June 6, 2013
by Avi Melamed
As the war in Syria percolates into Lebanon and Iraq, turning into a massive Sunni-Shiite collision, it is worthwhile to take a close look at another factor in Lebanon – The Palestinians.
Some half a million Palestinians (who are all Sunni) live in Lebanon. They live in large refugee camps scattered throughout most of Lebanon. The biggest one is Ain Al-Hilweh, located next to the city of Sidon, the biggest city in southern Lebanon, which is also predominately Sunni. Other large camps are located in the vicinity of Beirut as well as in the area surrounding Tripoli, the biggest city in northern Lebanon, which similar to Sidon, is also predominately Sunni.
The scenario of a Sunni-Shiite collision in Lebanon deeply concerns the major Palestinian organizations: Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As the war in Syria escalates, these organizations are going the extra mile to make it very clear that they want nothing to do with the war and have no interest to take a side.
Here are some examples of their efforts:
Repeated announcements made by the senior leadership emphasizing their non- involvement policy
Maintaining open communications channels with the Shiites in Lebanon – especially with Hezbollah – and mostly in the area of Sidon and Beirut
Monitoring and restraining Palestinian Salafi Jihadist groups (mainly in the Ain Al-Hilweh camp) who openly call for the Palestinians to stand by the rebels in Syria and to fight Assad and his allies – Hezbollah and the Iranian regime
Avoiding open criticism of Assad’s regime and/or Hezbollah
Yet, it seems as if the Palestinians in Lebanon will find it more and more difficult to distance themselves from the fire:
Thousands of Palestinians fleeing the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, because of the war, are making their way into the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. As an outcome, living conditions and every day life in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are more challenging. The new arrivals report about the atrocities they have experienced in Syria; killing, raping and looting of Palestinians by Assad’s troops is common. The brutality of the Assad regime towards the Palestinians in Syria is fueled with vengeful feelings: Assad does not forget the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad – who enjoyed for many years the warm welcome of his regime – turned their back on him and fled the sinking ship as the war in Syria escalated.
Dozens – if not more – Palestinians have been killed by Assad’s troops in clashes in the Palestinian refugee camps and particularly in the biggest one in Syria – the Al-Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus. Reports about the dismal situation of the Palestinians in Syria ignited an outcry on the Palestinian streets in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Jordan. Accumulating reports indicate growing numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza as well as Jordan and Lebanon have gone to Syria to assist the rebels in the war – the most substantial group to have joined the fight are the Jordanian Salafi Jihadist militants, many of whom are of Palestinian origin. Reportedly a couple hundred Jordanian Jihadists are fighting in Syria and there are dozens of fatalities among them.
One also must remember that the Palestinians are Sunnis. As the war in Syria intensifies, feelings of revenge and hatred continue to rise among Sunnis all around the Arab and Muslim world. The Palestinian leaders in Lebanon cannot ignore these sentiments. Here are some examples of the desire for revenge:
Major Sunni religious leaders throughout the Arab world openly call for a Jihad – a mandatory war – against Assad’s regime as well as against Hezbollah.
In Egypt, a Sunni senior religious official issued a Fatwah (religious ordinance) formally urging Sunni Muslims to launch a Jihad (holy war) in Syria. The official added that “Jihad in Syria is a mandatory obligation (in Arabic – fard al-ayn ) upon all Muslims.” This official is a member of the Iftah Committee (the body which issues Fatwah – religious ordinance) at Al-Azhar University – the most important Sunni theological institution, which is located in Cairo.
In Lebanon, the senior Sunni religious authority of the Lebanon Mountain Area (a geographical region in the northeastern part of Lebanon with a mixed population of Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians, etc.) indirectly encouraged the Sunnis in Lebanon to take up arms and to fight Assad and Hezbollah.
A very significant announcement was also made by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Kardawai, the most known and admired Sunni religious leader in the Muslim world. He recently defined Assad and Hezbollah as “Infidels even worse than Jews.” In a recent sermon he said that if he was younger he would himself go to Syria to fight. Kardawi’s statement is very important for another reason – a couple of weeks ago he visited the Gaza Strip as a formal guest of the Hamas government. His visit was a major political achievement for Hamas who has spared no effort to express their gratitude. It should be mentioned that Kardawi lives in Qatar – a country that is a major supporter of the rebels in Syria – and also a major donor of the Hamas government. By the way, Qatar is also home today for Khalid Masha’al, the Chair of Hamas’ Political Bureau and the Senior Leader of Hamas – his former home was in Damascus.
