Palestinian infighting in the refugee camps sparks old fears in Lebanon

Many in Hamas believe the era of Fatah is almost over.

 Women walk under electricity cables in Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon March 30, 2020 (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
Women walk under electricity cables in Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Beirut suburbs, Lebanon March 30, 2020
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

Two recent events reminded the Lebanese that in addition to the ongoing political and economic crisis, the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps are also on the brink of explosion.

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Last week, a huge blast rocked a Hamas weapons depot in the Burj Shemali refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Later, Hamas leaders in the camp claimed the explosion was caused by an electrical fault in a warehouse containing oxygen and gas cylinders meant for coronavirus patients. Security personnel surrounded the camp and the state prosecutor in southern Lebanon asked the army and the police to investigate the affair.

The residents of the camp, however, said flames started at a diesel storage tank and then spread to a nearby Hamas-controlled mosque, triggering the blast.

Then, during the funeral of Hamza Shaheen, the Hamas field leader who died in the explosion, snipers killed three people and wounded several others in the procession. Hamas blamed Fatah for the attack, and Fatah cut all communication with the Islamist faction.

For many Lebanese, these developments were a gruesome reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war, when assorted Palestinian factions fought the Phalangists, and sometimes each other, while supported by foreign powers.“We were so busy with our troubles that we forgot about the camps. They are full of weapons, the people who live there are poor and have nothing to lose. The government never controlled the camps, and apparently the situation there is close to explosion,” H., a Lebanese journalist, told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.

 Lebanon's President Michel Aoun is seen in this handout picture released by Dalati Nohra on September 24, 2021, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly via a recorded video message, in Baabda, Lebanon. (credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Lebanon's President Michel Aoun is seen in this handout picture released by Dalati Nohra on September 24, 2021, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly via a recorded video message, in Baabda, Lebanon. (credit: DALATI NOHRA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Some Lebanese politicians are blaming the 88-year-old president, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, for his inability to control the situation in the country.

“The explosion at Burj Shemali is dangerous, despite Hamas’ clarification. First of all, the Lebanese have woken up to the presence of Palestinian weapons,” Fares Souaid, a Maronite politician and a leader of the March 14 Alliance, the anti-Syria political bloc headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri, wrote on Twitter.

“Second, the presence of weapons depots is banned by UN [Security Council] Resolution 1701. Third, [Hamas’] natural place is in Palestine, not Lebanon, and fourth, the most dangerous thing is that it submits to Iranian orders that do not serve the interests of Lebanon or Palestine. It is only Iran’s interest. Mr. President, your inability to act is also suspicious,” Souaid wrote.

Many Lebanese fear that Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ activities – weapons smuggling and production and provocations against Israel – will once again lead to war and the destruction of vital infrastructure, just like in 2006. That 34-day conflict is known in Lebanon as the July War and in Israel as the Second Lebanon War.

“Lebanon is already being torn apart by foreign hands; the country certainly doesn’t need more tension in the camps,” said H.

Israeli media recently reported that Hamas’ military wing is quietly establishing infrastructure on Lebanese soil, based near the town of Tyre, with an eye to opening a new front against Israel.

Dr. Michael Milshtein, the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University, believes the incident in Burj Shemali is part of a struggle for overall control of the Palestinian people.

“We are talking about ongoing tension that brewed for many reasons, as Hamas aimed at establishing control over Palestinian camps in Lebanon on its way to all-Palestinian leadership and legitimacy,” Milshtein told The Media Line.

“The PA was aware of this, and last year when [Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau] Ismail Haniyeh visited the camps, it was very upset. The Lebanese are upset as well, and of course, they make a connection between this incident and other problems, such as the void in governance, the explosions of weapon storages in public spaces, the rise of radical Islam, etc. There was a reason [Hamas leaders Khaled] Mashaal and [Mousa] Abu Marzouk rushed to Lebanon in order to calm down the situation. The reactions, however, were very chilly,” Milshtein said.

There appears to be a direct connection between the explosive situation in the West Bank and the clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Lebanon. Over the last few weeks, the Palestinian Authority launched an arrest campaign against Hamas in the West Bank, and specifically in the Jenin refugee camp as well as in Ramallah, Birzeit and Hebron. Dozens of Hamas activists were recently arrested by PA security forces, while others, such as senior leader Hassan Yousef, were arrested by the IDF.

After years of failed attempts to reconcile, Fatah and Hamas are back to square one: uncompromising conflict. While Fatah is going down in the polls, Hamas continues to build its bases of power in the West Bank, in Lebanese camps as well as in Europe, where governments do little to curb the activity of Hamas-affiliated groups.

According to a December poll carried out by Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), if presidential elections were held today and the only candidates were Haniyeh and the incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas, only 51% of Palestinians would participate, and of the votes cast, Haniyeh would receive 58% and Abbas 35%.

However, if the competition was between Haniyeh and Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for murder, participation would increase to 65%, with Barghouti receiving 57% of the votes and Haniyeh 38%.

The big prize is the leadership of the PLO, and many in Hamas believe that the era of Fatah is almost over, and the era of Hamas is just beginning. The struggle for control will take place not only in Gaza and the West Bank but also abroad. The Burj Shemali incident indicates that the battle will be bloody and ruthless. As usual, Lebanon and the Lebanese will also pay the price.