Ein Al-Hilweh: A fruitless search for al-Qaeda
By Mahan Abedin
Sensationally branded as a "zone of unlaw" by the Lebanese and Western media
and accused of harboring al-Qaeda and other jihadi elements, the Ein Al-Hilweh
Palestinian refugee camp south of the Lebanese city of Sidon often hits the
headlines for the wrong reasons.
To investigate the possible al-Qaeda presence, I made a visit to Ein Al-Hilweh
in late November. Accompanied by an experienced Palestinian guide I was able to
speak to all the key stakeholders in the camp and conduct a thorough
investigation. This article is a condensed version of that investigation.
The most crowded place on Earth
Gaining entry to Ein Al-Hilweh is no easy task. It took me more
than a week to secure a permit from the Ministry of Defense in Beirut. Situated
on the southern outskirts of the port city of Sidon, there are two main
entrance gates to Ein Al-Hilweh, both of which are heavily-manned by the
Foreign journalists and other visitors are often obliged to enter from the
upper-street section where they are subjected to more stringent checks. On the
day of my visit, this checkpoint was being manned by about 25 Lebanese
soldiers. As soon as I and my Palestinian guide approach the checkpoint which
guards the entrance, we are surrounded by three Lebanese soldiers who demand my
permit. The permit in question consists of a few unintelligible numbers
scrawled on a rough piece of paper - hardly befitting the time and effort I put
into securing it.
It took more than 30 minutes for the Lebanese army to check my permit and allow
entry. During this time I was able to catch a glimpse of what ordinary
Palestinians have to go through in order to enter and leave the camp. A long
queue of traffic had built up on the other side where cars were waiting to
leave the camp. I was told by my Palestinian guide that these restrictions on
movement - which are reminiscent of Israeli tactics in the West Bank -
contribute directly to the radicalization of disaffected elements in the camp.
On entering the camp, one is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of humanity
condensed into such a tiny space. Walking through the market in Upper Street,
the sights, sounds and smells are simply overpowering. According to the United
Nations there are around 50,000 registered refugees in the camp, but the actual
number of inhabitants stands at around 80,000. We take a right at the middle
section of the market and walk down the tiniest alley imaginable until we
arrive at the nondescript home of Abdul Rahim Ahmad Al-Makdah, the head of the
local "popular committee". The popular committees in the Palestinian camps are
the main vehicle for managing the camps at an administrative level.
A large and avuncular man in his mid 60s, Abdul Rahim Ahmad al-Makdah strikes a
reassuring tone. He provides a fascinating insight into the complex factional
politics of the camp. According to al-Makdah, there are three broad coalitions
inside Ein Al-Hilweh; the so-called Tahalof (Cooperative), the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO) and Islamic factions.
The Tahalof coalition is comprised of seven factions, including the Islamic
Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The PLO faction is
made up of five groups and is dominated by Fatah. While the Islamic faction is
comprised of three groups, namely Asbat al-Ansar (League of the Partisans),
Harakat Mujahideen Islamiyah (Islamic Mujahideen Movement) and Ansar Allah
(Partisans of God).
Abdul Rahim Ahmad Al-Makdah claims he belongs to none of these factions and
that his strength and influence is derived from his independence. Like numerous
popular committee functionaries I had met in Palestinian camps before, he is
careful to downplay factional rivalries and disputes and concentrate instead on
the daily concerns of camp residents, which mostly revolve around housing,
health and education.
Encounter with Islamists
Ein Al-Hilweh is effectively divided into two sections; Upper and Lower
streets. These lead to a network of arterial alleyways which can only be
described as the narrowest living spaces imaginable. The alleyways are dark and
the houses which crowd them are darker still. Light deprivation is a common
cause of depression and other mental illnesses in the Palestinian camps.
We cross into Lower Street which is regarded as the bastion of the radical
Islamists in Ein Al-Hilweh. Lower Street is markedly different to Upper Street.
Here there is less overcrowding and the street is noticeably cleaner. I meet
Jamal Khatab in the Dar Al-Koran mosque in the middle of Lower Street.
Khatab is a business graduate of the prestigious American University of Beirut
and has a perfect command of the English language. He is also the leader of the
Islamic Mujahideen Movement, one of the largest Islamic groups in the camp. In
Beirut, I had heard that Khatab was a key mediator with the radicals, so I was
keen to meet him and take stock of his views and insights.
Dressed in clerical attire with a full beard, Khatab - who is in his early 40s
- has pleasant facial features and strikes an understated charismatic tone. I
grill him about Jund Al-Sham (Army of the Levant) - one of an assortment of
radical groups that either emerged or took shelter in the camp in the 1980s and
1990s - and he nips my enthusiasm in the bud by claiming categorically that
this organization was dissolved some time ago.
Khatab conceded that Asbat Al-Ansar is still going strong in the camp but he
denies any suggestion that this organization has any ties to trans-national
jihadi groups. According to Khatab, Asbat Al-Ansar is ideologically and
politically close to Hamas. "The al-Qaeda style doesn't exist in the camp,"
Khatab claims, thus dismissing any notion that the notorious organization or
its affiliates could find long-term refuge inside Ein Al-Hilweh.
On leaving the Dar Al-Koran mosque, we walk in a northerly direction towards
the upper sections of Lower Street. Here the influence of Asbat Al-Ansar is
everywhere. The group controls all the sandwich shops and even mans its own
checkpoint - a mere stone's throw away from the Lebanese army checkpoint at the
very top of Lower Street.
