PLO leadership in power struggle over Lebanese refugee camps

Conflict between authorities loyal to Ramallah aand camp commanders in Lebanon brings fear that Islamic militants could step in and seize control.

Munir al Maqdah, a Fatah commander, at his home in the Ain Hilweh refugee camp in South Lebanon.
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BEIRUT // The struggle for control of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, between officials loyal to the elected authorities in Ramallah and mutinous commanders based in Lebanon, continues to escalate after an official at the most volatile camp was dismissed by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. The removal of Munir al Maqdah from his posts in both the Ain Hilweh camp and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation has left many observers, including Hizbollah and Lebanese government security officials, worried that Islamic militants with past links to al Qa'eda in Iraq could step into the power vacuum and seize control.

Such an instance occurred in 2007 at the Nahr el Bared camp in northern Lebanon, when hundreds were killed and much of the camp was destroyed. "Munir refuses to join with President Abbas's plan for peace negotiations with the Israelis, he has always insisted on the right of Palestinians to armed resistance," according to Abu Ali, a Hizbollah security official collecting information on threats from within Lebanon.

"It's going to be a fight for control of the camp any minute now," he added. "The situation is very bad inside. Removing Munir, who is the only official in Fatah or the PLO [in Lebanon] who isn't completely corrupt, has destabilised everything." The removal of Mr al Maqdah from his role as a commander of the PLO's armed struggle in Lebanon and as commander of a multiparty police force in Ain Hilweh - a role critical to his party's control of the camp - came after the previous head of the PLO in Lebanon, Sultan Abu Aynin, and his top subordinates were moved out of their positions by Mr Abbas in an overall housecleaning of officials long considered corrupt or inefficient within the organisation in Lebanon.

Many such officials working in refugee camps in Lebanon are loath to relinquish control of what are often extremely profitable positions in camps they treat as fiefdoms. According to Palestinian political and military sources, Mr Abu Aynin will be transferred to either Jordan or the West Bank after decades of extremely unpopular command of the camps in Lebanon. But as part of the negotiations over his transfer, Mr Abu Aynin demanded that Mr al Maqdah also be removed from his posts, accusing him of being openly aligned with Islamic factions in the camp opposed to Fatah and the PLO.

The two men have long been rivals within the PLO in Lebanon with Mr al Maqdah frequently and publicly accusing Mr Abu Aynin of corruption, a charge repeated by many parties and officials. After repeated attempts by Ramallah to redefine Mr al Maqdah's role, attempts he essentially refused, Mr Abbas ordered that his budget from the PLO for 2010 be withheld, leaving him unable to pay or support his militia and police force inside Ain Hilweh. The move was widely seen as insulting and antagonistic towards a prominent commander.

Mr al Maqdah and other top officials in the camp have uncharacteristically refused to comment on the developments in the media, except to deny an Israeli media report that he had taken 2,000 men from his military wing and defected to join the Shiite Muslim Hizbollah, a claim that Abu Ali, the Hizbollah security official openly mocked. "We respect Munir and his support of armed resistance but he doesn't have 2,000 men and we would never let Palestinians join Hizbollah," he laughed. "Hizbollah is a Lebanese movement intended to defend our land. We are friendly with the Palestinians who resist Israel but they cannot join our group, which is also religious in nature."

Another Hizbollah military wing official who asked not to be named also described the PLO, Fatah and other Palestinian factions as "full of Israeli collaborators" that could never be trusted en masse by the Lebanese group. In an effort to better co-ordinate the Palestinian Authority's presence in the camps, Mr Abbas has dispatched a personal representative, Azim al Ahmed, from Ramallah to regain control over Lebanon's fractious and bitterly divided Palestinian community.

Although these political machinations within the Palestinian community are unlikely to lead to violence in the other camps in Lebanon, the situation in Ain Hilweh is different because of the presence of hundreds of heavily armed fighters inspired by the same brand of Salafi Islam as al Qa'eda. The largest and best equipped of these groups, Esbat al Ansar, frequently clashes with both Fatah forces and the Lebanese Army for control of sections of the camp and belong to an alliance of Islamic groups that have accused Fatah commanders of pursuing a campaign of assassination against them to gain control over the entire camp.

"Munir is the only one who can deal with Esbat al Ansar, who have a lot of experience fighting in Iraq," said Abu Ali, the Hizbollah security official. "They are very tough and completely fearless. And some of them walk around all day with explosive belts on. If there's a fight with Fatah, they will crush them like Hamas crushed Fatah in Gaza. "Munir has always had good relations with these guys and we're afraid that now he will join them and kick Fatah out of the camp," he said. "Fatah deserves it, they are corrupt and have too many cars, too much money that was meant for their people, but Esbat al Ansar are followers of al Qa'eda, we know they hate the Shiite. So we are watching this situation very closely.

"We watch closely and we see all sorts of new faces every day entering the camp," he added. "New faces with long beards, and many aren't Lebanese or Palestinian. This is a problem even if they want to fight Israel like we do."