Security Forces Deployed in Lebanese Refugee Camp

Palestinian factions agreed on March 4 to form a joint security force for deployment in a southern Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh, following an outbreak of violence at the end of February. The security force, which will not exceed more than 100 service members, will be composed of roughly 60 percent Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) forces and 40 percent local Islamist groups. Colonel Bassam al-Saad will lead the force. A member of Fatah, the secular nationalist party that dominates the PLO, al-Saad will appoint a deputy chief to co-lead the force with him from Hamas, a terrorist Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization. Although Hamas and Fatah have historically rivaled, the two groups began reconciliation after a May 2011 unity agreement.

The new force seeks to prevent future violence following armed conflict that erupted in Ain al-Hilweh towards the end of February. Clashes involving automatic guns and rockets broke out on February 26 between Fatah members and Islamist militants in the camp. By the time a ceasefire was declared on February 28, at least four were injured and two were killed, including 12-year-old Arafat Mustafa, a student at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

UNRWA condemned the violence in a statement on March 1, accusing armed actors of entering three UN- run schools and causing a suspension of most UN health and education services. The Middle East Monitor estimated that violence prevented 5,200 students from “enjoying their right to education.”

Ain al-Hilweh holds 54,116 registered refugees, according to the UNRWA. However, the UN may not have registered the majority of refugees living there. Local camp officials estimate that it contains 120,000 residents, with each apartment within the 1,500 square-meter complex hosting four to six families. An influx of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syrian camps after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has led to overcrowding.

With a large population crammed into limited space, competition for resources and tensions between rivaling Palestinian factions drive frequent conflicts. One intense bout of conflict between armed groups in August 2015 displaced about 3,000 civilian refugees in a week.

Attempts to improve living conditions for Palestinian refugees at Ain al-Hilweh and other camps have proven modest and ineffective. Despite some progressive labor reform, a 2010 UNRWA report found that Palestinians were barred from entering more than 30 professions in Lebanon, contributing to high poverty rates and low financial security.

Some policies peddled as security initiatives have exacerbated tension. In particular, the Lebanese army began construction on a wall surrounding Ain al-Hilweh in November 2016, cited as a measure to prevent terrorist infiltration. Residents expressed outrage at the wall’s construction, comparing it to Israel’s controversial barrier on the West Bank. Many saw the wall as a means for turning the refugee camp into a prison-like environment.

In response to protests, the army briefly halted the wall’s construction but eventually continued. On February 23, The Daily Star reported that only 15 to 20 percent of the wall remains to be completed. With its completion and the addition of new security forces, the residents of Ain al-Hilweh will face a much more securitized environment. Whether such an environment will successfully crack down on armed conflict or fuel instability by raising tensions will shape future conditions for these refugees.