Thursday, May 31, 2007

Here goes another Palestinian camp...

At this moment it is impossible to judge how serious the clashes are, but on Thursday evening heavy fighting broke out in the Ain el Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in the Lebanese city of Saida, around 40 kilometers south of Beirut.

According to Lebanese TV clashes erupted between militants of the group Jund al-Sham (JaS) and fighters of Fatah (PLO). Jund al-Sham is a radical Syrian/Palestinian group, linked to Al Qaeda. Fatah, is the mainstream Palestinian faction.

I've been a couple of times to Ain el Helweh. Although the name stands for The Sweet Eye, it is basically a huge messy and dirty cluster of thousands of little apartments. Like in all Palestinian camps in Lebanon (and in Gaza), people basically live next or on top of each other. No, not a place to start a real-estate company. It is one of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. From Ain el Helwe, many Palestinians have left for Iraq to fight the Americans. When I visited the place - with Fatah guys - you could see all these little offices of all these little factions with fat guys carrying big guns sitting in front of every door. I liked the place, because people were kind of nice to me. But certain area's were off limit - parts of the camp seem to be controlled by Al Qaeda-style islamists. Already in May 2006 fighting broke out between both groups after the islamists of JaS tried to execute a Fatah leader.

Clashes now in Ain el Helwe is a very significant development, because the Lebanese army is still trying to get rid of Fatah al Islam islamists in the Nahr al Bared camp, north of Tripoli. Everybody here in Lebanon seems scared that more camps will be engulfed in unrest and fighting. It now seems to have happened. There are a total of 11 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The main problem is that Fatah isn't very strong anymore in the camps. Like everywhere in the Islamic world, secular Muslims are out of fashion, raging lunatic religious groups are very much in fashion.

Last thing: JaS (which stands for 'Fighters from Damascus') is very much a hardcore Islamic organization. Created in Afghanistan by islamists from Syria and by Palestinians, their aim is to overthrow the secular Syrian government. These JaS guys are basically 'the brothers' of Sunni extremists who took over Hama in Syria in 1982. They were later that year totally crushed by the Syrian army. I've been running around the Nahr al Bared camp for the last ten days, and, after speaking to many, many people in the north of Lebanon, it is clear that JaS has a very positive view of Fatah al Islam.

The question is now: Will the fighting continue in Ain el Helwe? Will JaS defeat Fatah and take over the camp? Will Ain el Helweh become a second Nahr al Bared?

Who says it is ever boring in Lebanon!

Harald Doornbos

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