Uneasy truce in Lebanon's simmering refugee camp

Hamas mediates as peace remains fragile between two rival Palestinian groups, who have come close to a second firefight.

BEIRUT // Tensions between the mainstream authorities responsible for security in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp and a well-armed group of militants who killed a prominent security official in a gun battle last week almost broke into violence on Monday night before an intervention by a group of prominent Palestinian and religious authorities calmed the situation, at least temporarily.

Abu Ahmad Fadel, the representative from the Hamas movement in the Ain el Hilweh refugee camp, said the streets were calm after an all-night meeting convened by his group in an effort to reduce tensions between the dominant Fatah faction in the camp and Usbat al Ansar, an al Qa'eda-inspired group of militants with hundreds of followers. The camp's numerous factions - at least 21 armed groups maintain a presence in Ain el Hilweh - frequently clash in a variety of personal and political disputes. But the recent efforts by a relatively new Fatah commander representing the Ramallah-based government of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to rid the camp of Islamic extremists has provoked a cycle of murder, revenge and intrigue that threatens security not only in the camp itself, but in the nearby city of Sidon, according to numerous officials, residents and observers of life in Lebanon's most crowded and dangerous square kilometre.

Last week's ambush and murder of Mohammed Tamam, a Fatah security official, in a shoot-out that also killed an innocent bystander, Nejmah Ali Younes, raised tensions to a new height, according to Abu Hani, a Fatah official. "It's all good now; life is back to normal, but I personally think it won't last for a long time," he said. "There is tension from the Usbat men and they are always provoking members from Fatah."

For their part, the leaders of Usbat al Ansar and a mishmash of aligned jihadi Salafist groups, claim that Abed al Hamid Issa, a Fatah commander nicknamed al Lino, is responsible for a series of attacks and murders of their supporters, ordered by Mr Issa's commander in Ramallah, the notorious former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan. After Mr Issa demanded that Usbat turn over Tamam's killer on Sunday or face imminent attack, a top Usbat official released a statement calling for war.

Claiming that they had "had enough" of the policies being ordered by Mr Dahlan and implemented by Mr Issa, Abu Sharif, an Usbat official, vowed that his men would resist any effort to arrest any of their members. "Don't test our intentions because we are ready to defend our posts," he told Fatah via the statement. Some families began fleeing the camp on Monday as both sides gathered their fighters for a confrontation and a meeting of influential camp officials, led by Abu Ahmed of Hamas and Munir al Maqdah, a rogue Fatah commander with close ties to the Islamist groups who maintains a powerful militia in the camp.

Mr Fadel and Mr Maqdah then gathered a committee that included members of the Islamist groups, Mr Issa, and several influential Islamic authorities in the area, including Sheikh Jamal Khattab of the camp's al Noor Mosque, and a respected cleric from Sidon, Sheikh Maher Hammoud. The group worked throughout the night and hopes to broker a meeting between Mr Issa and the current leader of Usbat, Abu Tarek.

"We have formed a committee to mediate between the two, and other personnel from the camp joined us to end this problem," Mr Fadel said. "I don't think it will escalate, and all should be back to normal after we meet both Lino and Abu Tarek from Usbat. We will remind them that it's only the Israelis who are our enemies, and we should put our efforts together to achieve our right of return, and go back to our land."

The committee negotiated an understanding in which Usbat members would refrain from entering areas of the camp directly controlled by Mr Issa's men and would primarily remain in the southern quarter of the camp, considered theirs. But although Mr Fadel insisted that the situation in the camp was better than the Lebanese media was portraying it, Abu Hani of Fatah disagreed that the situation was close to resolution.

"A long meeting last night in the camp gathered all the political factions from the camp," he said. "All agreed on the [importance of the] unity of the camp and the safety of people. Let's give it three or four days to see how this truce will work. I personally can't guarantee any thing, but only hope that people of this camp will stop shooting each other." mprothero@thenational.ae