The history of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, set up for those fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, is a tumultuous one, and concerns that the camps could again become the site of violence have increased as sectarian tensions in the country have risen. Those worries were compounded last month as Palestinian gunmen from the outskirts of the camp, located in the southern city of Sidon, joined militants loyal to the city’s radical Sunni cleric, Ahmed al-Assir, in a battle against the army, which turned the coastal city into a war zone and left 18 soldiers dead.
Palestinians in Lebanon largely sympathize with their fellow Sunnis in the Syrian opposition and have set fire to aid boxes sent by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah to protest its decision to send fighters to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An influx of refugees from Syria and growing sentiment against the Lebanese army amid reports it was fighting alongside Hezbollah in Sidon make the situation difficult to contain, analysts said.
The sectarian politics on the rise in Syria and Lebanon “reinforces the militant radicals,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The mainstream leadership can try and keep the lid on it, but puffs of steam will erupt now and then,” he said.
Those mainstream leaders, from the Lebanese branches of Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas, say they fear that the growing popularity of — and anger among — members of the camp’s more hard-line Islamist factions could jeopardize the position of Palestinian refugees in the country. In particular, they worry that Ain Helweh could be drawn into a scenario like that which unfolded in the northern Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in 2007, when militants from the radical Sunni group Fatah al-Islam took over the camp and fought a 31
2-month war with the Lebanese army.
“There are big storms in the whole region and in the community we are a part of in Lebanon,” said Munir al-Maqdah, commander for Fatah in the camp, in which tents have long been replaced by tightly packed dwellings. “We try as much as we can to stay away from the conflict in Syria and the conflict in Lebanon, but of course the tension has increased.”
Maqdah said the situation in Ain Helweh was “unified,” with the camp’s 17 factions working together to prevent conflagration. But last week, a member of one Islamist group fatally shot a Fatah bodyguard in the camp, according to the state news agency.