On May 31, 2017, Fatah commander Col. Bassam al-Saad was juggling three telephones—two mobile phones and one landline—at his office in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh. As the commander of the Joint Palestinian Security Force (JPSF), the defacto military police of the self-governed camp, the colonel was in the process of overseeing the deployment of his roughly 100-strong force. Entering a particularly sensitive area in the war-torn Tiri neighborhood following devastating clashes in April between the JPSF and a local Islamist group, he was also juggling the ratio of police from each political faction to ensure a smooth operation.

Turbulence in the Capital of the Diaspora

With more than 75,000 inhabitants, Ain al-Hilweh hardly resembles a refugee camp in the traditional sense. Originally set up after the exodus from Palestine in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross on the outskirts of the Lebanese southern coastal city Saida, the makeshift tent villages have been replaced over the years by urban landscapes with an aura of permanence. Renowned for its long, winding shopping streets and a prosperous vegetable market, Ain al-Hilweh certainly lives up to its nickname as the “Capital of the Diaspora.”

Nonetheless, life in the camp is marred by unemployment and isolation. In fact, the area is largely fenced in by armed checkpoints, where Lebanese soldiers routinely check the papers of any visitor entering or leaving. This situation is indicative of the Palestinians’ place, or rather lack thereof, in the Lebanese republic. The fragile sectarian system of governance has little room for the roughly 300,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, almost all of whom are Sunnis. Over half of these refugees live in the 12 recognized camps. [1] All have been left on the socio-economic margins of their host state, where they have fewer rights than most visiting foreigners.

Despite these destitute conditions, Palestinians within the camps enjoy a political autonomy that remains unmatched in any other Arab state. The unique autonomy of the Palestinian camps dates back to the Cairo Accords of 1969. In these agreements, the Lebanese state not only allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to continue its resistance against Israel from Lebanese soil, but it was also given sole responsibility over the camp dwellers. The Palestinian guerillas proceeded to build elaborate quasi-state structures within these societies, ranging from revolutionary councils to hospitals and police forces. The camps still function like “states within the state.” However, since the PLO’s crippling military defeat during the Israeli invasion of 1982, determining who the legitimate leaders of these “states” are has been a delicate matter.

In 1983, a growing dissatisfaction with Yasser Arafat’s leadership culminated in a coup within his Fatah movement. As a result, many of the camps fell into the hands of a band of smaller Palestinian rejectionist factions aligned with the Syrian Baath party. As for Ain al-Hilweh, the camp experienced another major mutiny following the signing of the Oslo Accords ten years later, when some of Arafat’s most loyal followers, displeased with the peace process, turned against him and tried to purge his forces from the camp. The PLO and the Fatah movement have since reestablished their presence in Lebanon (as of 1999), but no longer enjoy hegemony within the Palestinian camps.

As the Lebanese authorities remain largely committed to a self-imposed policy of not entering the Palestinian camps, the communities today are self-governed by a complex web of political factions, exile leaderships and militia groups, which all compete for influence. The prevailing power vacuum has also paved the way for more extreme actors to emerge. While the other 11 camps are peaceful for the most part, Ain al-Hilweh has gained a reputation as a violence-prone society and a haven for Islamist militants. The stability of the camp is constantly upset due to a decade-long power struggle between Fatah’s militias and a number of smaller jihadi networks that are found in certain neighborhoods of the camp. In the Lebanese press, the Capital of the Diaspora is often depicted as an “island of insecurity.” [2]

Policing the Diaspora

With the end of Syria’s surrogate reign over Lebanon in 2005, the country’s new government reached out to the PLO in an attempt to improve the relationship between the parties and to discuss the situation of the refugees. More than 12 years of talks hosted by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) have resulted in almost no solutions to the most contentious issues, such as the nearly complete lack of civil rights for Palestinians in their host country and the proliferation of illegal arms in the camps. Nonetheless, the Lebanese state and Palestinian factions have recently concluded informal agreements on security arrangements in the country’s largest camp.

The JPSF largely resulted from debates between the head of Lebanon’s General Security Bureau, General Abbas Ibrahim, and Palestinian leaders in the spring of 2014. [3] The JPSF, which initially consisted of 17 armed Palestinian groups ranging from the Marxist-Leninists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to the militant salafis of Usbat al-Ansar, [4] was intended to restore a power balance at a time when the fault lines of the Syrian war were threatening to spill over into the camps of Lebanon. [5] Moreover, the original 150-strong unit, mostly funded by the PLO, was to coordinate its efforts with the Lebanese army stationed outside of the camp.

