Palestinian Islamist groups attacked members of the Fatah faction in Lebanon’s densely populated Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in late March, the Lebanon Daily Star reports. The al-Qaeda-linked Jund al-Sham organization fired rockets on Fatah positions, resulting in four wounded Fatah fighters.
Lebanon, home to as many as 400,000 Palestinians, is a longstanding base of support for Fatah. Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian refugee camps have long been crucial to Fatah’s traditional status as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people.”
Many Palestinians in Lebanon, since the 1970s, have turned to Fatah for jobs, social services, and protection. Increasingly, however, the Fatah movement has been reduced to one faction among many in these teeming camps.
The challenge to Fatah in Lebanon is not a new phenomenon. In 2002, Arabic newspaper ash-Sharq al-Awsat reported “intense armed presence and reciprocal military alerts between [the] Fatah movement and the Islamic Asbat al-Ansar,” also in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department for its ties to al-Qaeda.
Between September and November 2002, the Ain al-Hilweh camp was the scene of no fewer than 19 bombings. Fatah loyalists were subsequently targeted with shootings, grenade attacks, and even car bombs. In one 2003 communiqué to Fatah, Asbat threatened to “turn Ain al-Hilweh and the rest of Lebanon into a pool of blood to wash away your treason and corruption and send you to hell.”
Tensions stemmed from the fact that Asbat al-Ansar sought to wrest control of Ain al-Hilweh from Fatah, which had long been the traditional ruling faction of the camp. The fighting continued into 2004 and 2005.
Last year, after the June coup that toppled Fatah and brought Hamas to power in Gaza, Lebanese Palestinians began to show outward signs of losing faith in Fatah. According to news reports, they had already grown restless with Fatah in the spring of 2007, when it was commonly believed that Fatah failed to protect the Palestinians of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp during a raid by the Lebanese Army to oust the al-Qaeda affiliate group Fatah al-Islam. Fatah failed to exert political influence to restrain the invasion, and then failed to provide funds for reconstruction of destroyed property in the camp that it had promised to camp residents.
Hamas capitalized on Fatah’s failures to expand its leadership role in the Lebanese refugee camps. Observers now believe that Hamas is slowly eclipsing Fatah’s long-established infrastructure in the camps. Amidst the Israeli incursions into Gaza in early March 2008, hundreds of Palestinian students attended Hamas-sponsored rallies in the Rashidiyeh, Bourj al-Shemali, and al-Bass refugee camps. In place of Fatah placards and flags, increasing numbers of green Hamas banners are flying.
While it is well known that Hamas and Fatah engaged in bitter battles on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank in the last year, the mainstream media has largely overlooked the fact that the Hamas-Fatah conflict has widened to include some pockets of Lebanon. News services have reported tit-for-tat violence in Ain al-Hilweh. Indeed, Fatah has publicly warned Hamas that it would not tolerate an armed Hamas presence in the camps.
The challenge to Fatah by the Palestinian Islamists of Lebanon raises two important points:
First, the January 2006 Hamas electoral victory in the West Bank and Gaza, along with the June 2007 Hamas coup that ousted the Fatah party from the seat of power in the Gaza Strip, were only the most observable indications of Fatah’s waning power. The challenges Fatah faces in Lebanon are further indications that Fatah is no longer the “sole representative” of the Palestinians, neither in the Palestinian territories nor the Diaspora.
More broadly, the challenge to Fatah in Lebanon raises questions about Fatah’s rightful place as arbiter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If Fatah is literally under fire from the Palestinian people who appear to no longer appreciate its leadership, how effective can Fatah be in negotiating with the U.S. and Israel for peace?
Jonathan Schanzer is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. He is author of the forthcoming book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, November 2008).