SIDON, Lebanon: United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis made his first visit to Ain al-Hilweh Thursday.
The often restive Palestinian refugee camp has not made headlines for conflict recently, but shortly after Kubis left a shooting took place, leaving four people wounded.
The incident appeared unrelated to Kubis’ presence in the camp.
During his visit, Kubis toured schools in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, where funding issues were the top concern for students worried that cuts might lead their institutions to close and jeopardize their futures.
“I am impressed to see the determination of the students to learn. ... They gave me excellent messages that I will deliver to politicians in this country and also to the international community,” Kubis told reporters after the visit, which was his first to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon since taking on his new role in February, according to an UNRWA statement. He was accompanied by UNRWA’s Director in Lebanon Claudio Cordone.
In August, the United States, which in the past had supplied nearly 30 percent of UNRWA’s budget, suspended roughly $300 million in planned assistance, leaving UNRWA schools across the Middle East and North Africa with a large budget deficit.
One of the educational facilities the U.N. officials toured was Sammouh High School, where students showed Kubis a painting depicting Palestinian heritage and traditional dress. Sammouh’s Director Yasser Khaled told the delegation it was made as part of an international competition to express Palestinian heritage visually.
The UNRWA statement said that agency officials briefed Kubis on the camp’s situation and the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees there.
In addition to Sammouh High School, the U.N. official visited Bissan Secondary School.
“I am grateful for the hospitality and warm welcome I received today from the residents of Ain al-Hilweh,” Kubis said.
“I commend the efforts of my UNRWA colleagues, who continue to provide essential services to the Palestine refugees in Lebanon despite the financial constraints that the agency continues to face.”
Cordone reinforced UNRWA’s commitment to its mandate. “Our support to Palestine refugees is key for the implementation of the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees, until a just and lasting solution to their plight is achieved,” he said.
“We continue to count on the support of the whole U.N. family in achieving our goals.”
Kubis also underscored the importance of ongoing dialogue, and welcomed cooperation between Lebanese authorities and Palestinian factions.
“Building mutual understanding and trust between the two communities remains key to improving livelihoods and preserving stability and security in Ain al-Hilweh and the neighboring areas,” he said.
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are considered to be off-limits to Lebanese security forces, which need to cooperate with Palestinian factions to capture fugitives.
Ain al-Hilweh in particular has been considered a safe haven for terrorists fleeing arrest, and the camp has on different occasions witnessed deadly clashes between factions.
Minutes after Kubis left the camp, a shooting took place that left four wounded, including Youssef Bilal al-Arqoub, the son of a notorious Islamist.
Arqoub was critically wounded when he was shot by Khaled Alaaeddine, also known as Al-Khomeini, in the camp’s Safsaf neighborhood.
A Palestinian source told The Daily Star that Arqoub’s family responded with sniper fire in the neighborhood, leading to a shootout that left three others wounded. There appeared to be no link between the U.N. officials’ tour and the shootings.
Arqoub, believed to be affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist groups, is the son of Bilal Arqoub, a militant with ties to Al-Qaeda.
Alaaeddine is an official with the Islamist group Osbat al-Ansar. The Safsaf neighborhood is largely dominated by the camp’s Islamist factions, where Osbat al-Ansar in particular wields great influence.
The source said that Arqoub’s relationship with Osbat al-Ansar had deteriorated recently and become very tense after provocations by Arqoub.
Syrian Kamal al-Dawoudi, who is a bodyguard of Islamic Jihad Movement head Sheikh Jamal Khattab, was among those wounded in the shootout.
In a telephone call with The Daily Star, Khattab said that his bodyguard had sustained a minor wound to his foot.
The camp’s factions were in talks to ease tensions, he added.
After the shootout, some students in nearby schools, including Sammah and Bissan, left Ain al-Hilweh through secure passages.
They were taken to safety by Lebanese Army soldiers, who were waiting for them at the entrance to the camp.
By Thursday evening, the situation appeared under control.
In late 2018, Arqoub was involved in a dispute with a Fatah Movement member that left a civilian wounded as a result of a stray bullet from the gunfire. Writing by Ghinwa Obeid and Jacob Boswall