The Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both trying to recruit fighters in Lebanese refugee camps, according to Lebanese security sources quoted recently in local newspapers.
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They are particularly active in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon in southern Lebanon, according to the reports. Ain al-Hilweh is home to some 80,000 people and is the largest and most crowded Palestinian refugee camp in the country.
Quoting the security sources, the Lebanese newspaper Al Joumhouria reported that local ISIS commanders, the children of Palestinian refugees living in the camp, have recently started to recruit for the organization. The sources said that more than 200 young people had been recruited, while dozens had succeeded in crossing the border into Syria to join ISIS in Raqqa and its other strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to the sources, the recruitment is being conducted by operatives who came from Syria to infiltrate the camp, specifically from the Yarmouk refugee camp, which is almost totally controlled by ISIS and the Nusra Front.
The sources also said the recruitment program began a few months ago with the assassination of one senior Fatah official and the attempt on the life of another. Subhi Abu Arab, a top Palestinian security commander in Lebanon, was killed in Ain al-Hilweh. Munir al Maqdah, the head of the Palestinian security forces in Lebanon’s refugee camps, survived an assassination attempt. A series of shootings and bombings have aimed to show that Fatah and other Palestinian factions are losing control of the camp.
A former senior Fatah military official in Ain al-Hilweh told Haaretz that the Palestinians had always made a point of not intervening in domestic Lebanese disputes after the end of the country's civil war. He added that the refugee camps, and Ain al-Hilweh in particular, are an easy target for the Islamic State and similar groups because of the poverty, unemployment and neglect of the Lebanese authorities.
Sources in Ain al-Hilweh are not denying that recruitment efforts are going on in the camp, but claim that the phenomenon is limited. They expressed concern that the Palestinian refugees would be the scapegoats for the Lebanese security apparatus' failure to overcome the Islamist organizations.
Senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah told Haaretz that political leadership is aware of the issue, but cannot cope with it alone. A senior Palestinian Authority security source said that concerns about ISIS infiltrating Palestinian refugee camps also exist in Gaza and the West Bank. He said the closed border and the work of the Palestinian security forces are delaying similar developments, adding that the Hamas government in the Strip is not allowing these groups to develop an infrastructure that could threaten it.
It should be noted that conflicts between Palestinian and Lebanese forces and radical Islamist forces are not new. In 2007 there was a serious confrontation between the Lebanese Army and Fatah militias against Al-Qaida-inspired jihadists, some of them Palestinian, after the latter seized control of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. According to Palestinian sources, it was a focused and limited struggle at the time. With the spread of ISIS, the current challenge is far more complex.