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Impact of Syrian unrest on Ain Al-Hilweh camp

Patrick SkyesA bodyguard for a senior member of Fatah Al-Islam was shot dead yesterday, in the latest in a series of assassinations sparked by the Syrian war that have rocked the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Ali Khalil, who was wanted by Lebanese authorities, was shot in the head at around 2am in the Safsaf neighbourhood of Ain Al-Hilweh camp, southeast of the port city of Sidon. Khalil died after officials tried to move him from the camp to the nearby Labib Medical Centre.

Khalil worked as a bodyguard for Bilal Badr, a wanted official in Fatah Al-Islam, and was also the nephew of Osama Al-Shahabi, a high ranking member of Jund Al-Sham, another Islamist group operating in Ain Al-Hilweh.

The killing is the latest in a series of attacks inside the camp, which was the subject of a recent acclaimed documentary A World Not Ours, as the war in neighbouring Syria divides its many factions over their stance on the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad. It comes less than a week after the assassination of Sheikh Orsan Sleiman, the head of a charity with ties to the Syrian regime, while Brigadier General Jamil Zeidan and Wisam Abul Kel, both members of Fatah, were gunned down this year.

The camp has also been implicated in several violent incidents that have struck elsewhere in Lebanon over the past 12 months.

The bomber behind the November 2013 attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut's southern suburbs, in which 25 people were killed, was a former resident, as was Naim Abbas, a senior member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades who was arrested over his involvement in multiple car bombings and was widely thought to be the most dangerous terrorist in Lebanon. Fadl Shaker, the prominent Lebanese-Palestinian singer who renounced his musical career to join a radical Sunni militia behind attacks on 17 Lebanese soldiers, is also believed to be in hiding in the camp.

Yesterday's attack will dent a recent memorandum of understanding that was intended to curb the increasing violence in Ain Al-Hilweh. Completed in March this year, the deal saw Jund Al-Sham and Fatah Al-Islam agree to put an end to the spate of assassinations against the Fatah movement. The signatories hoped to preserve stability by protecting the camp's residents from violence in both Lebanon and Syria and to bolster cooperation with Lebanese authorities. The plan coincided with a Hamas "Harmony Campaign" that filled Palestinian camps across Lebanon with banners and posters calling for unity.

"We, at Ain Al-Hilweh camp, find ourselves targeted for our religion and our cause, which is one of the most just causes on earth. Conspiracies are being hatched against us at all levels," a statement accompanying the agreement said.

The army has only limited authority over the camp which, like the 11 (officially recognised) others in Lebanon, has been effectively controlled by local Palestinian factions since the late 1960s. This semi-autonomous status, combined with the widespread circulation of weapons and persistent signs of extremist activity, has led Ain Al-Hilweh to gain a reputation as a "zone of unlaw" to which fugitives flee to evade detection.

These fears have been bolstered in recent months with the camp suspected of being a popular destination for jihadist rebels fleeing neighbouring Syria, particularly after the Syrian Army, backed by the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah, regained control of Yabroud from the rebels in March. Many fear these militants seek to bring the Syrian war to Lebanon either in retaliation for Hezbollah's involvement or in pursuit of their own radical ideologies, taking advantage of the camp's impoverished conditions to stir up sedition.

In February this year, a leaked Lebanese Security Forces report said that Ain Al-Hilweh had seen an influx of fundamentalist groups as Chechens, Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians came to join Jund Al-Sham and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Reports of plots to attack the Lebanese Army, which is perceived by many Sunnis as having a Shia bias, surfaced soon after.

Residents are perceived to be at particular risk of radicalisation because tension appears to have increased amid growing competition for limited resources. Already overcrowded and beset by high levels of poverty and unemployment, conditions have been exacerbated by an influx of previously Syrian-based Palestinian refugees.

Originally built in 1948 for 20,000 people, camp officials now put the figure at 120,000 residents, with each apartment on the 1,500 square-metre site hosting four to six families.

Follow Patrick Sykes live reports from Beirut here.


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