3 October, 2023
by Sam Biden, Research Assistant
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has witnessed numerous pivotal events that have shaped the region’s dynamics. From 1922-1947, large-scale Jewish migration from Eastern Europe occurred, reaching peaks in the 1930s as the Nazi party took power in Germany and in the run-up to the formal establishment of the Jewish state, creating tensions with the Arab population in the region. In 1947, the UN passed Resolution 181, aiming to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. A year later, the State of Israel was established, triggering the first Arab-Israeli War and leading to the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians. This resulted in a territorial division encompassing the State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Ein el Hilweh Camp
The Ein el Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, established in 1948, represents a fraction of the larger Palestinian refugee crisis that ensued after the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during the establishment of the Israeli state, commonly known as the Nakba. Located in Lebanon, Ein el Hilweh stands as the largest among the 12 Palestinian refugee camps within the country, and is officially thought to house 50,000 refugees as of 2023, although the actual population far exceeds this figure, leading to severely overcrowded and challenging living conditions, including a lack of access to sanitation facilities, food and water.
Ein el Hilweh was established in the aftermath of the Nakba, leading to the migration of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was responsible for the founding of the camp in the southern city of Saida, specifically to accommodate the overwhelming influx of refugees from Northern Palestine. In 1952, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) commenced operations to establish the camp as a permanent settlement and place of refuge among the ongoing conflicts, replacing tented settlements with more permanent concrete shelters. UNRWA has continued to provide essential services such as healthcare, education, humanitarian aid and social services to the residents over the decades of the camp’s operations, although the camp’s limited resources and expanding population have posed significant challenges when accommodating the needs of all the camp residents, an issue persisting to this day.
The camp has been consistently plagued by persistent violence and conflicts over the years, involving rival Palestinian factions, Lebanese forces, non-state armed groups and Israeli forces, often due to the fierce rivalry between the conflicting religious and political beliefs in the region. This ever persistent and volatile socio-political situation has given rise to a complex and unstable security environment within the camp, which has only been exacerbated by the influx of Palestinian refugees from neighboring Syria. The struggle for power and control between former Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah and armed groups, such as Hamas, has been a longstanding issue that most often ends in armed clashes and casualties. Furthermore, the camp has become a haven for various transnational groups, creating concerns about radicalization within the camp. The escalation of violence within Ein el Hilweh is part of a larger pattern of recurrent conflicts and armed clashes that have plagued the camp for decades. The rivalry between factions, such as Fatah and various armed groups, has been a constant source of tension and violence.
In 1990, the Fatah movement became locked in a 3-day conflict with the Abu Nidal Organization, a since disbanded Palestinian military armed group, for control of Ein el Hilweh camp, resulting in 68 deaths and 300 wounded. The following year, failed disarmament negotiations spiraled into further attacks against Palestinian positions in Southern Lebanon. The Lebanese forces successfully captured all Palestinian positions in the region, including Ein el Hilweh camp. In 2003, armed Islamist group Osbat al-Nour attacked the Fatah militia after an assassination attempt on the group’s leader. 200 Osbat al-Nour fighters attacked Fatah offices and forces, causing 8 deaths and 25 injuries. During the combat, schools and businesses were closed due to the escalating violence with many civilians fearing for their life, causing some people to flee the camp entirely.
Most recently, the Ein el Hilweh clashes took place from July-September of this year. Islamist militants, suspected to be members of the Muslim Youth, attacked and killed a Fatah military general, alongside 3 guards, as well as damaging infrastructure within the camp. Fighting continued into August, resulting in a further 6 deaths and 40 injuries when armed groups attacked the camp, causing 2,000 people to flee to safety. Efforts to contain the violence, including the deployment of joint security forces and the construction of a security wall, have met with limited success. The dissolution of the Palestinian Joint Security Force in 2017, originally established to provide security to those seeking refuge in the camp, underscored the challenges in maintaining a unified and effective security mechanism within the camp.
Over the years, Ein el Hilweh has seen the presence of several radical Islamic groups, adding a layer of complexity to its already intricate social and political landscape. These groups include affiliates or sympathizers of well-known extremist organizations. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra), established in 2012 as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is one of three primary radical groups that has had a significant presence within the camp. Its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, declared the group’s existence in Syria and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, focusing on overthrowing the Syrian government through relentless suicide bombings, civilian attacks and guerilla warfare against government forces. Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is another radical group, formed in the aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003, that has become a significant presence within the Middle East, briefly controlling large areas of Syria and Iraq, before eventually losing control of territories in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019 to government and supporting forces. Finally, Fatah al-Islam is amongst the most dangerous and notorious radical groups with a significant presence in the camp. With origins tied to al-Qaeda, Fatah al-Islam has attempted to establish a jihadist society through relentless warfare and war crimes. They have a history of refugee camp exploitation, being responsible for the months-long conflict against the Lebanese military at the Nahr al-Bared camp in Lebanon, leading to major displacement of Palestinians due to the prolonged battle. The presence of these radical groups as well as smaller sub-factions have caused major instability and insecurity within the camp, leading to concerns over violent clashes, radicalization, internal displacement from the camp and the recruitment of disenfranchised youths.
The Lebanese government’s inability to exert full control and provide adequate security within the camp has led to a reputation for Ein el Hilweh as a “space of exception” and a “zone of unlaw,” where militants can operate without government intervention. The presence of these groups, along with the persistent economic insecurity and limited job opportunities, has significantly contributed to the overall volatility and instability in the camp.
The recent surge in violence at Ein el Hilweh has taken a severe toll on the education sector within the camp. In August 2023, armed groups seized control of eight schools operated by the UNRWA, preventing approximately 6,000 children from accessing education at the beginning of a new school year.
Imran Riza, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, emphasized the importance of education institutions being safe and neutral spaces critical for children’s learning, well-being and growth. The violence and unrest within the camp have disrupted the fundamental right to education for these children, hindering their growth, development and future prospects. Ms. Riza further asserted that it’s imperative to prioritize the safety and well-being of the children and ensure that they have access to quality education without the fear of conflicts within the camp, potentially forcing them to flee and surrender education altogether.
Ein el Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp stands as a testament to the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people for stability, peace and a brighter future. The complex historical, social and political dynamics within the camp have given rise to a protracted crisis, exacerbated by recurrent violence and the influx of refugees from Syria. The denial of education to thousands of children due to armed conflicts underscores the urgent need for concerted efforts to ensure their safety, well-being and access to quality education.
Addressing the root causes of the crisis, including socio-economic insecurity and political tensions, is imperative for establishing lasting peace and security within the camp. The international community must remain committed to supporting humanitarian efforts, facilitating dialogue and advocating for the rights and dignity of the refugees. Only through a holistic and inclusive approach can Ein el Hilweh transform into a place of hope and opportunity for its residents, embodying the spirit of resilience and determination of the Palestinian people.