It would soon become clear that the parties had different visions for the project. While the Palestinian factions tended to view the JPSF more as a peacekeeping force able to broker internal conflicts and to “solve the problems of the people,” [6] as one faction’s official put it, the Lebanese army expected the force to primarily arrest and hand over outlaws and fugitives holed up in the camp. [7] Commanding a military police force composed of political rivals has proved to be a difficult task in its own right. The JPSF collapsed in February 2017, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated with its lack of progress, fired its commanders, withdrew his contingent and sought to deploy his own security branch in the streets of the camp. [8] Not surprisingly, both Lebanese authorities and oppositional Palestinian factions protested the move. [9] In April, following rounds of negotiations, the Joint Force resurfaced with 100 fighters under a new leadership. Upon its deployment, however, it came under attack by jihadi militants, resulting in the killing of one JPSF member and the injury of two others. The events triggered a six-day war between the JPSF and a jihadi cell, largely laying waste to the Tiri neighborhood in the eastern part of the camp. [10]

Bilal Badr Still at Large

The militant thought to be in charge of the cell that attacked the JPSF was Bilal Badr, a shadowy figure with whom the Lebanese media has been infatuated for years. [11] The 30-something jihadi warrior is surrounded by much mystique—numerous news reports have speculated about his upbringing and how he presumably became radicalized. In Ain al-Hilweh, however, locals couldn’t care less about the gossip of these headlines. Here, Badr and his armed entourage of roughly 30–50 youths are viewed as little more than Mafioso types in jihadi clothing who, depending on the request, are willing to rattle their Kalashnikovs or put them down, for a little bit of cash. The idea of a wildcard like Badr roaming freely around the streets of the camp has become a thorn in the eye of both Palestinian and Lebanese authorities. Thus, when the clashes broke out in April, the Lebanese army reportedly opened the heavily guarded gates of the camp, allowing busloads of Fatah fighters from the movement’s stronghold in the southern Rashidiyeh camp, to assist the JPSF in the battle. [12]

Badr’s cell was dispersed, but the man himself escaped unscathed and is thought to be hiding somewhere in the camp—much to the embarrassment of Palestinian leaders. Adding insult to injury, the eastern Tiri district now resembles a bullet-riddled ghost town reminiscent of the war-torn Yarmouk district of the Syrian capital. Hundreds of civilian camp dwellers are currently unable to return to their homes, and harsh discussions are raging over who should pay for the damages estimated at a staggering 6 million dollars. [13]

Who Will Pay?

Ain al-Hilweh’s Troika leadership—consisting of the PLO, the Damascus-based Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF) and the Islamic Forces (a coalition of local Islamists)—has lately sent separate delegations to both local and international NGOs to discuss the prospect of rebuilding the Tiri neighborhood. In this matter, these parties have put pressure on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is in charge of infrastructure in the camps. UNRWA, however, which has been contending with cutbacks and financial crises, is not eager to embark on a costly project of this caliber—particularly as none of the Palestinian factions are able to guarantee that the clashes will not erupt anew and bury the neighborhood in rubble once again. [14] For once, UNRWA seems to have the backing of the camp’s civilian population. Frustrated residents of Tiri have blocked off Upper Street, one of two main streets running through the camp, with a large tent and a pile of garbage, to protest the inaction of their leadership. “Let’s be very clear,” said a young woman who lost her family home in April’s clashes. “It was not UNRWA that fired shells at our house. I call on Fatah, I call on Hamas. I hold them responsible. I won’t back down before they repay every lira. They have the means.” [15]

However, in Ain al-Hilweh the boundaries separating armed factions from civilians, and aggressors from victims, are not always clear-cut and obvious to everyone. When I visited the camp last May, a commander from the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) took me on a tour of his family home in Tiri, which he had begun rebuilding with his own hands. “The only thing I want is to move back here with my children,” he said, with hope and despair in his voice. “We just want to live in our house. That’s the only thing that matters now.” [16]

