Munir Makdah, Fatah boss of the camp and commander of the Joint Security Committee. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
AIN EL HILWEH, Lebanon — The gunmen who control this tiny, cramped Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon are uncharacteristically eager to please. Hardened militants scurry to meetings with political rivals, and speak with newfound candor to journalists about past unsuccessful efforts to overcome a history of deadly feuds in the camp.
For decades, the coveted slot of camp boss has gone to the man able to deploy the most shooters and force Ain el Hilweh’s unruly clans and factions to fall in line. Today, however, an unlikely new order prevails: Bitter rivals have forged an unprecedented level of cooperation to police their sometimes-anarchic camp, forcing the most violent jihadists to lay low, and even turning over Palestinian suspects to the Lebanese Army, an act that just a few years ago would have been considered an unpardonable treason. Strongman Munir Makdah, a member of the Fatah movement, presides over a special council of 17 militia leaders — including some borderline jihadists — who must approve the most sensitive moves.
“It’s very important: This is the first time we’ve done anything like this,” Makdah said during a recent visit to his headquarters, nestled in Ain el Hilweh’s claustrophobic horizon of apartment blocs. “I call it the democracy of the gun. We tell our brothers when they visit that they can do the same thing in Palestine.”
Since its establishment in 1948, Ain el Hilweh has been a byword for militancy — a haven for fugitives and a bête noir (at different times) to the Lebanese government, the Israeli military, even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
An estimated 100,000 people live in the camp, which is rimmed by walls, barbed wire, and army checkpoints. Under a convoluted agreement, Lebanese soldiers search the cars going in and out, but don’t enter the camp itself, leaving policing inside to the Palestinian factions.
The experiment underway in this camp represents a rare instance of cooperation and pragmatism in a region where fragmentation and infighting is the norm. Much more is at stake than simply the stability of an overpopulated square kilometer: There is a widespread fear that if the Islamic State, or jihadists sympathetic to the group, ever gained a foothold in Lebanon, it will be in a place like Ain el Hilweh — where residents are poor, politically disenfranchised, and ineffectively policed.
The agreement in Ain el Hilweh presents significant potential upside, too, in a region currently short of examples of political progress. The camp is home to actors who can impact flashpoints all over the region: It could contain the seeds of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank, while authorities everywhere might look it as a model for a successful initiative to curb jihadists.
“Syria’s war was like a storm coming to us,” Makdah said. “Everyone was worried about the camps. We reflect society.”
When it comes to security, senior Hamas officials in Ain el Hilweh amiably take orders from Makdah. At the camp’s Hamas office, a visiting Fatah official refilled the Hamas chief’s coffee cup as the Hamas official gave his unvarnished assessment of the regional security situation. “Honestly, we Palestinians are in a weak position,” said the official, Abu Ahmed Fadel.
Fadel said it took the factions much too long to learn the lesson of the crisis in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon in 2007, when jihadists battled the Lebanese Army. That fight destroyed the entire camp and left 27,000 residents homeless. Ever since then, Fadel said, Lebanese leaders suggested that the Palestinians set aside their internal differences and form a united front. It took what Fadel called “the fires in Syria” to finally push the sides to agree.
“Compared to what’s happening around us, we’re a stable river,” said Khalid al-Shayeb, the Fatah deputy who’s in charge of the patrols in Ain el Hilweh and the neighboring Mieh Mieh camp. “We managed to neutralize the threats from Palestinians much more effectively than the Lebanese Army has managed to neutralize the threats from the rest of Lebanon.”
There’s no sign here of the discord that forced a bitter break between Hamas and its long-time patrons in Damascus, or the blood feud between Hamas and Fatah, or between Hamas and the more extreme religious factions like Islamic Jihad and Ansar Allah. One fear has managed to outweigh all that acrimony: the dread of an encroachment by the Islamic State, whose entry into the camp could provoke outsiders to destroy it and cost the grand old factions everything.
“People should be united because there is a threat to everybody,” said Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official based in Beirut.
That’s not to say that the camp’s residents have entirely stayed out of the Syrian war. Some reports say that one of Makdah’s own sons snuck into Syria to join the jihadists. Makdah has figures of his own: precisely 52 Palestinians from all the camps in Lebanon, he says, have been tracked joining the Syrian jihadists.
