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Fatah and Hamas Take Their Fight to Lebanon’s Refugee Camps
What it means for Israel’s safety.
By Hugh Fitzgerald
Two recent events reminded the Lebanese that in addition to the ongoing political and economic crisis, the country’s twelve Palestinian refugee camps are also on the brink of explosion.
A report on these events, and what is likely to come of the Hamas-Fatah fighting, is here: “Palestinian infighting in the refugee camps sparks old fears in Lebanon,” by Ksenia Svetlova, Media Line, December 17, 2021:
Last week, a huge blast rocked a Hamas weapons depot in the Burj Shemali refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Later, Hamas leaders in the camp claimed the explosion was caused by an electrical fault in a warehouse containing oxygen and gas cylinders meant for coronavirus patients. Security personnel surrounded the camp and the state prosecutor in southern Lebanon asked the army and the police to investigate the affair.
The residents of the camp, however, said flames started at a diesel storage tank and then spread to a nearby Hamas-controlled mosque, triggering the blast.
No one in the Burj Shemali camp believed the Hamas story about oxygen and gas cylinders that had been warehoused for COVID patients, and supposedly exploded in a warehouse. The explosion came from inside a mosque where, everyone in the camp knew, Hamas had long used the basement to store weapons.
Then, during the funeral of Hamza Shaheen, the Hamas field leader who died in the explosion, snipers killed three people [now four] and wounded several others in the procession. Hamas blamed Fatah for the attack, and Fatah cut all communication with the Islamist faction.
Though Fatah did not claim responsibility, no other group bore a longstanding grudge against Hamas and wanted to settle scores with the group in any way it could. by firing on its fighters at the funeral for Hamza Shaheen, the Hamas leader who died in the weapons explosion in the mosque. That grudge goes all the way back to 2007, when Hamas killed more than a hundred Fatah men, and wounded more than 500, in Gaza, causing the rest of the Fatah fighters to flee the Strip for the West Bank. Fatah and Hamas have been at each other’s throats ever since. Fatah knew that the funeral for Hamza Shaheen, the Hamas leader who died in the weapons explosion in the mosque, would be a ‘target-rich environment.” Its snipers were at the ready when the Hamas mourners passed by; they fired, and four (not three, as first reported) of the Hamas fighters were killed on the spot.
For many Lebanese, these developments were a gruesome reminder of the 1975-1990 civil war, when assorted Palestinian factions fought the Phalangists, and sometimes each other, while supported by foreign powers.
We were so busy with our troubles that we forgot about the camps. They are full of weapons, the people who live there are poor and have nothing to lose. The government never controlled the camps, and apparently the situation there is close to explosion,” H., a Lebanese journalist, told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.
Lebanon is a country that does not allow the Palestinians to practice the well-paid professions – medicine, law, engineering, teaching – thus condemning most of them to menial labor, that is if they can find employment in a country that is suffering the greatest economic meltdown in 150 years. Forced by the Lebanese to remain largely impoverished in those overcrowded camps, with supporters of Fatah living cheek-by-jowl with supporters of Hamas, it is not surprising that violent eruptions between the two would occur. As the anonymous Lebanese journalist H. says, in the camps “the situation is […] close to explosion.”
Some Lebanese politicians are blaming the 88-year-old president, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, for his inability to control the situation in the country.
Though Michel Aoun is a Maronite Christian, he is a bought-and-paid for collaborator with Hezbollah, and does not dare to cross Hassan Nasrallah. He has lost whatever moral authority he might once, long ago, have possessed; ; most of his fellow Christians despise him; he hasn’t a clue as to how to lessen tensions between Hamas and Fatah. He’s given up even trying to keep the country under control.
The explosion at Burj Shemali is dangerous, despite Hamas’ [mendacious] clarification. First of all, the Lebanese have woken up to the presence of Palestinian weapons,” Fares Souaid, a Maronite politician and a leader of the March 14 Alliance, the anti-Syria political bloc headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri, wrote on Twitter.
Those weapons, whether the property of Hamas or Hezbollah or Fatah, have proven to be dangerous when warehoused. First, on Aug. 4, 2020, at the Port of Beirut, weapons – 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates – were stored haphazardly and caused an explosion that leveled the port, killing 220, wounding 6,500, and causing $15 billion in damage to property. Hezbollah was rightly blamed by the many Lebanese who are not themselves part of Hezbollah. The explosion at the mosque in a Palestinian refugee camp in Burj Shemali was blamed, despite the terror group’s strenuous denial, on Hamas.
“Lebanon is already being torn apart by foreign hands; the country certainly doesn’t need more tension in the camps,” said H.
The only “foreign hands” tearing Lebanon apart are those of Iran, that continues to supply money and weapons to its proxy and ally, Hezbollah, which has created a state within a state.
Israeli media recently reported that Hamas’ military wing is quietly establishing infrastructure on Lebanese soil, based near the town of Tyre, with an eye to opening a new front against Israel.
The military wing of Hamas, not Fatah, is now “establishing infrastructure” near Tyre, preparing for the day when, together with Hezbollah, and with the other Hamas forces entrenched in Gaza, it can try for another assault on the Jewish state.
Dr. Michael Milshtein, the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University, believes the incident in Burj Shemali is part of a struggle for overall control of the Palestinian people.
