionally, other extremist factions known to be influential and active within the camp, either currently or in the past, include:

Islamic State (ISIS/DAESH) -. The Islamic State is known to be operating in Ain el-Helweh and has been a source of contention as radicalisation appears to be a prevalent issue, specifically toward the youth in the camp.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) - Initially spawned from Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is a Sunni Islamist extremist faction designated as a terrorist group by the United States, among others. The group is an organisation originating from Syria with multiple splinter groups, affiliates and associated factions.

Al-Shabab al-Muslim - Originating and based in Ain el-Helweh, this group has described itself as a “mosaic” of jihadists. The group is known to operate along the lines of a radical Sunni Islamist ideology, labelled as a new incarnation of Fatah al-Islam (see below) and Jund al-Sham (see below). They have also reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. In 2016, and recently in February 2017, there were reports of clashes between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Islamic factions against armed militants from al-Shabab al-Muslim.

Abdullah Azzam Brigades - Also referred to as “al-Qaeda” in Lebanon, the group is labelled as a Sunni Islamist militant group and was formed in 2009 as a splinter group of al-Qaeda in Iraq. They are responsible for orchestrating various terrorist attacks in Lebanon and have been known to have cells in Ain el-Helweh.

Fatah al-Islam: Radical Sunni Islamist group that established its base in Ain el-Helweh in 2008. Despite sharing the same name as the Fatah Movement, they are separate actors. The group appeared in 2006 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, in North Lebanon. Initially, it was lead by Shaker al-Absi, a former member of the Fatah al-Intifada, a political party with close links to Damascus. With its radical Salafist inspiration, Fatah al-Islam led a war against the Lebanese Army in Nahr al-Bared in 2007. Once defeated in Nahr al-Bared, it transferred its base to Ain el-Helweh. Since the death of Shaker al-Absi in December 2008, one if its more prominent leaders, Bilal Badr, established his base in Ain al-Helweh. Current reports state the group is no longer significantly active, however.

Jund al-Sham: Radical Salafist group that sprouted in Ain el-Helweh in 2004 with a demographic of various backgrounds - Arab, Lebanese and Palestinian. The group prides itself in its anti-Fatah ideology and is considered a splinter group of Osbat al-Nour. Jund al-Sham has had links to terrorist activities, and has had various violent confrontations with Fatah within Ain el-Helweh, and additionally with the Lebanese Armed Forces outside of the camp. There are reports the group is no longer significantly active.

The Escalation of Violence

Since the Spring of 2015, cases of conflict in Ain el-Helweh have dramatically increased. In the case of Ain el-Helweh, most of the conflicts over recent months have been a resurgence of violence between Fatah and Jund al-Sham, who have a long history of conflict within the camp. Clashes in June 2015, involving small arms, rockets and grenades left several people dead and a dozen wounded before a ceasefire could be enacted, via mediation by Hamas. The fighting also damaged local shops, cars and houses, leading to protests over the following days. Conflict, in the form of sniper fire, rockets and grenades, broke out again in August 2015, killing 3 and injuring 20. During this time, Fatah had taken control of all the camp’s hospitals, requiring Jund al-Sham to treat its fighters in private accommodations. A ceasefire was rapidly mediated by Hamas, and the following day there were more protests to end armed groups and violence inside the camp. A camp resident and a member of the JSF were killed later in the week when the ceasefire was broken.

Notably, in July 2015 a Fatah official, Talal al-Urduni, was assassinated by unknown gunmen. Fatah al-Islam were suspected to be behind this due to Urduni’s hostile history with them, though Jund al-Sham were also considered possible perpetrators. The JSF and Fatah troops were rapidly deployed to mitigate tensions in the area, though two grenades were thrown in a market area, without casualties. In early August 2015, Fatah al-Islam member Bilal Badr, who was suspected of the assassination, went missing. In October, two of his associates were injured in a shooting, but the causes of this are unknown.

Furthermore, despite Security Forces efforts to distance the camp from the regional conflicts, many suspects affiliated with the Islamic State or other terrorists groups have been seeking refuge inside the camp during the last years. In fact, security forces regularly manage to arrest individuals involved with terrorists entities within the camp.