We enter a sandwich shop where a young man in his mid-20s takes our orders and
starts cooking. We notice that he is wearing a pistol around his waist. My
guide has a problem with his chicken sandwich but we decide not to argue with
the armed cook.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has a strong but discreet presence
in Ein Al-Hilweh. Hamas' main representative in the camp was unavailable for
interview. Instead I meet with one of their representatives in the nearby Mieh
Mieh camp, which from a political point of view can be considered as Ein
Abu Mohammad is a mountain of a man; he stands at 6 feet 10 inches (2.08
meters), is extremely well built and has hands the size of shovels. But he is
mild-mannered, speaks in soft and measured tones, and comes across as the
classic gentle giant. He summarily dismisses the notion that al-Qaeda could be
lurking inside the camps.
A few days earlier, I had received the same response when I posed a similar
question to Mahmoud Taha, the Hamas representative in the Bourj Al-Shamali camp
in southern Lebanon. Meeting Hamas representatives and activists in the camps
one gets the impression that they are totally absorbed by the struggle against
Israel and national Palestinian politics and have neither the desire nor the
energy to get involved in religious and ideological disputes with rival Islamic
Fatah: Divided but still going strong
Understanding the security situation inside Ein Al-Hilweh is impossible without
exploring the complex power struggles between key Fatah figures there and
beyond. One of the main inter-Fatah conflicts in Ein Al-Hilweh centers on
veteran Fatah leader Mounir Maqdah and his rival Mahmoud Abdul-Hameed Al-Issa
I meet Mounir Maqdah in his spacious and relatively luxurious office. This
middle-aged fighter has the look and feel of a maverick. Tall, lean and
unconventionally handsome, he projects an effortless charm. It is difficult to
establish Maqdah's precise role and position inside Ein Al-Hilweh and the wider
camp network. He claims to still head the Kifayah Mosalaha, which purports to
be the Palestinian police force inside the camps.
Maqdah is viewed as a renegade by key Fatah leaders in Ramallah, not least
because of his close links to Palestinian Islamists. But a minority powerful
faction in Fatah views his links to Islamists as a vital asset, especially
during periods of stress, when Fatah needs all the leverage it can muster.
A natural showman, who likes to impress foreign journalists and other visitors,
Maqdah shows me his photo albums form bygone years. Maqdah claims that Israeli
agents have tried to assassinate him on no less than three occasions, in 1993,
1996 and 2006. The 1993 attempt (which involved a car bomb in Ein Al-Hilweh)
was the most serious. He showed me pictures of the aftermath of the bombing.
Maqdah is adamant that strangers (in this case radical jihadis) cannot
penetrate the camp since every square has its own security/social committee.
Moreover, housing permits are issued by the Kifayah Mosalaha. As I am about to
leave his office Maqdah makes a surprise prediction. He claims that the
"resistance" in the West Bank and other Palestinian areas will soon resume,
this time with added gusto and ferocity. As if this statement was not enough to
infuriate his Fatah masters in Ramallah, Maqdah makes the startling claim that
Israel will "disappear" altogether by 2015.
Not everything to do with Fatah in Ein Al-Hilweh is about division and
conflict. Elsewhere in the camp I meet Moneim Awad, president of the Lebanese
branch of the General Union of Palestinian Engineers and a key Fatah member. A
small and frail man in his mid 50s, Awad is mild-mannered and unassuming. He
comes across as the quintessential gentleman. Working from a modest office in
the center of Ein Al-Hilweh, he works tirelessly to ensure that the camp
infrastructure doesn't collapse altogether.
Meeting the United Nations
Almost everyone I have met in my journey through the Palestinian camps
throughout 2009 tends to blame at least some of the daunting problems they face
on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the specialized UN body
that deals with Palestinian refugee issues.
In Beirut I met Hoda Samra Souaiby, UNRWA's public information officer. She
admits that UNRWA was not aware of the penetration of the Nahr El-Bared camp
(near Tripoli) by the jihadi group Fatah Al-Islam in 2007. The events of
May-September 2007 (when Fatah Al-Islam fought pitched battles with the
Lebanese army inside Nahr El-Bared) took UNRWA by complete surprise, Samra
Contrary to what many Palestinian refugees claim, Samra denies that UNRWA is
decreasing its services. She claims that re-allocation of services often
appears to indicate resource depletion, but that this not the case. But she
does add ominously that as a result of the demographic increase and the
increase in the cost of services UNRWA can no longer provide the same quality
of services. She says UNRWA needs more funds to provide better health,
education and social services to its beneficiaries.
While Samra admits that the UN has no de-radicalization programs in the camps,
she maintains that through its presence and the provision of services the
agency is doing what it can to protect Palestinian refugees from dark and
Following the visit to Ein Al-Hilweh - and after a year of intense field
research inside the entire camp network - my conclusion is that while al-Qaeda
is nowhere to be found in the camps, Palestinian refugees are dangerously
exposed to politically-motivated violence directed from various quarters. They
are also at risk of potential exploitation by groups that have no organic
presence inside the camps.
A solution to this pressing problem will remain elusive as long as UNRWA, the
Lebanese Government, the Palestinian factions and a new generation of
Palestinian non-governmental organizations cannot forge a consensus on how to
tackle the prevailing security, social and humanitarian challenges.
Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant
to independent media in Iran. He is currently based in northern Iraq, where he
is helping to develop local media capacity.