The impact of the war is felt everywhere in Ain el Hilweh. A human flood of refugees has entered over the past several years, filling the impossibly crowded camp to its breaking point. According to Makdah, at least 20,000 newcomers moved to the camp since 2011, when war broke out in Syria. Officials have struggled to maintain the camp’s fragile water supply and say they can’t provide adequate education, housing, and health care to the camp’s residents. Until last week, Makdah said, he had turned over his offices to refugees. Now that they’ve found better dwellings, he’s moved back in.
A murder in April tested Makdah’s efforts to construct a new order in the camp. A Lebanese supporter of Hezbollah named Marwan Issa was dragged into Ain el Hilweh and murdered. According to Palestinian security officials, Issa was a member of a Hezbollah auxiliary militia called the Resistance Brigades, and his suspected killers were known arms dealers. They believe the murder was related to a weapons deal gone awry. Two suspects were quickly apprehended. Leaders of the 17 factions called an emergency meeting to vote on whether to hand them over to the Lebanese authorities.
“Usually the Islamic factions object,” said Bilal Selwan Aboul Nour, the camp security officer in charge of liaising with the Lebanese security establishment. “In this case, it was different. The victim was Lebanese. And if we didn’t cooperate, it could bring trouble on the entire camp.”
Aboul Nour immediately delivered the captives himself to the Lebanese Army barracks up the road.
A third suspect in the murder remains at large in the camp, however, illustrating the limits of this new cooperative order. That suspect is under the protection of Jund el-Sham, a jihadist faction, in the Taamir area of the camp. “We can’t use force,” Aboul Nour said. “He’s in an area outside our control.”
Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have been patient and understanding, according to the Palestinians, although Hezbollah called the killing a “stab in the back of the Lebanese resistance.”
It was the Islamic State’s infiltration of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus that motivated the dithering Palestinian factions to unite last summer. At the time, the already unraveling region was experiencing extra strain: The Islamic State had seized much of northern Iraq and declared a caliphate, and had seized control of some entrances to Yarmouk and assassinated Palestinian operatives, according to Baraka. Senior officials from Fatah, Hamas, and the Lebanese government quickly agreed that if the Islamic State could win followers in Yarmouk, it could easily do the same in Lebanese camps.
Since September, the Palestinian Joint Security Committee has doubled the number of camp police in Ain el Hilweh from 200 to 400. Fatah supplies the top commanders and foots 70 percent of the cost of the committee, and Hamas provides the rest. The officers are mostly familiar faces in the camp, some of them veteran fighters in their fifties. Now they wear red armbands that identify themselves as Joint Security Committee fighters. Makdah has not only brought together Fatah and Hamas, he has also convinced jihadists and secular Marxists to police the camp in joint patrols — a success that eluded generations of Arab leaders before him.
Most of the fighters still stay close to their factions: In the headquarters, Fatah old-timers cluster around the small fountain full of goldfish. Outside, Ansar Allah’s fighters — identifiable by their long Salafi-style beards — politely decline to talk to reporters. Near the hospital, the clean-shaven leftists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine shun the uniform altogether; their unit commander, Ali Rashid, wears blue jeans and a brown leather jacket. The groups sometimes organize joint patrols, and the major checkpoints include fighters from all the factions.
It was especially difficult for secular leftists to join forces with Islamist jihadists, Rashid said.
“We agreed that we would cut off any hand that tries to mess with security in the camp,” Rashid said. “We cannot tolerate even the smallest action from any takfiri [extremist] who enters here.”
So far, he said, the extremists in the camp have obeyed the new order. They might shelter fugitives — but so long as the fugitives are in the camp they refrain from any active role in militant operations.
Makdah says the camp really needs 1,000 police officers. In March, he extended his writ to the nearby camp of Mieh Mieh. If the experiment continues to succeed, Palestinian and Lebanese security officials said they hope to spread the experiment to all the Palestinian refugee camps in the country.
Ain el Hilweh’s unique circumstances make it an unlikely template for other places: It’s a hyper-politicized area whose claustrophobic living conditions make the Gaza Strip appear positively suburban by comparison. But sudden and intense collaboration between militants of secular, Marxist, Islamist and jihadist pedigrees show just how dramatically the Syrian war has shaken the old order. And it provides a fleeting glimpse of the kind of politicking — and transcending of old divisions — that has so far escaped mainstream Palestinian politics and the revolutionary movements that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings.