Ongoing fighting in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp may be part of a plan to weaken Fatah and undermine normalization with Israel.
In the past week, fighting erupted in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh near Sidon between Islamist factions and Fatah, after one of Fatah’s military commanders, Abou Ashraf al-Amroushi, was assassinated on July 30. While the fighting was hardly an anomaly, the fact that the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, Majed Faraj, had visited Lebanon only days before fueled speculation that his visit might have triggered the fighting. Tensions between Hamas, which maintains good relations with Palestinian Islamists, and Fatahhave surged in the West Bank and might have impacted the events in Ain al-Hilweh.
Although some sources dismissed any relationship between Faraj’s arrival in Lebanon and the fighting, the regional context remains essential for understanding what is taking place inside the Palestinian camps. It would be difficult to deny that regional calculations played a role in the fighting, which reflects two significant developments on the Palestinian and regional fronts. First, the fighting has come amid a strategic shift in the role of Palestinian factions in Lebanon. And second, it highlights Lebanon’s newfound place in an emerging regional showdown.
Whereas previously their role was confined to the refugee camps, Palestinian factions, including Hamas, are reportedly involved today in border skirmishes and cross-border attacks against Israel. One factor enhancing their status is that much of the leadership of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has relocated to Lebanon in recent years. Hamas’ presence especially has grown since Lebanon’s financial crisis of 2019, which marginalized the Lebanese state that could have pushed back against such an expansion. Hamas has also been engaged in the process of strengthening its local alliances.
Traditionally, Fatah has been the dominant force in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, particularly Ain el-Hilweh, the largest in terms of population. However, it’s difficult to imagine that this configuration will remain unaffected by the presence of the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders, and the increasingly interconnected military activities in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and along Lebanon’s southern border.
It is also difficult to imagine that Fatah will be totally eradicated, given its widespread presence and the organization’s resilience during the 1980s, when it was besieged by pro-Syrian forces in the Beirut refugee camps, and later on, in the 1990s, when Syria dominated Lebanon. However, a more likely and realistic outcome is that Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and their allies are seeking to contain and weaken Fatah. The fact that Hezbollah is strongly aligned with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad makes such an outcome more conceivable.
This objective was implicit in coverage of the fighting by Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper. Two things were significant. The first is that the newspaper linked the clashes to Faraj’s visit to Beirut, seeing it as an Israeli move to contain Hamas and Islamic Jihad and retaliate against Palestinian attacks on Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank. The second is that Al-Akhbar began peddling a narrative that Fatah has no supply lines left to continue fighting the Islamists, and had lost a major commander in Ain al-Hilweh.
Under normal circumstances, the many factions in the overcrowded Palestinian refugee camp often make it very difficult to uncover clear links between rounds of fighting and external actors. An individual quarrel can easily expand into broader factional clashes. However, this time things were different. The usually divided Islamist factions have good relations with Hamas’ leadership, and both have fought against Fatah. Hamas’ novel role in the ceasefire negotiations points to a new reality taking shape in the camps.
Two major regional developments are currently taking place, and both are affecting the Palestinian cause. One the one hand, there is an Arab push to normalize relations with Israel, regardless of Palestinian realities. This may soon encompass Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, this is leading to an Iranian-sponsored united front against such normalization, including groups inside Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Saudi-Israeli normalization may be on more solid ground, given U.S. sponsorship of such a scheme, while Iran’s united front strategy may be more complicated. The reason is the factionalism that exists within Palestinian ranks, and the complex political realities in the different countries where a united front strategy may be adopted. Yet, both developments are symbiotic, in that as normalization efforts increase, more momentum will build on the other side to prevent this.
What may be emerging on the regional level is an Arab camp that undermines Fatah by normalizing with Israel and further damages any prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and a pro-Iran camp that backs Fatah’s foes. All this will further weaken Fatah vis-à-vis the Islamist factions. Moreover, this comes at a time when the power balance in the Palestinian landscape is in flux. The 87-year-old Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has no clear successor, with many vying for power within an increasingly weakened organization. Given such divisions, Fatah may have to accept this new reality, which will have negative consequences for its role in any future negotiations.
As for Lebanon’s place in the emerging regional showdown, it was notable that Prime Minister Naguib Mikati made a far-reaching statement on the Ain al-Hilweh clashes. Mikati rejected the idea that the country should become a staging point for a settling of accounts among regional actors, reflecting a growing fear of such an outcome in Lebanon. The country is now tied to inter-Palestinian tensions and to violence against Israel’s occupation. Delinking Lebanon from both is not even on the national agenda. The rifts in the Lebanese political class are continuing to hollow out the state, while Hezbollah and its allies are carrying the country into a regional showdown that may threaten Lebanon’s very existence.