Sunnis in Lebanon and Iraq are already participating in the Syrian war – whether inside Syria or within their own homeland.
o In the city of Tripoli – the largest city in northern Lebanon – massive clashes have occurred between Sunnis and Alawites, resulting in the killing of dozens. Reportedly, hundreds of families are fleeing the city.
o In the city of Sidon, Sunnis blocked the road leading to the city’s cemetery, preventing Hezbollah from conducting funerals for its militants killed in Syria.
o Angry Palestinian refugees in the Ain Al-Hilweh Refugee Camp – in a formal protest – burnt the food, commodities, and aid packages that Hezbollah had distributed to them. By the way – one can understand their fury – after all, it is partially also because of Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime that these refugees had to flee Syria and go to Lebanon in the first place.
o In Iraq, clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have intensified. For more about the escalating Sunni- Shiite tension in Iraq read my Intelligence Bulletin Immediate Intelligence Bulletin Iraq is on the verge of a violent Sunni-Shiite confrontation, March 2013)
For the above reasons, it is very likely that the major Palestinian organizations (Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) will approach their moment of truth in Lebanon. And the signs are already written on the wall:
Over the last few months shooting incidents have increased In Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp. The parties involved are the Palestinian Salafi-Jihadist groups on the one side and members of the major Palestinian organizations (it has been confirmed that Fatah members have definitely been involved and apparently members of some of the Palestinian organizations affiliated with the Assad regime such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-The General Command and the As-Sa’iqa organization have also been involved) on the other side. Though attributed to “personal rivalry”, it is quite clear that these incidents reflect the growing discontent of the Palestinian Salafi-Jihadsit groups with the policy of “non involvement.” (For more on that subject read my Intelligence Bulletin Clashes in Ain Al- Hilweh, a Palestinian Refugee Camp in South Lebanon, March 2013)
It seems as if the Salafi-Jihadist groups are now taking a proactive position to express their discontent. On Sunday, May 26 two rockets (according to one report – three rockets) were fired at Al Dahya Al Janobiya in the southern quarter of Beirut – the capital of Lebanon. Al Dahya Al Janobiya is the major stronghold of Hezbollah in Lebanon. As many of you may remember from my article Inside Hezbollah’s Private Dominion (February 2012). Though the identity of the shooters is yet unknown, it is very possible that the rockets were launched from one of the Palestinian refugee camps in the area of Beirut. Reliable information indicates that following the incident, Hezbollah contacted the “relevant factors” asking them “to restrain the shooters and make sure that such incident will not take place again.” I tend to assume that the “relevant factors” are in fact the major Palestinian organizations – Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad – with whom, as I have said, Hezbollah conducts, ongoing communication.
In March 2013 in my article Clashes in Ain al-Hilweh – a Palestinian Refugee Camp in South Lebanon I had foreseen the scenario of using Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as a base to launch attacks on Hezbollah in my article. Here is a quote from that article:“…According to unconfirmed information, Sunni-Jihadist militants recently entered Lebanon and are preparing the ground to launch attacks on Hezbollah targets and personnel inside Lebanon. Allegedly, some of these groups’ militants are based in Ain al-Hilweh Camp…The incident in Ain al-Hilweh is a reflection of the war in Syria. This incident could potentially intensify the tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon and specifically between the Sunni-Jihadist groups on the one hand and the Shiite-Hezbollah on the other hand.”
For the time being, the major Palestinian organizations in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad – are doing all they can to distance themselves from being involved in the evolving Sunni-Shiite collision in Lebanon.
The current policy of the major Palestinian groups serves Hezbollah well. Therefore, Hezbollah has no interest in initiating a confrontation with the Palestinians in Lebanon. Hezbollah, fearing a change in the status quo with the Palestinians, is also keeping the lines of communication with the major Palestinian organizations in Lebanon open and flowing.
However, the first cracks in the fragile Shiite-Palestinian understandings in Lebanon are appearing:
On recent – public – occasions, the Hamas Prime Minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Hanyieh, has openly criticized Assad’s regime, declaring that “Hamas can’t support a regime who butchers its own people.” However, as of now, he has not criticized Hezbollah for its involvement in the war in Syria.
Reportedly, following the rocket attack on Hezbollah’s stronghold, Hezbollah demanded Hamas leaders in Lebanon to leave the country. Though this report was denied by both Hezbollah and Hamas people in Lebanon, it may indicate an indirect and delicate signal from Hezbollah to Hamas which aims to make sure that Hamas does not reevaluate its current “non intervention” policy.
The current relationship and arrangements between Hezbollah and the Palestinians in Lebanon are based on fear. It is in both sides’ strategic interests to make sure that the Palestinians in Lebanon are kept out of the evolving Sunni-Shiite confrontation in Lebanon.
Yet, both sides know how fragile the situation is, and all parties are aware and concerned that the situation could violently explode in an instant. Should a broad Sunni-Shiite collision break out in Lebanon, the major Palestinians organizations will not be able to continue to sit on the fence for very long. At some point – even if against their will – they will have to take a side – and they’re not likely to choose Hezbollah. Therefore, Hezbollah can only hope that such a scenario will not unfold.