Thus, in order to contain these security’s development, the construction of a “controversial” security wall with four watch towers began in November 2016 with the consent of Palestinian Security Forces and some local factions, such as Fatah. The purpose was to avoid infiltration of terrorists inside the camp and to protect the population in surrounding Saida from potential spillover from the armed clashes that frequently occur. However, this decision caused the indignation of many Palestinians and Lebanese who had seen it as a discriminatory measure against Palestinians and compared it to the Israeli “separation wall” in occupied Palestine. The wall is near completion at present (April, 2017).

At the end of 2016, tensions increased after the killing of a Fatah member, leading to a rise of armed clashes between Palestinian factions. Despite Security Forces efforts to contain the situation, the clashes lasted for several days, killing and injuring many.

Interestingly, it is important to note that in addition to armed clashes between political or militant groups, many outbreaks of violence go unattributed to such groups, but are often due to personal disputes. These disputes often escalate into gunfire, drawing more people in, and occasionally harming those nearby. It is unclear what fully constitutes a ‘personal dispute,’ however, the perpetual stress of life in such conditions may well explain how these disputes can escalate. Within this unattributed violence, there are frequent incidents of grenades being anonymously thrown. These predominantly only cause material damage, and the intention of their use is unknown, though it shows the proliferation of weaponry within the camp.


Current Developments

Instability in early 2017:

Early 2017 has seen a significant escalation of tensions in Ain el-Helweh. First, the dissolution of the Joint Security Forces (JSF) was announced on the 18th of February, raising concerns over deteriorating cohesion and security, given that the JSF had initially been seen as a positive step toward a sense of law and order in the camp. The dissolution of the JSF was due to their limited jurisdiction and their consequent inability to manage internal security threats effectively and consistently. Within two weeks of the JSF’s cessation, armed clashes erupted between Fatah supporters and Islamist gunmen, including Osbat al-Ansar members. Intermittent sniper fire, rockets, hand grenades, close-range shooting and cars were set on fire during the clashes that lasted three days, resulting in many residents of the camp attempting to evacuate and several injured persons, including non-militants, as well as multiple casualties. The LAF deployed heavily around the camp and had to block the entrance to the camp to prevent movement in/out of Ain el-Helweh.

For many residents in the Sidon region, this reinforced fears that stability in Ain el-Helweh was indeed not on the increase but on the contrary, dissolving simultaneously with the JSF’s dissolution. Strikes were held by Sidon residents to voice their concerns over the situation and this triggered Palestinian and Lebanese authorities to quickly convene over the issue. A ceasefire was agreed upon and discussion immediately commenced to re-erect a new “Joint Force” similar to the JSF that was established in 2014.

New Joint Security Forces - April 2017

The structure of a new force was agreed upon immediately in response to the heightened clashes the camp throughout February. A 100 member force was agreed upon with officers representing secular and Islamist Palestinian factions that occupy neighbourhoods of Ain el-Hilweh. On April 7, 2017 the new force deployed to three areas of the camp: near the force’s headquarters at the former Al-Kifah school, the Boraq Centrale intersection and near Al-Saaiqa’s office at the vegetable market intersection.

Violent April Clashes: Bilal Badr & the Deployment of the New JSF.

When the re-established JSF forces deployed in the camp on April 7th, they were met without smooth transition. Instead they faced an armed assault led by militants associated with Bilal Badr when entering the Tiri neighbourhood. Daily Star reported on the outbreak, stating that “Osbat al-Ansar fighters, who were responsible of deploying in the neighborhood as part of the joint force, engaged in the clashes with Bilal Badr and his group.” This initiated violent armed clashes that spanned for 6 days, including a brief ceasefire on the 4th day, resulting in deplorable consequences for occupants of the camp as well as for the community in the surrounding area of Saida. In total, at least 10 were killed, over 50 injured, 150 refugees displaced, heavy LAF deployment was required to surround the camp to prevent spillover, all while local schools and highways were forced to close in Saida due to immediate safety concerns.

Clashes ceased on Wednesday 12th April when the JSF managed to successfully deploy in the Tiri neighbourhood after ‘dismantling’ the Bilal Badr security zone. Members of Bilal Badr’s group fled the neighbourhood and the location of the said Islamist extremist is currently unknown.