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In Photos: Cracking Down on Militants in a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon

VICE News patrolled the streets of Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp with a new security force created by local officials to combat the growing presence of militant groups.

by Patrick Strickland and Dylan Collins
Apr 21 2015, 8:20pm

Imágenes por Dylan Collins

Osama Arri took a sip of his coffee and pulled on a cigarette as he spoke about the declining security situation in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps.

"Since 1948, we Palestinians have gone from catastrophe to catastrophe," the 36-year-old pastry salesman and father of three told VICE News. Arri explained that dozens of jihadist groups, among them affiliates of the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, have popped up in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp where he lives.

"Daash is like a cancer," he added, using an Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State. "We cannot stop it, but if we work hard enough we can slow it down. We can only stop young people from joining those types of groups if they are given a chance for a future."

Lebanon has felt the impact of the four-year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, and Palestinian refugee camps within the country's borders have been no exception.

In addition to Lebanon's existing 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees, more than 45,000 Palestinians have fled Syria and taken refuge in camps in Lebanon, according to Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Formally banned from at least 70 professions in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are plagued by unemployment, poverty, and a lack of basic rights. They live in 12 densely populated camps across the country, each of them only one square kilometer in size.

Related: Freezing and fighting for aid: Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Osama Arri, a 36-year-old father of three, said the allure of the Islamic State in places like Ain al-Hilweh is like "a cancer." Images by Dylan Collins.

Local camp officials estimate that 10,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees have already arrived in the Ain al-Hilweh camp since the violence broke out in Syria, and more continue to show up on a daily basis.

"Unemployment here sits at around 70 percent," Munir Madah, the head of security in Lebanon's Palestinian camps, told VICE News. "The Lebanese laws limit our ability to work and live a decent life."

The lack of economic opportunities is a major factor behind the growth of jihadist groups in the camp, according to many. "There is no area of the camp that is completely closed off, but some parts are hard for our security forces to access," Maqdah admitted.

Locals say there are parts of Ain al-Hilweh that have been turned into no-go zones and are completely beyond the reach of security forces. In response, camp officials established the Joint Palestinian Security Force last year, and implemented a new security plan last month that bulked their ranks to 250 members. "We plan to expand more," Maqdah said.

Abu Saleh, head of the Joint Palestinian Security Force in Ain al-Hilweh, leads several of his troops on a walk through the camp.

The joint security apparatus includes most of the local Palestinian political factions, including the secular Fatah, the Islamist-nationalist Hamas, and the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, among others. The Islamic Force, an umbrella group of Palestinian Salafist factions, is also part of the Joint Security Force.

The officers patrol the camp several times throughout the day to conduct security checks and police for drugs, weapons, and criminal activity. "If we catch someone doing something, we try to handle it internally," Maqdah said. "But we will hand him over to the Lebanese authorities if need be."

Members of the Joint Palestinian Security Force patrol the outskirts of Ain al-Hilweh.

Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) and Shabab al-Muslim (The Muslim Youth) are among the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that reject the Joint Palestinian Security Force and are stockpiling weapons in the camp.

In certain neighborhoods, IS flags and pictures of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed emir, line the walls. Elsewhere, Jahbat al-Nusra flags are draped from balconies and pictures of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden adorn the narrow alleyways.

Related: Wounded Baghdadi reportedly no longer in full control of Islamic State

Troops from the Joint Palestinian Security Force drive through a section of the camp draped with Islamic State flags and pictures of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group's self-proclaimed emir.

Maqdah estimates that radical jihadists who want to take up arms against the Lebanese state number between 150 and 200 people. In addition to the Palestinians, Lebanese officials and media have repeatedly claimed that the camp provides a safe haven for Lebanese and Syrian militants.

Lebanese security forces are legally barred from entering the camp, and alleged jihadist Fadel Shaker, a former Lebanese pop singer, has evaded arrest by hiding inside. Although Shaker no longer makes music videos, he has appeared on YouTube boasting of killing Lebanese soldiers and calling for a war on the military. In one video, he calls two dead soldiers "meaningless bugs."

