Mideast Tensions Rise Following Deadly Conflict at UN-Run Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon

The intensifying conflict could be a harbinger of infighting among Palestinians elsewhere, including in the West Bank. Israel, and even America, could face multiple challenges if the violence spreads.

AP/Mohammad Zaatari
Smoke rises during a clash that erupted between members of the Palestinian Fateh group and Islamist militants at a Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh, near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, July 30, 2023. AP/Mohammad Zaatari

Add this to Lebanon’s self-inflicted woes: Six men were killed as fighting among armed factions erupted over the weekend inside an autonomous enclave recognized by the United Nations as a Palestinian refugee camp. 

The clash at Ein-Hilweh, on the edges of the Lebanese city of Sidon, is part of tensions between factions vying for power inside one of 12 UN-run Palestinian enclosures in Lebanon. While defined as refugee camps, they are in fact midsized, autonomous cities wallowing in poverty, anger, and militancy.

The escalation of tensions between a faction loyal to the Ramallah-based Fatah and armed Islamic fundamentalists worries the Beirut leadership, which is already struggling to address Lebanon’s multiple crises. It could also be a harbinger of infighting among Palestinians elsewhere, including in the West Bank.

As the weekend’s fire exchange intensified, rocket shells fell outside of the camp and on the streets of Sidon. As is Beirut’s habit, Lebanon’s acting prime minister, Najib Mikati, blamed unspecified outsiders for instigating violence “at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Al Jazeera reported

“We call on the Palestinian leadership to cooperate with the army to control the security situation and hand over those meddling with security to the Lebanese authorities,” Mr Mikati said in a statement.

A northern Israel-based think tank concentrating on Lebanon and Syria, Alma, reports that the Lebanese army blocked all entrances to the camp. While similar fighting erupts occasionally at the camp, this one is “more intense than usual,” including machine guns, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and likely rockers as well, Alma’s founder, Sarit Zehavi, tells the Sun.

Ms. Zehavi notes that the fire exchange between the Fatah fighters and gunmen with a Salafi faction, the “movement of cleansing, reform and awakening,” erupted Saturday near the Ein Hilweh headquarters of Hamas. “You can’t discount Hamas involvement either,” she says.   

The Lebanese army and its law enforcement officials rarely enter the Palestinian enclaves, where the only outside authority is the UN Relief and Work Agency, which cares for Palestinians residing in Lebanon, as well as some nearly half a million Palestinians who maintain their refugee status in several Arab countries, the West Bank, and Gaza. 

In Lebanon, some 200,000 descendants of Arabs who had been relocated during Israel’s war of independence in 1948 are under UNRWA’s care. Yet, unlike Jordan, where the majority of Palestinians who arrived during that war are by now integrated, Lebanon and the UN have consistently rejected attempts at ending refugee status for their fourth-generation descendents.

Palestinians in Lebanese UNRWA-run enclaves are denied citizenship, are barred from working in most professions, and their travel is restricted. Inside, the camps are divided by neighborhoods according to rivaling loyalties — to family, clan, political affiliation, religion, or ideology. Clashes occur regularly, though this weekend’s fire exchange marks an uptick in violence.

The volatile mix of competing interests is further complicated as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced out of similar UN-run camps in neighboring Syria during the war there are being resettled in the Lebanese camps.   

Lebanon’s fractured government, which is under the control of Iran via its affiliate, Hezbollah, is struggling to manage the country outside the Palestinian camps. After 30 years in power, the country’s central bank commissioner, Riad Salameh, resigned his post Monday following allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

The World Bank calls Mr. Salameh’s management of what was once considered the crown jewel of Mideast banking systems a “Ponzi scheme.” Lebanese citizens are attempting, mostly in vain, to gain access to their own accounts held in Lebanese banks. Corruption, mismanagement, and factional fighting underline all other parts of government as well. 

As the country seems to spin out of control, Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, is amping up his anti-Israel rhetoric with new threats. Seizing on Israel’s internal turmoil, Mr. Nasrallah warned Jerusalem to “beware of any stupid step,” adding that “the resistance does not take its responsibility for responding and liberating lands lightly.”

The Israeli cabinet made some decisions on Monday on possible reaction to Hezbollah’s provocations, including the recent pitching of tents inside Israel’s territory. The Israel Defense Force now assesses that the probability of war in the north is highest since 2006. Mr. Nasrallah and his Tehran bosses seem eager to push to the brink, assuming Israel fears a full-scale armed conflict. 

Meanwhile, the escalation of Palestinian fighting over control of the Lebanese camps may well be a microcosm of what awaits the West Bank. There, Fatah, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, as well as gangs loyal to rival clans, villages, and various offshoot factions, are arming themselves to the teeth.

Once the 87-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, leaves the stage, fighting between such groups is likely to intensify, turn bloody, and challenge Israel, as well as America.

The New York Sun

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