Profile: The Ain El-Helwa Refugee Camp

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 10 Aug 2023

The recent clashes in Lebanon’s Ain El-Helwa Palestinian Refugee Camp are a reminder of the unresolved Palestinian refugee crisis that started in 1948

The Ain El-Helwa Refugee Camp
Houses riddled with bullets after the deadly clashes between Palestinian factions in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain El-Hilwa near the southern port city of Sidon (photo: AP)

 

Refugee camps are pockets of temporary settlement for displaced people that are inevitably forgotten as they morph into permanence. Palestinians, the subjects of the world’s longest refugee crisis, are no exception.

One of the oldest Palestinian refugee camps, Ain El-Helwa in Lebanon, made it into the news recently following the eruption of violent factional clashes that continued for days. The violence resulted in the deaths of 13 people, 60 injuries, and wide-ranging damage in Lebanon’s biggest refugee camp.

The events began as a vendetta-motivated shooting of three men affiliated with the Islamist militant group Jund Al-Sham on 29 July.

The group then retaliated by attacking outposts of Fatah, the main Palestinian faction in Ain El-Helwa, triggering violent exchanges between the two sides that culminated in the assassination of the Commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces in Sidon Abu Ashraf Al-Armoush, and his companions on 30 July.

In the sea of gunfire and hand and rocket-propelled grenades that terrorised the civilian population, a mortar shell landed inside a nearby Lebanese military camp, injuring one soldier.

The violence forced hundreds of families to flee their homes and seek shelter in mosques. Most of them are second or third-generation displaced Palestinians whose parents or grandparents settled in the camp in 1948 and have lived in dire conditions since.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was forced to suspend activities in the camp during the clashes, depriving many residents of much-needed assistance.

A cautious calm has prevailed in the camp since last week when the guns appeared to fall silent following at least two ceasefire attempts and intense negotiations between actors inside Ain El-Helwa and the divided Palestinian leadership in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

But while life seems to have returned to normal, many remain traumatised by the political dynamic in the camp, which threatens the already compromised qualify of life.

For decades now, the camp has been both a home to and hotbed for various Palestinian factions whose leadership exists in the OPT and elsewhere. As a result, both regional and inter-Palestinian conflicts have resonated in the camp, which is heavily armed and falls for practical purposes outside the Lebanese state’s jurisdiction.

A 2017 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) describes the camp as “a microcosm of the Palestinian political universe, with virtually all Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Syria-aligned (‘Tahaluf’), extremist, and Islamist factions represented and in constant competition for influence and power.”

This situation has produced a tense and confrontational environment in the camp characterised by lawlessness and frequent break-downs into episodes of armed violence.

As part of a decades-old agreement, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the country’s national army, only mans checkpoints to the camp, which is surrounded by a wall. Access for people and building materials is controlled by the army, but security and governance in Ain El-Helwa are the responsibility of Popular Committees and Palestinian factions.

The camp, which stretches over an area of 1.5 km near the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon in the south of the country and is home to over 70,000 Palestinian refugees, is known as the “capital of the Diaspora.”

It was established in 1948 by the International Committee for the Red Cross to shelter Palestinians driven out of their homes by Zionist militias after the creation of Israel in 1948 in an event known as the Nakba, or the Palestinian catastrophe.

Many of the 750,000 Palestinians forcibly expelled in 1948 settled in refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The sheer size of the exodus prompted the UN to create the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to carry out direct relief programmes when it went into action in 1950.

By 1952, the agency had begun operations in the camp, providing essential services that have expanded substantially since, as both the population and area of the camp have swelled over 70 years while the refugee crisis has remained outside the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for two decades.

There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon alone.

Today, the inhabitants of the Ain El-Helwa Camp are affected by multiple overlapping crises: the long-term vulnerabilities of the Palestine refugees in Lebanon because of restrictions on the right to work; Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse; and overcrowding and serious safety and security hazards.

The worsening socioeconomic situation has exacerbated the mental health and psychosocial needs of many, while increasing stress has contributed to greater tensions or conflicts within families and between individuals, according to UNRWA reports.

Street crime, theft, and drug use are proving a significant problem as poverty and desperation grow.

The camp also hosts a large number of Palestine refugees displaced from other parts of Lebanon, particularly from Tripoli, who arrived during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s and in the aftermath of the Nahr Al-Bared conflict in 2007.

The war in Syria has also led to an additional influx of Syrian refugees and Palestine refugees from Syria into the camp.

While UNRWA does not run the Ain El-Helwa Camp, its services are considered paramount to its survival and amounting to de facto government services in the absence of any government willing to take responsibility for this and numerous other Palestinian refugee camps.

The services include legal aid and even emergency cash assistance. The agency provides a health centre and eight schools that serve about 60,000 students and also serve those outside the camp.

UNRWA’s services extend to infrastructure such as the paving of roads and alleyways, sanitation, and social and mental health services for its community.

Its website explains that the agency is not responsible for the provision of electricity in the camp and that the Lebanese national grid provides a few hours of electricity a day, while “private entities” operate generators.

Since 2021, the cost of electricity has risen dramatically with the rising cost of fuel, making it increasingly out of range for some and leading to changes in daily life such as not running a fridge or limiting the hours of electricity at night.

The camp is also characterised by an unpredictable security situation, due to the presence of multiple armed actors and the widespread availability of weapons.

While clashes between armed groups have been rare for a number of years, last year Said Alaaeldin, a senior Fatah official, was gunned down on 8 August in the camp by an unknown assassin.

The motives behind Alaaeldin’s assassination, who was responsible for coordination with the Lebanese security forces, remain vague. While tensions followed with some shooting, this was brief and did not cause casualties.

In July-August 2015, fighting between Fatah and the Jund Al-Sham group reportedly left six people dead, over 70 injured, and 3,000 displaced.

Unrest beginning in December 2016 forced UNRWA to close different installations in the camp on at least 18 occasions.

In February 2017, a severe conflict erupted in Ain El-Helwa between PLO factions and Islamist groups following the temporary dissolution of the camp’s Joint Security Force, an inter-factional force aiming to prevent clashes between rival factions and contain extremists.

The clashes caused one death and 10 injuries. Additional clashes in March killed two people in renewed fighting between Fatah and Jund Al-Sham.

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