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On April 11, armed clashes broke out between secular Fatah soldiers and jihadists in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein El Helweh in Lebanon. The incident, which left ten dead and some 50 wounded, barely made news in the region and not at all in the United States. That’s partly because internal fighting in the camp has been a fixture since its creation in 1948, following war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
But the latest Palestinian mini war, which took place over five days, was not the usual struggle over who controls which part of this depressing and impoverished zone. This was a fight with serious implications for the future of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah as a political party outside Palestine and for the future of Sunni extremism in Lebanon.
What precisely triggered the shooting matters less than its underlying cause, which is the growing clout inside the camp of an extremist group led by Bilal Badr. Little is known about Badr’s background, ideology, or objectives. Despite his young age (he is believed to be in his late twenties), his reputation as a fearless radical and competent fighter has spread throughout the camp. He is wanted by the Lebanese authorities for attacking army checkpoints several times and by Fatah for assassinating some of its leaders and plotting against those of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon. He is also suspected of having participated in the 2007 battle of Nahr Al Bared between the Lebanese Army and the al Qaeda-linked Fatah Al Islam in the country’s north, which led to the destruction of that refugee camp and the defeat of the terrorist group. Although it is unclear who Badr currently supports or represents (whether the Islamic State (ISIS), al Qaeda’s al Nusra Front, Jund al Sham, Fatah al Islam, or Abdullah Azzam Brigades), one sure thing is that he has been committed to the cause of Sunni radicalism, both in Lebanon and Syria, where he is presumed to have fought against President Bashar al Assad’s forces.
To eliminate the threat of Badr’s group, which numbers around 25, and preserve relative peace in Ein El Helweh, Fatah deployed a joint security force with other Palestinian factions. Badr refused to surrender. He fortified his position with a machine gun, rockets, and mortar fire in a tiny neighborhood in the camp called Al-Tira. A stalemate ensued, leading to a ceasefire agreement. But Fatah was adamant about Badr turning himself in or facing death. Badr, however, was nowhere to be found, and it is unclear whether he fled or still resides in the camp, protected by collaborators or sympathizers.
Regardless of what happens to Badr, Fatah must emerge from this episode victorious, at least symbolically, because even the perception of Badr’s survival and defiance could encourage jihadists fighting in Syria to consider Lebanon—Ein El Helweh specifically—as a viable next destination should the stronghold of Raqqa fall.
Ein El Helweh might be the only option for ISIS and al Qaeda because Lebanon’s northern borders, where Sunni radicals have historically tried (but failed) to establish a presence, have been relatively well defended by Hezbollah and the U.S.-equipped Lebanese Army. And it might not be a bad option, given the fact that the camp is insecure, nominally falls outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese law enforcement agencies, and has always been a hotbed of Islamist militancy.
Soon after Michel Aoun, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, was elected president of Lebanon in October last year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Beirut to congratulate the new leader. But he also brought with him his intelligence chief, Majed Faraj, to warn Aoun that the Ein El Helweh neighborhood would soon resemble the Al Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, where ISIS and al Qaeda are competing for influence. Faraj even shared with his Lebanese counterparts that Ein El Helweh had become a regional coordination center for ISIS’s franchises in Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Raqqa, and Lebanon’s Arsal and Qalamoun.
To be sure, it is hard to verify any of these claims, but Ein El Helweh has always been a security concern, and the worries seem to be growing, given the legitimate and necessary questions about the future of ISIS after Iraq and Syria. For Fatah to preserve its sphere of influence and reputation as a top security dog in the camp would require credible answers to what happened with Badr. Otherwise, various audiences, including the Lebanese government and the Israelis, will view Fatah as incapable of fighting terrorism. The battle might have taken place in Lebanon, but it is already having ripple effects inside Palestine, and specifically on the fierce contest between Fatah and its main rival, Hamas, which continue to compete for the representation of Palestinians across the region.