SIDON/BEIRUT: Unlike previous years, the scrutiny placed on the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in 2018 was on par with that of another of Sidon’s camps, Mieh Mieh, where Palestinian security sources say eyes will stay trained on both in 2019.
Various security incidents struck Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh, ranging from limited clashes and assassinations in the former, to one of the bloodiest fights in years in the latter.
Regardless of the security incident, all had the same result: The city of Sidon was constantly a source of concern for security officials, hence being on the radar of Lebanese authorities and Palestinian officials.
“The Lebanese authorities have been resorting to preemptive security measures, whereby both camps and the Lebanese areas that surround them have been turned into security zones tightened with these measures to prevent a spillover into Sidon,” a source told The Daily Star.
The security situation in both Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh also exacerbated the tough living conditions of their residents.
The Palestinian sources predict that the situation in the camps will remain on the front burner in 2019 for various reasons, “mainly because the reasons that led to several of these security matters ... this year are still present,” another source said.
The second source noted that one potential cause of future tension is the presence of people wanted by the Lebanese state who have sought refuge mainly in Ain al-Hilweh but in Mieh Mieh as well, especially several fugitives who do not enjoy the support of Palestinian factions.
This remains an issue despite the fact that more and more wanted people in Ain al-Hilweh handed themselves over to the Lebanese Army’s Intelligence Branch so their security file could be sorted out.
“Previous incidents that took place in the camps showed that some of those wanted were being remotely mobilized based on regional agendas that ... [use] the camps as a mailbox to send certain messages,” the source said.
Coupled with the United States’ decision this year to cut funds to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees and open its embassy in Israel in occupied Jerusalem, the developments in 2018 have made both secular and Islamic Palestinian factions more cautious than in previous years on the delicacy of the upcoming stage.
Speaker Nabih Berri even renewed an initiative to revive a joint framework to bring rival Palestinian factions together to work toward their common cause.
As the year comes to an end, The Daily Star has summarized key security and military incidents that shaped the southern city of Sidon and its Palestinian refugee camps in 2018:
MIEH MIEH, BLOODIEST CLASHES IN YEARS
In terms of major clashes, Mieh Mieh overshadowed the other camps in the country. The situation in the camp, which is located in the Christian-dominated town of Mieh Mieh, began deteriorating in mid-2018, before bursting into full-fledged clashes in October.
The tensions started in March when unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mohammad Abu Mugheisib, deputy head of the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian National Security Forces. Mugheisib reportedly belonged to the Fatah Movement.
The situation in the camp took a turn for the worse in July, when a reported assassination attempt of former Ansar Allah head Jamal Sleiman was thwarted. One of the suspects in the attempt, 27-year-old Bilal Zeidan, was found dead, his body hanging in the Ansar Allah headquarters, where he was being detained. Zeidan himself was a member of Ansar Allah.
A statement released at the time by the group, which is backed by Hezbollah, alleged that Zeidan had sworn on the Quran that he had been tasked by a spy network to carry out the operation by planting explosives.
Tension in the camp between Ansar Allah and rival Fatah further deteriorated following the attempted assassination of Fayek Abu Mugheisib, the father of Mohammad Abu Mugheisib.
Then, in October, the volatile situation in Mieh Mieh exploded in clashes between Ansar Allah and Fatah that continued for weeks, causing extensive damage to properties, cars and shops. The violent fighting also instilled fear in the residents of Mieh Mieh, who called on the state to take necessary measures to contain the situation.
The clashes killed at least five people and wounded upward of 25 more, and eventually led Sleiman to withdraw from the camp and head to Syria as part of an agreement.
The clashes also prompted the Army to temporarily take up positions on the outskirts of the camp.
Since the beginning of 2018, the city known as Lebanon’s southern capital also faced one security event after another, beginning on Jan. 14 with the attempted assassination of Mohammad Hamdan, an official from the Hamas Movement.
Hamdan, who is reportedly in Hamas’ inner circle in Lebanon, escaped with minor wounds after a half-kilogram bomb had been planted under the front seat of his silver BMW that was detonated when he opened a car door.