Small Victories

Back at the JPSF offices, the force’s new leader Col. Bassam al-Saad was working hard to figure out the logistics of redeploying his force in the Tiri district. For weeks factions had debated how best to retake the Qaaet al-Yousef checkpoint, which is on the edge of the neighborhood and in a particularly sensitive spot due to being in the vicinity of the home of Bilal al-Arqoub, Bilal Badr’s right-hand man. The effort was not without an element of danger. Fearing that an overrepresentation of Fatah militiamen would provoke new acts of aggression, al-Saad made sure to fill up the checkpoint with members of other political factions. “I need one from Hamas, one from Islamic Jihad, and give me three from [the pro-Syrian group Fatah] al-Intifada,” he instructed his affiliates over the phone. At one point, too many Fatah members had deployed, and were immediately and firmly asked to pull back by the colonel. “Finding a sense of balance between the factions is essential,” said al-Saad, describing a process that seemed nearly as complicated as that of forming a Lebanese cabinet. [17] The JPSF retook Qaaet al-Yousef without a hitch. For a conflict-ridden society like Ain al-Hilweh, small victories like these matter. For the time being, the responsibility of the Joint Force seems to rest safely in the hands of Colonel Bassam al-Saad. In fact, the JPSF’s April operation was the first time the camp’s nascent military police had managed to stay together and not disintegrate during a crisis. Nonetheless, hardly anyone around these parts believes that a force of about 100 armed members will be able to treat the substantial, underlying socio-economic circumstances that continue to drive tensions in the overpopulated and impoverished camp. As Palestinians in Lebanon find themselves living on the margins of their host state, without the right to own property or inherit, where work permits are generally hard to come by, it is no surprise that young and disenfranchised camp dwellers find an outlet for their frustration in militant networks such as that of Bilal Badr’s group. Therefore, it is particularly worrying that Lebanese authorities are currently in the process of completing construction of a five-meter tall cement wall around Ain al-Hilweh. The Lebanese authorities say the wall is intended to entrap the outlaws of the camp—a measure deemed necessary because the JPSF has not lived up to their expectations in handing over criminals. [18] However, as inhabitants of Ain al-Hilweh are quick to note, the last thing these refugees need now is more isolation.


[1] According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of Palestinian refugees registered with the agency in Lebanon is more than 449,000. However, UNRWA acknowledges that many have since left the country and that the number of “registered” refugees does not reflect the actual number, which is thought to be 300,000 or less. (Author’s interview with UNRWA’s Press Office in Beirut, September 29, 2015.)
[2] “In the island of Ain al-Hilweh, the remnants of factions and the vanguards of al-Qaida,” NOW Media, January 13, 2014. [Arabic] [3] Amal al-Khalil, “A new security plan for Ain al-Hilweh,” al-Akhbar, April 29, 2014.
[4] Muhammad Dahshe, “The security force deploys in Ain al-Hilweh, under Palestinian consensus and Lebanese cover,” al-Balad, July 9, 2014. [Arabic] [5] Author’s interview with Munir al-Maqdah, former head of the JPSF, Ain al-Hilweh, September 21, 2015.
[6] Author’s interview with Abu Sharif Aqal, a leader from the salafi group Usbat al-Ansar, Ain al-Hilweh, September 22, 2015.
[7] Author’s interview with an official from Lebanon’s General Security Bureau, Beirut, June 1, 2017.
[8] Muhammad Dahshe, “The resolution of the Joint Security Force in Ain al-Hilweh,” al-Balad, February 20, 2017. [Arabic] [9] Author’s interview with Ali Barake, leader of Hamas in Lebanon from 2009–2017, Beirut, May 29, 2017.
[10] “The Joint Palestinian Force deploys in the Ain al-Hilweh camp,” Al-Mayadeen, April 13, 2017. [Arabic] [11] Ahmad Muntash, “Who is Badr, the ’Rambo’ of Ain al-Hilweh?,” an-Nahar, April 10, 2017. [Arabic] [12] Author’s interview with PLO official in Ain al-Hilweh, speaking on the condition of anonymity, May 31, 2017.
[13] Radwan Murtada, ”Victims of Ain al-Hilweh await their compensation: Everyone is evading the question!” al-Akhbar, May 18, 2017. [Arabic] [14] ”UNRWA announces reduction of international personnel,” UNRWA press statement, June 29, 2015: https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/official-statements/unrwa-announces-reduc….
[15] Author’s field notes, May 16, 2017.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Author’s interview with Bassam al-Saad, Ain al-Hilweh, May 31, 2017.
[18] Author’s interview with Lebanese security chief, Beirut, June 1, 2016.

How to cite this article:

Erling Lorentzen Sogge "Managing Security Webs in the Palestinian Refugee Camp of Ain al-Hilweh," Middle East Report 282 (Spring 2017).

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