Ain el Hilwe: A No-Go Zone
I left Beirut around 9 in the morning. At 10 am Ali Abou Hassan, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] political office promised to wait for me at the entrance of Ain el Hilwe camp in Saida. Ain el Hilwe is famous for being the most dangerous Palestinian camp. It remained unrivaled by the camps in both Jordan and Syria. "When the Palestinian revolution started, PFLP [founded in 1967] was one of the main parties. It entered the political scene through the Arab National Movement. We are a Marxist party. Nowadays we are working to strengthen the other Palestinian leftist parties and we carry out an important diplomatic mission in the camps and outside. We want to rearrange the political scene for the benefit of all Palestinians," explained Ali Abou Hassan. He then introduced me to his comrades that were going to help inside the camp.
Some minutes later, I met with Wissam, a 30 year-old member of PFLP, volunteer for various socio-humanitarian causes and my guide for the day. I liked Wissam's action of staging a youth strike to protest against the lack of security in the camp. It is a sign that individuals and small groups seem to be willing to move beyond the incitement of violence and find new ways to address decades-old problems. It was Wissam who wrote down in his notebook every single attack that happened in the camp for the past few months. There were more than ten incidents at the time of my visit there, and a few more took place afterwards.
Nothing has changed since I last saw Ain el Hilwe in 2005. Aside from the two main streets and the souk [market], the rest of the camp is in very poor condition. The signs of poverty, underdevelopment and carelessness are everywhere. Furthermore, the sight of teens with weapons alongside adults made me uneasy. I do not trust youngsters with weapons. I do not like weapons regardless of the age of those who carry them. It is a vicious circle. Those young men cannot afford to go to school, even to the public ones where one still needs money for books, transport, pocket money, and so on. Thus, they join a group for a salary. Little money is better than no money. However, the impact on their lives and the consequences are tremendous. Unemployment is one of the major social problems in the camp, and security jobs appear to be among the few available for anyone eager to get a paycheck, a broader access to weapons, and rarely if ever, to embrace a cause.
I went to Al Nour mosque to meet Sheikh Jamal Khatab. The Sheikh is fairly well known for promoting an ideology similar to some extent to that of al Qaeda. There are four main Islamic groups active in Ain al Hilwe: Hamas, Jihad Movement, Islamic Struggle Movement and Liberation Party. The Islamic Council meets weekly in order to discuss the new security developments, and there is also a follow up committee alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] and the allied groups. There were only men at the entrance of the mosque, and being an uncovered woman, I raised some eyebrows. I was not sure if Sheikh Katab would be willing to meet me, but I made it clear that I was not about to leave without a dialog, even a brief one.
Sheikh Katab’s office as well as the cultural center of his group is located on the two floors above the mosque. I was asked to wait in the library. After some minutes, time that I used to browse through the available titles, I was shown the way to the next floor by one of the armed bodyguards. After the usual greetings, the bodyguard put two veils in front of me. No words were spoken, but I understood the message. I had to cover my head. I could have refused. I did not, being aware that Sheikh Katab was not someone I would have the opportunity to meet every day; moreover, I was on his terrain and implicitly had to follow their rules. I chose the black veil. It was rather loose since I had no idea how to secure it tightly, but I felt that this was more of a PR maneuver than anything else. Strangely, it seemed that having my hair covered was more important for the bodyguard than for the Sheikh.
Sheikh Katab is a graduate of the renowned American University of Beirut [AUB] and a charismatic interlocutor. "We are active in Ain el Hilwe, and our ideology is based on Islamic beliefs and Sharia. Our political background is the Palestine problem, and we struggle to liberate our country." I asked the Sheikh how the Islamic groups were succeeding in their struggle to achieve whatever objectives they have regarding Palestine, while working in the camps. "In the past it was somehow different, because all Palestinians went to the South. The border was free. Now it’s more of a struggle through political means." Sheikh Katab used his diplomatic skills, but I insisted on knowing whether or not his group was helping Hizballah in any way. "We don't mind to do so, although Hizballah in these days has its own policy with regard to this aspect. It considers that sharing the struggle with other parties may cause some problems for them, for this reason it has monopolized it."
