On Friday November 25, mass demonstrations swarmed the streets in front of al-Nour mosque in Ain al-Hilweh to protest the Lebanese army’s planned construction of a controversial “security wall” around the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. Although the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has sought to improve its relationship with local governing forces inside the camp through the rollout of a Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) program, the prospect of constructing a “firewall” around the camp not only undermines the army’s own CIMIC efforts to date, but also threatens to create divisions within the camp’s Palestinian Joint Security Force.
Every bucket of concrete reinforcement around Ain al-Hilweh is a blow to the LAF’s fraying CIMIC model. This cooperation has proved essential in linking the LAF with the Palestinian authorities and their older jihadi networks in order to negotiate security organization inside the camp. To build the wall would not only undermine the bargaining power of the Palestinian Joint Security Force but also isolate some of the LAF’s key allies within the camp.
Since June 2014, the LAF and the Palestinian Joint Security Force (JSF) – an assemblage of seventeen armed factions ranging from communists to Islamists – had attempted to put forward a CIMIC partnership model in Ain al-Hilweh to help structure the often ad hoc fashion of conflict management mechanisms inside the camp. Moreover, the partnership has endowed the LAF and the JSF with a mechanism to facilitate the flow of international donor funding for the reconstruction of schools and vocational training centers inside the camp following the violent clashes in the summer of 2014.
As part of the “lessons learned” from the destruction wrought by the 2007 battle between the army and the jihadist group Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared (the northernmost refugee camp in the country), the CIMIC approach is an attempt to change the behavior and perceptions about the quasi-struggle between the LAF and residents of Ain al-Hilweh. The concept was originally formulated in NATO’s post-war reconstruction in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the late 1990s and proved extremely effective in managing the “on-the-ground” relations between local populations and international agencies working in the field.
CIMIC in Lebanon was meant to be a “soft way to win hearts and minds” through community outreach projects such as reforestation, cleaning historical sites and the renovation of medical facilities. Today, the scope of its operations has expanded quite considerably, and the replacement this year of Brig. General Youssef Mechref with Brig. General Elie Abi Rached, a former intelligence guru, as head of the CIMIC Directorate may indicate a further shift from the traditional developmental role of the unit to a more functional agency for intelligence collaboration.
In Ain al-Hilweh, civil-military coordination between the LAF and the JSF has played a very important role in serving as an indirect channel to the older jihadist groups of the camp, including Islamic Mujahid Movement, Ansar Allah, and Usbat al-Ansar. In July, an agreement brokered between the army and religious figures of the camp led more than 60 wanted suspects hiding in the camp to hand themselves over to the Lebanese authorities in return for a fair hearing and no use of torture. In September, increased intelligence coordination led to the arrest of Imad Yassin, an ISIS emir operating in Lebanon, who had been responsible for carrying out multiple assassinations and bombing attacks inside the camp as well as in the southern governorate of Nabatieh and in Mount Lebanon.
Video showing the arrest of ISIS Emir Imad Yassin in Ain al-Hilweh (An-Nahar)
However, despite the improved cooperation, the construction of a “security wall” may potentially destabilize the partnerships the LAF has fought so hard to nurture inside the camp. Already, Palestinians in Ain al-Hilweh have begun to assign blame amongst leaders of the JSF for their complicity in the army’s piecemeal construction of the wall. Munir Maqdah, the camp's head of the JSF, told Sky News Arabia that “the wall and [watchtowers] are being built for security concerns, which we accepted.” Likewise, Fatah and Usbat al-Ansar, member factions of the joint security committee, had supported the construction of the wall so long as it “did not infringe on people’s privacy or dignity.”
Amid local and international outcry against the wall, which many residents inside the camp have equated to Israel's Separation Wall in and around the occupied West Bank, faction members who had previously backed the estimated seven million dollar security project have now rescinded their support and further construction has been suspended. Hence, the JSF was given a mere 10 day ultimatum last week by Brig. General Khodr Hammoud (LAF Intelligence Chief for the South) to find a viable security alternative to the wall.
The piecemeal construction of the wall comes at a time when the camp’s residents and local political-power balances are becoming increasingly truncated by the regional pressures unleashed from the crisis in Syria. Ain al-Hilweh, which otherwise hosts 70,000 inhabitants on less than one square kilometer, took in an additional 11,000 displaced Palestinians and Syrian nationals fleeing violence that broke out in 2012 in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. On top of demographic pressures inside the camp, Palestinians in Lebanon cannot apply for citizenship or own property, and when Lebanese labor laws forbid Palestinians from working in more than 20 professions (including in the fields of medicine, law, education and other jobs that are regulated by professional syndicates), legal work is hard to come by. In reality, Ain al-Hilweh has become a pressure-cooker of tedium and despair for thousands of unemployed and idle youths trapped inside the camp; a recruitment bastion for extremist networks like ISIS. The proposed “firewall” may very well be the “the last straw that breaks the camel's back.”
Cody Wallace is a researcher based in Beirut, where his work focuses on the Syrian crisis and the politics of security sector reform in the Middle East. He tweets @codycwallace