Omen In The Ghetto
by Giles Trendle
Global Profile - 31st March 2003
This article originally appeared on GlobalProfile (http://www.globalprofile.co.uk)
The US and British war on Iraq may be creating the perfect environment for a proliferation of support for Bin Laden‘s militant global jihad. The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain il-Hilweh in south Lebanon provides a good example of the growing lurch towards radicalism and militancy in the nooks and crannies of the region.
Ain il-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon is the arena of conflict between Yasser Arafat‘s mainstream Fatah Movement and a new breed of Palestinian Islamic militancy. The camp has been shaken by a number of explosions and grenade attacks since three people were killed in clashes between Islamists and Fatah gunmen last August.
The Islamists do not belong to Hamas or Islamic Jihad - the familiar Palestinian militant groups. The Ain il-Hilweh militants belong to lesser-known groups which adhere to the Salafi school of Islamic thought followed by Osama Bin Laden. These groups also share Bin Laden‘s jihad objectives of supplanting all Arab nations (including any future Palestinian state); defeating the United States; and establishing a global Islamic empire.
The largest of these Islamic groups is the Osbat al-Ansar (League of Partisans) which is on the U.S. State Department‘s list of terrorist organisations. Another group is the Osbat Al-Noor (League of the Enlightened), an even more extremist faction of dissidents.
In the privacy of their homes, some camp inhabitants speak of their trepidation at the new breed of Palestinian Islamic militancy. Stories are told of several people being shot recently for allegedly drinking alcohol in the camp. The Osbat groups are suspected of being behind the killings. It is difficult to gather independent information about these groups since they rarely make statements and refuse to talk to journalists.
The heightened tension in Ain il-Hilweh suggests the groups are now beginning to assert their presence more forcefully - and first in their line of fire are the Arafat loyalists in the camp.
"Some suspicious organisations and agents put bombs at Fatah bases and houses to shake up security in the camp and create chaos," said Ibrahim Shayeb, a Fatah official in the camp whose home was bombed last November by unknown assailants.
Local observers fear a tit-for-tat conflict between Fatah and the Islamic militants could escalate into a full-scale civil war within the camp.
On March 1st a car bomb exploded in the camp killing an Egyptian Islamist known as Faruq Al-Masri. A previously unknown group calling itself Youth of the Palestinian Struggle claimed responsibility, saying Al-Masri was a member of the Osbat Al-Noor and that the attack was aimed at "cleansing the camp of suspicious elements." Interestingly, Al-Masri‘s name had appeared in a letter sent last year by Israel‘s UN ambassador to Secretary-General Kofi Annan asserting that some 200 Al-Qaeda fighters had set themselves up in Ain il-Hilweh. The letter cited Al-Masri as the leader of this group.
There is no clear evidence to corroborate allegations that Al-Qaeda has established a base in Ain il-Hilweh. Lebanese officials deny there are Al Qaeda members in the camp, which the Lebanese authorities do not enter and which are controlled by Palestinian factions. However, some in the camp recognise that Bin Laden‘s global jihad is winning new followers among the despairing camp-dwellers.
"People here in the camp are returning to Islam because it‘s the only door left open after the world closed all the doors on them," said Abu Khaled, a Palestinian journalist living in Ain il-Hilweh. "The West is pushing the people into the arms of Osama Bin Laden, because they see how the West is not credible and does not follow the lofty ideas that it advocates."
Ain il-Hilweh camp has for many years been a stronghold of Arafat. The possible spread of Bin Laden‘s influence among the refugees may be worrying the Palestinian leader. Arafat recently criticised Bin Laden for exploiting the Palestinian cause for his own purposes. In an effort to shore up support, Arafat has been sending more money into the camp. One senior Fatah official estimated that the Palestine Authority was pouring around US$1.5 million each month into Ain il-Hilweh to pay loyalists across a wide range of activities, from politics, military, education, cultural activities and business start-ups.
Attempts to check the radicalisation of Palestinian refugees are likely to be complicated by the war on Iraq. The war has inflamed many Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. Such anger may serve the militants in their efforts to whip up more anti-American and anti-Western feelings among wider circles of Arabs and Muslims. One such militant is Mounir Maqdah, a guerrilla leader in Ain il-Hilweh.
"The American war against Iraq is only for them to enhance their economy by dominating Arab resources," Maqdah told Global Profile. "It‘s the duty of the Arab and Islamic world to fight this occupation."
Maqdah was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan in 2000 on charges of providing military training to a group of Bin Laden‘s followers who planned attacks on American and Israeli targets in the Kingdom. He denied the charges, but told journalists at the time that "if Bin-Laden tries to liberate the holy city of Jerusalem, I‘ll be flattered to coordinate my efforts with him."
Today Maqdah is harnessing the power of the Internet to grow a networked organisation to extend his strike capabilities beyond all borders (see The Colonel‘s Network Warfare).
Ain il-Hilweh camp is about one square mile in size and home to 70,000 refugees. Over fifty years have passed since the first refugees settled there. New generations have grown up in the camp. There have been Arab-Israeli negotiations, international peace initiatives and United Nations resolutions - but still the plight of the refugees remains unresolved.
The refugees continue to affirm their Palestinian identity and keep alive their dreams of one day returning to a land they call Palestine. Yet faced with the inferior status and limited opportunities of ghetto life, such dreams of a homeland regained seem far off. And when these dreams turn sour, it may be the men of militancy who exploit the frustration.
The issue of the Palestinian refugees lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict - a conflict which is central to the instability and violence in the Middle East. Finding a viable solution to the refugee problem may be far more than a matter of conscience. It may be a matter of survival - our own survival. Because our welfare is bound up in theirs. And when their dreams die, our security could well die with them.