Two of the Islamic groups are stealing the show from the others, namely Osbat al Ansar and Jund al Sham. Their names are often in the media, but this is not due to their adherence to some type of religious principles. Although they use religious principles as a cover along with their charitable, hospitable nature, these groups are most often mentioned in media reports for the clashes they start or are somehow involved in. "With respect to Jund al Sham, they were members of other Islamic groups and they were dismissed so they formed a new group. A faction of Fatah tries to assassinate, from time to time, members of Jund al Sham, without any clear reason for it..." Jund al Sham gathers when they feel in danger, to support each other." In terms of numbers, I understood that Osbat al Ansar is more like Goliath, while Jund al Sham has approximately thirty constant members. Thanks to the PFLP protection, I was able to see the area controlled by Osbat al Ansar and Jund al Sham. If I hadn’t known that I was at Ain el Hilwe I could have easily mistaken the place for Kabul. Armed men with beards, some with military-like trousers, others with shalvars, no children on the streets - this is a no-go zone for many in the camp, not to mention for outsiders. I remember seeing only one woman wearing a chador, head to toe, but she quickly entered one of the buildings at the sound of our car passing by.
There are groups, the Sheikh said, as well as intelligence services that try to use the Palestinians, but they do their best to stay isolated. Sheikh Katab named only the United States as a country that is no stranger to such attempts through their allies in Lebanon. However, he refrained from naming Arab or Muslim countries that might pursue similar objectives. "Especially in May when there were big events in Lebanon, the camps were isolated and we did not interfere, even though some groups, like Ansar Allah received support from Hizballah. When Palestinians are found in certain Lebanese groups, they will say that the Palestinians are destroying their country. We are aware of it, and we stay away." It was a moment when neither the Sheikh nor I seemed to believe that his answer was more than circular language meant to hide the truth. I wondered why there is the need to hold on to weapons, taking into consideration the status of Palestinians as guests and the fact that no one is going to kill them. No one targets them in the country. "We don't know that... the Lebanese are killing each other; why not kill the Palestinians later? Some of them want to push us from this country, and we have to defend ourselves. However, wrong acts are done with these weapons from time to time, but we don't feel safe in Lebanon."
Before leaving I asked the Sheikh what he means when he speaks of Palestine. I think of the Palestinian territories, but I sensed he would have a different answer. "Palestine is for Palestinians, and it was theirs’ before. There were Jews and Christians and other sects, and we lived in one state. We cannot accept being ruled by Jews who have come from all over the world to occupy our land. We accept that Jews were with us; we don't say that we want to dismiss them. They escaped from Europe to find peace in our countries, but unfortunately these countries supported them to dismiss us."
Ahmad Abd el-Hadi is Hamas leader of all the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. I met him at the Hamas headquarters where the party also has a TV station. I learned that in Ain el Hilwe there are three TV channels, and apparently the one run by Hamas is quite successful. "After 2006 the relationship with Fatah was far from being good, and it reflects on the relations we have in Lebanon and elsewhere. There are contacts between us, but there is no cooperation inside the camp. We always demand to work together, to have a program that serves the rights of the refugees in Lebanon, but they [Fatah] refuse it. The security is the most sensitive issue in the camp. There are Islamic groups that we don't work with, like Jund al Sham, that create problems, and there is a conflict within Fatah between Sultan Abou Aynen and Abbas Zaki. Sultan wants to be strong in Ain el Hilwe and to have all the authority in his hands, and Abbas Zaki wants the very same thing; hence the tensions." Hamas addresses the security problem in two ways: By cooperating with the official Palestinian groups and by having contacts with the Lebanese authorities. "We are doing what we can to prevent these groups from creating problems. There is a contact with Lebanese intelligence to pressure Fatah, both Sultan and Abbas Zaki and others not to add more problems to what we are already facing."
