A Palestinian joint force tasked with ensuring the stability of a ceasefire in Ain al Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest refugee camp for Palestinians, was deployed on Monday ahead of a looming deadline for armed militants to surrender the killers of a senior Fatah commander assassinated in late July.
“The joint force is represented by all Palestinian forces, including Hamas, Usbat al-Ansar and the Islamic Mujahideen Movement,” troop commander Maj Gen Mahmoud Al Ajouri told Lebanon’s National News Agency.
Consisting of about 170 combatants, the force was sent to restore security in several neighbourhoods that became a front line in a power struggle between a group of extremist militants and Fatah, Ain al Hilweh’s most dominant faction and the political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A security official in Ain al Hilweh said the decision to strengthen the pre-existing but nearly defunct joint force was made following an internal agreement by Fatah and Hamas – which as well as other factions and some Lebanese officials has played a mediating role in the conflict. The resurrection of the joint force was announced in mid-September along with the latest ceasefire.
Two rounds of violent battles occurred in August and September, claiming at least 28 lives and displacing thousands of residents, as Fatah sought to oust extremists following the assassination of senior Fatah commander Abu Ashraf Al Armoushi.
Mr Armoushi’s killing was itself a response to the attempted assassination of a senior militant leader.
Militants – among them the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jund Al Sham – have since barricaded themselves inside two UN compounds containing eight schools, and have refused to surrender.
“The next step will be that within 24 to 48 hours. Following a green light from political leadership, we will empty the schools of the militants,” Maj Gen Al Ajouri told The National.
He said he was unsure the militants would vacate the schools without a fight.
“There’s definitely pressure on the joint force to succeed. The schools are the militants’ first line of defence. If they left they would be weaker, so it’s on us to get them out,” he said.
Maj Gen Al Ajouri added that “the file of extradition of wanted persons remains under follow-up.”
Fatah has repeatedly promised forceful retribution against extremist parties if they do not surrender the suspected killers of Mr Al Armoushi.
The end of September is the second deadline, with the first expiring before the eruption of a second round of fighting earlier in the month.
A Fatah-affiliated security source in the camp said that behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place between “some factions” and Islamist groups. The source added that Fatah was not party to the negotiations.
“In around three days it will become apparent whether they [Armoushi’s killers] will surrender or not,” the source said.
Experts have said that the challenge to the Fatah's authority by extremist Islamist groups could stand to benefit its political rival Hamas, the other prominent faction in Palestine and the camps.
Hamas’s status as a relatively moderate Islamist party has allowed it to play a mediating role between hardline militants and Fatah.
Some in Fatah – including senior official Azzam Al Ahmad, a member of the group’s central committee – have accused Hamas of playing a role in the fighting, which Hamas denies.
The ceasefire, along with a commitment to strengthen the joint security force, was announced following meetings between Fatah and Hamas delegations in the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut.
Fatah is the dominant party in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, while Hamas controls Gaza.
Ain al Hilweh refugee camp is home to around 70,000 people, over 50,000 of whom are registered Palestinian refugees.
For over seven decades Lebanon's refugee camps have sheltered Palestinians forcibly expelled from their land during what they refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe, which saw the creation of Israel in 1948.