Hamdan, who is also known as Abu Hamza, was wounded in the explosion, which took place in the residential neighborhood of Al-Bustan al-Kabir.
Investigations revealed that Israel had been involved in the assassination attempt through a network, which Lebanon’s Interior Ministry confirmed. Israel later denied involvement in the attack.
One of the suspects in the bombing was eventually handed over to Lebanese authorities by Turkey after he fled the country.
Outside the camps, the city of Sidon at times suffered collateral damage from the clashes inside. Properties nearby were hit by stray bullets, and sniper fire would prompt shops and souks to shut down. The unrest caused many residents to flee to the city for safety.
Ain al-Hilweh has for years been known as a safe haven for fugitives, in large part because Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are considered off-limits to the Army and security sources.
This kept the camp under the scrutiny of the security agencies. Although 2018 proved a relatively calm year for Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh did experience its share of tension and clashes.
On Feb. 9, Palestinian Mohammad Jamal Hamad got into a gunfight with officials from the Fatah Movement in the camp. The exchange of fire claimed the life of Abdel-Rahim al-Maqdah, who was caught in the crossfire as he stood on his balcony.
In April, Hamad was again involved in clashes, which left a member of his family dead, killed a member of the Shraidi family and wounded four others.
Hamad was later handed over to the Lebanese Army by Islamic factions in the camp.
On July 12, a man killed his aunt and burned her body as he was attempting to rob her. He was handed over to Army Intelligence.
A couple of days later, on July 16, a stray bullet shot from inside Ain al-Hilweh took the life of 17-year-old Hussein Hadi.
The teenage Hadi, who lived in the United Arab Emirates with his family, was visiting his grandparents for the summer.
At the time, the family blamed his death on celebratory gunfire from a wedding nearby.
Two months later, on Sept. 14, the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch managed to arrest a Palestinian man accused of having been involved in a 2017 assassination attempt on a Palestinian Embassy security official in Sidon.
Mahmoud Hamad, who is allegedly a member of Ansar Allah, was arrested on suspicion of pushing one of the group’s members to assassinate Brig. Gen. Ismail Sharrouf, the embassy’s intelligence chief.
The next day, Sept. 15, Mohammad al-Arqoub, who is believed to be affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist groups, killed a man named Haitham al-Saadi.
The murder left the camp on edge for days as the Saadi family refused to bury its son before al-Arqoub was handed over.
Just the next week, reports emerged that Lebanese Army Intelligence had arrested someone whom local media dubbed “one of the most important terrorists,” who was hiding in the camp.
The Army lured Bahaaeddine Hujeir outside the camp and then arrested him.
Hujeir is believed to have been linked to Mouin Abu Daher, a suspect in the 2013 bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
Abu Daher was one of the two suicide bombers who allegedly carried out the attack, which resulted in the death of 30 people and wounded more than 150 others.
Finally, the Army this year arrested one of the most prominent passport and identification documents counterfeiters in Ain al-Hilweh.
Hasan Nawfal, known as “Al-Hakim,” was wanted mainly for having forged a passport for Ahmad al-Assir, who led the 2013 Abra clashes against the Army, which killed 20 and injured 150 others.
PROGRESS ON THE CEMENT BARRIER WALL
Throughout the year, the Lebanese Army continued building the cement separation wall around Ain al-Hilweh that it began building two years earlier.
It also installed electronic gates at the camp’s entrances.
But the refugees and other residents in the camp did not welcome the moves and staged protests, prompting the removal of the gates, though the increased security measures deemed necessary by the Army remained in place.
The cement separation wall moved forward in 2018 in a district inside the camp previously occupied by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
AMERICAN MILITARY DELEGATIONS
American military delegations did not stay far from Sidon’s refugee camps in 2018.
U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel visited the areas surrounding the camp in April alongside members of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
On Sept. 2, a separate U.S. military delegation including embassy officials also made a trip to the area. The trips signal the importance that the Americans place on Ain al-Hilweh and the situation in the surrounding areas.