BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon – As hundreds of mourners crammed the narrow, airless street outside the Furqan mosque to attend Muhammad Samrawi’s funeral Monday evening, a mood of anxiety hung palpably in the air. A distressed middle-aged woman, wearing a black abaya and black headscarf, broke the heavy silence, wailing of her hope that the mother of Samrawi’s killer one day feels the grief she is now feeling.
Within seconds, a pair of men pounced on the woman, hissing at her to be quiet. “We don’t want fitna [sectarian strife]!” shouted one to the crowd. Evidently fearing a repeat of the previous night’s demonstrations against Hezbollah – whose gunmen were responsible for Samrawi’s death – the man frantically repeated, “No chants!” When he went on to declare, “We are all with you, Sayyid Hassan,” a young man behind NOW cursed in disgust.
A coffin emerged from the mosque, draped in a Palestinian flag, and the procession began through the winding alleyways of Beirut’s most densely-populated refugee camp, the deafening claps of AK-47 fire reverberating off the graffiti-colored walls. At the cemetery fifteen minutes later, as the men buried the body, the same black-clad woman was still refusing to be hushed by bystanders. “I’m not going to be quiet. Tell me! Are we takfiris too, now?”
Such open expression of resentment against Hezbollah is a rare spectacle from Palestinian refugees, who generally support the party’s muscular anti-Israel stance and, in the case of Burj al-Barajneh residents, live in the heart of the southern suburbs, where the party’s control is at its tightest.
Yet Hezbollah’s killing of 40-year-old Samrawi at a party checkpoint at the camp’s entrance Sunday night has aggravated Palestinians’ feelings of being targeted by Hezbollah’s new security measures, which came into effect after the 15 August car bomb that killed 30 in the nearby Al-Roueiss neighborhood.
“There’s a feeling that the camp is being singled out,” said Ali, a camp resident in his mid-twenties who witnessed the clash. “They stopped the car of the wedding couple, which was at the front of the wedding convoy. There was an exchange of words, a provocation, and then eventually gunfire. If this was the only time this happened, it would be okay, but it’s happened before and it will keep happening. People are angry,” he told NOW.
Ali complained of routine petty harassment of Palestinians at Hezbollah’s new checkpoints. “As soon as you say you’re Palestinian, they pull you over, they search you, just like they do to Syrians. I’ve been pulled over myself at least four times. People as young as fifteen are made to hand over their phones. I thought we were done with racism.”
NOW also met with Hosni Abu Taqa, head of the camp’s Popular Committee, who has been working nonstop since Sunday to limit the fallout from the shooting and mediate an agreement to cool residents’ tempers.
“We understand why there are checkpoints – after all, this is Dahiyeh. And after people started blaming that Palestinian man for the rocket attacks, we obviously couldn’t refuse the security measures,” Abu Taqa told NOW, referring to Ahmad Taha, the Palestinian suspected of attacking Dahiyeh in May with rockets purchased, according to some reports, from Burj al-Barajneh itself.
As such, said Abu Taqa, a deal was struck with Hezbollah on Monday to move the checkpoint further away from the camp’s Haret Hreik entrance. Moreover, the checkpoint at the camp’s airport road entrance is now manned by the Internal Security Forces, not Hezbollah.
However, the Dahiyeh rocket attack is not the only recent source of friction between Hezbollah and Palestinian refugees. In May, residents of the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Sidon burned aid packages received from the party in anger at their intervention in Syria, reportedly saying, “We don’t want assistance soaked in the blood of the Syrian people.” Indeed, Ain al-Hilweh has for years been a hotbed of anti-Hezbollah sentiment, with some of the camp’s Islamist militants believed to have fought against both Hezbollah in Sidon and the regime in Syria. Elsewhere, residents of the Shatila camp in Beirut have been recruited into anti-Hezbollah militias in adjacent Sunni neighborhoods. And, as NOW has previously reported, Hezbollah’s relations with Hamas have reached unprecedented lows, with the latter accused of assisting Syrian rebels in the battle for Qusayr as well as harboring a key suspect in the Dahiyeh rocket attack.
Underlying this rift is a general proliferation of sectarian Islamist ideology among Palestinians in Lebanon, which Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has accelerated, according to Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center and a former adviser to the Palestinian delegation to peace talks in the 1990s.
“Sectarian feelings have been building up in the Palestinian camps for a while, originally over the Iraq war and now the Syrian one, and this has been fomented by Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Mubarak’s Egypt. As in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, socioeconomically and politically marginalized communities like Palestinian refugees have moved toward Salafism. This in turn has alienated them from Hezbollah, which was otherwise a party they were close to on several levels. The bonds between them have eroded immensely over a number of years and the Syrian crisis has crystallized that,” Sayigh told NOW.
Moreover, the Syrian conflict has increasingly placed Palestinians in direct opposition to the Assad regime.
“Obviously, lots of Palestinians have joined the fight against the regime in Syria. Just yesterday, families from Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp which had taken shelter in Ain al-Hilweh were mourning five dead. So Palestinians here increasingly have close bonds that tie them to the opposition in Syria against the regime, which most Palestinians distrust anyway and have done for a long time.”
Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.