Between October 15 and 25 the small Mieh Mieh refugee camp 4km east of Sidon has been the center of clashes and tensions after two men linked with local factions were involved in a gun battle. Reports now indicate the Lebanese army may deepen its deployment and also confiscate heavy weapons from the camp, although the full details of how that will happen and if it will succeed are unclear. The Lebanese army deployment would be a rare development, and the attempt to confiscate weapons a major change. Photos showed the army repositioning cement blocks at an entrance to the camp, and locals said soldiers had deployed at different points.
The camp is one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in which UNRWA provides services. Today it has 5,000 residents that are registered with UNRWA. The camp was damaged during the Lebanese Civil War. "The socio-economic situation of the refugees is extremely difficult. Men find work as casual labourers in construction sites and in orchards. Women work in orchards, in embroidery workshops and as cleaners," according to UNRWA.
The recent clashes come after years of tension between Ansar Allah, a small group that is linked to Hezbollah, and the Fatah movement. The clashes began on October 15 between a Fatah activist nicknamed "potato" and a member of Ansar Allah. The groups used machine guns, RPGs and other weapons in the battles that left two dead and more than twenty injured. The Daily Star in Lebanon followed the fighting closely and indicated that most of those wounded were Fatah member. A ceasefire was brokered by the Palestinian National Security Forces in the camp and members of Ansar Allah. Hamas offices were used to discuss the ceasefire and Hamas was able to insert itself as a broker in the conflict. Most of the wounded in the fighting were Fatah members. Families fled the camp in coming days, and the Lebanese army was deployed the Mieh Mieh’s entrance. Local Palestinians “embraced” the Lebanese army deployment to quell the clashes, Lebanese media reported.
The Hamas role
Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh also called Nabih Berri, the Lebanese speaker of parliament and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to discuss the clashes on October 25. Berri played a key role in intervening to calm tensions.
Hamas has tried to play a role in ending the recent clashes as part of its wider attempt to portray itself as reasonable after six months of clashes with Israel in Gaza. Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh, called Nabih Berri, the Shi’ite Amal movement leader and speaker of parliament and also phoned Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, who is Sunni. Hariri, according to a Hamas statement, said he would “spare no effort to stop what is going on.” Hamas described Ansar Allah as “Hezbollah-backed.”
Last week high level officials gathered in Sidon, near the camp, and met with the a member of the Lebanese army’s intelligence branch, a representative of the Palestinian national security, a deputy from Ansar Allah and a Hamas official named Ahmed Abdel Hadi. The Hamas role throughout therefore has been to present itself as a broker between the factions. This is a reversal of the usual role where the Palestinian Authority or Fatah would seek a greater influence.
Sidon MP Bahia Hariri also called Prime Minister Hariri to discuss the "exploding security situation inside the camp." MP Hariri then phoned "secretary general of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, the political representative of Hamas in Lebanon, Ahmad Abdel-Hadi, the head of the Lebanese army intelligence in the south, Brig. Fawzi Hammadi, and Sidon intelligence officer Brig. Gen. Mamdouh Saab." President Michel Aoun even assured the Roman Catholic archbishop Elie Bechara Haddad that the army would protect Christians in Sidon, according to Arab News, although it wasn't clear why he needed to assure them of that since the clashes were confined to the camp.
Who are Ansar Allah
Ansar Allah was founded in the 1990s by Jamal Suleiman who had been a Fatah activist but gravitated to align himself with the Shi’ite Hezbollah and Amal movement during the Lebanese Civil War. Later he was active in opposing Israel before Israel. Despite his work with Hezbollah, the members of the group are Sunni Palestinians. He briefly broke with Hezbollah in 2012. According to reports at the time "Hezbollah received information that Ansar Allah had made efforts to open a channel of communication with a Gulf state supporting the Syrian uprising." At the time the Lebanese authorities cancelled weapons permits for his group and he was forced to relocate to Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, also near Sidon. To years later his fighters clashed with Fatah in April 2014 in Mieh Mieh. Ansar Allah members were indicted for the fighting that year.
Over the last year there have been several assassination attempts between local Palestinian factions and members of Ansar Allah. In September a member of Ansar Allah was arrested by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, accused of trying to kill the Palestinian Embassy’s security chief Ismail Sharrouf in 2017. This time Lebanon has sought to deploy the army to confiscate heavy weapons after the clashes.
Enter the army
The recent meeting in Sidon, according to Asharq al-Awsat, was part of the deal to deploy the army. Deploying the army changes the delicate balance in the camp. Many Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon contain armed factions and have their own security forces, separate from the army. They form their own local security apparatus with armed men patrolling the streets and in the past they have clashed with more jihadist-groups that sought to replace Palestinian nationalism with more extremist sectarian ideologies. This has been the case in Nahr al-Bared and Ain al-Hilweh. “Factional rivalries remain and insecurity flares periodically inside some camps,” notes Middle East Eye. “Heavily armed Lebanese army checkpoints can be seen today in control of the entrance of camps like Nahr el-Bahred, Ain el-Hilweh and Burj el-Shamali.”
Hamas seeks a wider role in the Mieh Mieh incident in the context of its own problems in Gaza. Fatah has been pushing sanctions against Hamas-run Gaza even as Hamas has sought a ceasefire in clashes with Israel that have been ongoing for six months. Egypt has played a key role in trying to bring the Israel-Hamas tensions to an end and Qatar, which has supported Hamas, has also supplied fuel to Gaza via Israel recently. The Mieh Mieh clashes, although small, present Hamas an opportunity to show that it can lead and broker deals, and shed a light on the inability of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to do so. Whether the Lebanese army actually collects heavy weapons in the camp remains to be seen.