(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) As Syria's yearlong conflict has heightened tensions in neighbouring Lebanon between groups loyal or hostile to the Syrian regime, discord and factional infighting in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps have added to the country's instability.
The country's camps are becoming "more and more of a battlefield" between those who are for or against the Assad regime in Syria, said Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut. Lebanon has 12 official Palestinian camps, housing roughly half of the country's total Palestinian population, estimated to be between 260,000 and 400,000. Life in the camps is mostly marked by poverty, overcrowding, marginalisation and limited opportunities for employment, education or a better future.
During Syria's occupation of parts of Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, Damascus fostered relationships with several Palestinian groups. Links have since weakened but loyalties still linger. "In terms of issues around Syria, there are lots of different sparks in Lebanon," said Cale Salih, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. "The Palestinian camps are one of them, and they're one of the more dangerous ones because you don't really have a state presence in the camps."
Ain al-Helweh, the largest of the camps, located on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, has a particularly unsavory reputation as a lawless and violent safe haven for extremist factions and people on the run from the government.
In Ain al-Helweh, dire living conditions are worsened by a history of factional quarrels. Assassinations, explosions and gun battles are familiar occurrences for the 70,000 residents. Lebanese security forces maintain a heavy presence at entry points to the camp but do not venture in.
The absence of a single dominant faction, the inability of groups to unite to confront common threats and effective recruitment campaigns by extremist Islamist groups have allowed radical jihadist organisations such as Usbat Al-Ansar, Jund A-Sham and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades to take root.
The camp's potential to disrupt a fragile Lebanese peace came into focus last month when the government said it had uncovered and arrested a cell within the army with ties to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an international jihadist network affiliated with Al Qaeda.
After the discovery last month of the militant cell in the army, some politicians called for Lebanese security forces to disarm the Palestinian factions in the camps. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, one of Lebanon's main Christian parties, demanded action, even if it meant a replay of Nahr Al-Bared. Despite calls for the Lebanese authorities to intervene in Ain Al-Helweh, analysts said any such action is unlikely: With the military stretched by the need to contain Syria-related tensions, it would be hard-pressed to take on the additional challenge of the camp.
In 2007, a few hundred militants in Nahr Al-Bared, outnumbered and out-gunned, were able to hold out for months and inflict heavy casualties on the Lebanese military. In Ain Al-Helweh, a much larger camp with many more potential combatants, a similar conflict would most likely be a far more difficult fight.
Palestinian factions, operating in de facto autonomy inside the camps, want Lebanese security forces to stay out " both to maintain their free rein and to avert another Nahr Al-Bared. In troubled Ain Al-Helweh it remains to be seen if factions willing to act can peacefully apprehend those wanted by the Lebanese state without provoking a conflict in the camp. But in other camps, the will is clearly there.