Shaker has tried to recant his militant statements and calls for bloodshed, but it's unlikely he'll be able to leave Ain al-Hilweh any time soon. He recently opened a new bakery in the camp.

More than 60,000 Palestinian refugees and 10,000 Syrians live in the tiny Ain al-Hilweh camp.

Shadi Mawlawi, a Lebanese fugitive and local leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, is also in Ain al-Hilweh. Lebanese officials say the Palestinians have refused to hand him over and are allowing him to recruit and train jihadists, but camp leaders reject those claims.

"The Lebanese want Mawlawi and others in the camp because it's like a prison," Sheikh Jamal Khatab, the religious leader of the Islamic Mujahideen Movement, a Salafist group in the Joint Palestinian Security Forces, told VICE News. "But we don't want him here. We've essentially put him in house arrest."

Sheikh Jamal Khatab, the religious leader of the Islamic Mujahideen Movement, a Salafist group in the Joint Palestinian Security Force.

Khatab also denied the claim by Lebanese officials that Ahmed al-Assir, the leader of Lebanon's chapter of the Islamic State, is hiding in the camp. 

"This is a lie; it's incitement against Palestinians," Khatab said. "Al-Assir tried to enter the camp, but we refused. We have no idea where he is."

Al-Assir and his followers, including Shaker, battled the Lebanese army in Sidon, a coastal city in southern Lebanon, in June 2013. By the time the smoke cleared, 18 soldiers were dead, along with dozens of al-Assir's gunmen and four Hezbollah fighters.

Though the political factions have achieved a rare unity, not all of Ain al-Hilweh's residents are happy with the new Joint Security Force. "This is just for show," Eyad Dashe, a 42-year-old coffee salesman, told VICE News. "There is no security here at all. There's no hope."

Related: In photos: The Sudanese refugees who fled intensifying fighting and aerial bombardment 

Members of the Joint Palestinian Security Force leave their headquarters on a routine patrol of the Ain al-Hilweh camp.

Dashe took loans from friends and family and emptied his savings account to send his 22-year-old son to study in Turkey. "I knew that he'd join the extremists if he stayed here," he told VICE News, adding that those who don't take up arms for the jihadist cause are vulnerable for human trafficking, organ trafficking, or weapons and drug dealing.

"This is natural," he said. "Look how the Lebanese treat us — it makes people desperate. We cannot enter or leave the camp without being searched at checkpoints. It's humiliating and we are treated as if we are the enemy [of Lebanon]."

After living for decades in Syria, Afaf Dashe, 70, was recently forced to flee and move back to Ain al-Hilweh.

Alluding to the suffocating conditions and restrictions on Palestinians in Lebanon, Dashe worried that more and more youth will join the ranks of radical groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. "Without any opportunities, without the chance of a future, what do you expect?" he asked.

Dozens of desperate Palestinian youth have spent thousands of dollars each to be smuggled by boat from Lebanon to Europe, and many have died along the way.

Abu Saleh, head of the Joint Palestinian Security Force in Ain al-Hilweh, gives orders to his troops.

Dashe's 70-year-old mother, Afaf, lived in Syria for decades before fleeing the bloodshed in that country and returning to Ain al-Hilweh two years ago. "The situation isn't much better here [than in Syria]," she told VICE News. "We never feel safe. We were comfortable in Syria before the violence started."

The Joint Palestinian Security Force is adamant that the security situation is under control, but camp residents like Arri remain skeptical. The pastry salesman said everyone wants to flee the camp, but it's up to everyone — not just the security forces — to stay and build a better future.

"I would travel, leave here forever," Arri, the pastry salesman, said. "But isn't it better to stay and try to show some of the young people that there are other options? If we cannot save all of them, we have to try to at least give some of them hope."

Text by Patrick Strickland and all images by Dylan Collins.

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Follow Dylan Collins on Twitter: @collinsdyl

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