Colonel Mounir al-Maqdah sat with some Palestinian faction leaders and armed men inside an old building in the center of Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, to accept condolences for the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I remember heading toward him and offering my condolences. We sat for a few minutes and he then bid us farewell himself at the hall’s exit.
This was in 2004 and it was my first meeting with Maqdah. I visited the camp again and met him, along with other faction commanders. Every time I went there, he directed one of his men to accompany me in the camp’s narrow and dangerous alleys crowded by sellers, children and women.
The place also buzzed with wanted fugitives sought by the Lebanese army or intelligence and who have found themselves a safe haven in the camp. Like any foreign journalist who comes to Lebanon, I was willing to make risks and visit the camp to work on a number of investigation reports and interviews.
Most importantly, I was trying to understand the structure and political and social map of the camp, especially amid claims that there is injustice, as residents are in short of the basic elements that constitute a dignified life and suffer from the lack of services, medical aid and job opportunities.
The competition between Fatah and other factions like Hamas, the increased feeling of marginalization and the increase of extremist Islamic rhetoric made it easy to attract young men especially that they are financed from outside the campHassan Al Mustafa
Camp from hell
The camp is located on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese city of Saida. Following the Lebanese army’s clashes with the fundamentalist group Fateh al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in North Lebanon in 2007, members of the group and al-Qaeda members hid in Ain al-Hilweh. In recent years as military confrontations escalated in Syria, Ain al-Hilweh became an incubator for fighters.
Young men thus joined extremist groups particularly al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Arab and foreign fighters, including fighters from the Gulf, also hid in the camp before and after they went to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. This led security authorities to intensify their military and intelligence work so the camp does not turn into a den that exports terrorism to neighboring countries.
The consequences of disorder
The clashes earlier this month in the camp between the joint Palestinian security force and fundamentalist groups headed by Bilal Badr were a natural result of the chaos and misery in the camp.
The competition between Fatah and other factions like Hamas, the increased feeling of marginalization and the increase of extremist Islamic rhetoric made it easy to attract young men especially that they are financed from outside the camp. These young men thus receive monthly salaries that help them aid their families.
The problem in Ain al-Hilweh is complicated and old; however, clashes erupt now and then due to struggle over power inside the camp. As long as weapons and extremism have the strongest influence on people, fundamentalist groups will emerge and expand.
This article was first published in Al Riyadh.
Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.