“We are talking about ongoing tension that brewed for many reasons, as Hamas aimed at establishing control over Palestinian camps in Lebanon on its way to all-Palestinian leadership and legitimacy,” Milshtein told The Media Line.
Hamas is trying to decisively wrest control in the Palestinian camps – starting with those in Lebanon — from Fatah, whose fighters it wants to expel from the camps in Lebanon as, in 2007, Hamas so brutally expelled Fatah from Gaza.
The Lebanese are upset as well, and of course, they make a connection between this incident and other problems. The PA was aware of this, and last year when [Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau] Ismail Haniyeh visited the camps, it was very upset. The Lebanese are upset as well, and of course, they make a connection between this incident and other problems such as the void in governance, the explosions of weapon storages in public spaces, the rise of radical Islam, etc. There was a reason [Hamas leaders Khaled] Mashaal and [Mousa] Abu Marzouk rushed to Lebanon in order to calm down the situation. The reactions, however, were “very chilly,” Milshtein said.
There appears to be a direct connection between the explosive situation in the West Bank and the clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Lebanon. Over the last few weeks, the Palestinian Authority launched an arrest campaign against Hamas in the West Bank, and specifically in the Jenin refugee camp as well as in Ramallah, Birzeit and Hebron. Dozens of Hamas activists were recently arrested by PA security forces, while others, such as senior leader Hassan Yousef, were arrested by the IDF.
The P.A. has been arresting Hamas members in the West Bank, in Jenin, Ramallah, Birzeit, and Hebron, charging them with attempts to overthrow the “legitimate rule” of Mahmoud Abbas, whose “legitimacy” comes from a single election in 2005, when he was chosen as President; Abbas is now in the sixteenth year of his four-year term.
After years of failed attempts to reconcile, Fatah and Hamas are back to square one: uncompromising conflict. While Fatah is going down in the polls, Hamas continues to build its bases of power in the West Bank, in Lebanese camps as well as in Europe, where governments do little to curb the activity of Hamas-affiliated groups.
Hamas’ rise in the Palestinian polls can be attributed to four things. First, there is popular rage at the massive corruption of Mahmoud Abbas who, with his two sons Yasser and Tarek, has amassed a fortune of between $400 and $600 million. Strangely, two Hamas leaders, Khaled Meshaal and Mousa Abu Marzouk, who have each squirreled away at least $2.5 billion, have managed to avoid their people’s wrath, possibly because they live far from prying eyes in Doha and New Cairo, Egypt, respectively, whereas Abbas lives in a $13 million palace in Ramallah. Second, ordinary Palestinians are aware of how Abbas has spoiled relations with the rich Sunni Arabs of the Gulf, who have become tired of his constant demands for financial support, while he adamantly refuses to negotiate with Israel and the Americans. Exasperated with his antics, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan told Abbas in 2018 to “accept whatever deal the Americans offer.” Abbas ignored that advice. And the Gulf Arab states have stopped sending money to the P.A. Third, Abbas raised hopes, and then dashed them, when in January he promised to hold both parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year, but as soon as he realized that his Fatah faction would lose seats in the Palestinian parliament for his Fatah faction, and still worse, he would lose the Presidency to any candidate who ran against him, he cancelled them. Fourth, while Hamas fought the Israelis for eleven days in May, Abbas did not lift a finger to help the terror group by opening a second front in the West Bank; consequently, many Palestinians believe that Hamas is now their only true champion.
A recent poll shows that in a presidential contest with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Abbas would get only about half the number of votes – 35% to Haniyeh’s 58%. That is how unpopular Abbas has become.
The big prize is the leadership of the PLO, and many in Hamas believe that the era of Fatah is almost over, and the era of Hamas is just beginning. The struggle for control will take place not only in Gaza and the West Bank but also abroad. The Burj Shemali incident indicates that the battle will be bloody and ruthless. As usual, Lebanon and the Lebanese will also pay the price.
Now not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but also in the Burj Shemali camp and in other camps in Lebanon, Palestinians will likely be drawn into the Hamas-Fatah civil war. It will be very violent, the way the Hamas-Fatah War in Gaza in 2007 was violent, with more than 100 Fatah fighters killed and 500 wounded, which led to the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza. If Hamas prevails in this new civil war, it will of course put an end to the PA’s security cooperation with Israel. With Hamas now ruling over, and representing, the Palestinians, how will the Western countries, including the United States and most countries in Europe,, which have declared Hamas to be a terror group and outlawed it, deal with the situation? Will they end their support for a “two-state solution” as long as Hamas is in sole control of the Palestinians?
With Hamas in control not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, there should be much more violence against the Jewish state, And in Lebanon, if Hamas manages to gain control of the Palestinian camps, it will make common cause with Hezbollah and drag the Lebanese into another war, one even more destructive of Lebanese infrastructure than was the Second Lebanon War that Hezbollah fought with Israel in 2006. Let’s hope that it takes quite a while for Hamas — as now seems likely — to ultimately prevail. The longer this Palestinian civil war takes, in its many theatres of war – Gaza, the West Bank, the refugee camps in Lebanon– to decisively end with one side the clear victor and the other the clear vanquished, the greater the expenditure on both sides of men, money, and materiel. May it last for a very long time.
Originally published at Jihad Watch.
Image Credit: © Catay Cagatay