The Palestinians’ main concern - right, left and center - is not to have a second Nahr el Bared. In spite of the power struggle for influence - and I suspect some financial revenues are also involved - they know very well that their problems will at the very least double if Ain el Hilwe or Baddawi become the new Nahr el Bared. There is no urgency on the side of the Arab world or the international community to reconstruct Nahr el Bared. Recently, Bahia Hariri, the Education Minister who is the sister of slain Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause promised to speed up the process, since winter is around the corner and thousands of families live in miserable conditions and extremely crowded places. Some people are against the reconstruction and possible modernization of the camp. The Lebanese, especially the Christians and Shias have reason to fear a possible naturalization of the Palestinians, although officials, both Palestinian and Lebanese have repeatedly said that this will never happen. It comes as no surprise though that some if not most of the brother and sister Arab countries, the international community and Israel would welcome such a step. Nonetheless, if the camps continue to be a safe haven for criminals that relentlessly try to damage Lebanon, the Lebanese might not hesitate to use the army in order to stop the propagation of chaos.
Nahr el Bared events could have been used to demilitarize all camps. Either the Palestinians enter civilization, live according to the laws of the country and give their weapons to the Lebanese state or pay the price for harboring criminals. This did not happen, because in some respects the Lebanese political leaders are no better than the Palestinian ones.
Given the Nahr el Bared precedent, the conclusion is that neither Fatah nor Hamas and their respective allies did a very good job in terms of security. Ahmad Abd el Hadi explained that: "Nahr el Bared was different than Ain el Hilwe. The Islamic groups came from outside and had an unacceptable behavior. Hamas, Fatah and others could not prevent them from doing so because we were not the strongest in the camp. Furthermore, some Arab countries, al Qaeda and other parties also had a role to play and we all saw what happened." When I asked if they are likely to be successful in their endeavor to protect Ain el Hilwe and Baddawi from being used by outside groups, he answered: "I don't know, but we are serious and determined to succeed."
Knowing that the Hamas leadership is hosted by Syria, I pointed out that Hamas too is at the hands of the Syrian regime, as for example other Palestinian groups that have strong ties with Saudi Arabia. "If our political office is in Syria, it does not mean that the Syrians order us. There is cooperation with Syria, but we are aware that Syria has its own agenda. Furthermore, the decisions in Hamas are made by a council and not by one individual that can be pressured. We work with those inside Palestine and in prisons to reach decisions that benefit all Palestinians. They [Syrians] support the resistance cause, but they don't want to fight it themselves. They play well in policy and they support us in order to force Israel to make peace with Syria, and in this way, we will have our rights respected." The problems of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are many, and most have to do with the lack of security and with a steady deterioration of the socio-humanitarian status.
There is enough blame to go around from the Palestinian leaders in the camps, and outside, to the Lebanese authorities and to the many countries that pretend to be Lebanon's and Palestinians’ friends. The truth is more ugly than most would like to admit. However, by hiding or ignoring it, it won't go away. At the highest levels, I suspect, no one truly cares about the Palestinian cause and resistance. If the Arabs point the finger towards Israel, they should start looking in their own yard for doing their utmost to not look for suitable solutions for all involved parties. Imagine the politics of the Middle East without the Palestinian card. That would mean political suicide for the dictators, kings and authoritarian leaders of the Arab world, and a reintegration into normalcy for their people. The refugees themselves would have a more decent life provided their leaders would see them less as a mass to maneuver and more as human beings.
After a day spent in Ain el Hilwe, I realized for the umpteenth time that in the Middle East everything is intertwined. As I walked towards the Lebanese military checkpoint, I remembered that I asked Ali Abou Hassan if he still believed in armed resistance. His reply was that they trust all ways of resistance, including the armed one. Maybe I am too much of an idealist, but in my mind the very fact that other forms of resistance are conceivable might be a tiny step towards a realistic understanding of the region's problems and their causes. There is no easy way out, but there is certainly a pressing need to get things moving in the right direction.