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Lebanon warns PA’s Abbas that troops may intervene if refugee camp clashes continue

SIDON, Lebanon — Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to demand an end to the volatile situation in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, warning that Lebanese troops may intervene to stop the fighting that has left dozens dead and wounded.

Najib Mikati’s call with Abbas came after days of sporadic clashes between armed Palestinian factions in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon.

Mikati called the fighting a “flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” and said it was unacceptable for the warring Palestinian groups to “terrorize the Lebanese, especially the people of the south who have embraced the Palestinians for many years,” according to a statement released by his office.

His call came as cautious calm returned to the camp and the surrounding area Thursday after a night of renewed clashes.

Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, which is home to about 50,000 people, has been rocked since Sunday by fierce battles between Abbas’s Fatah party and Islamist groups Jund al Sham and Shabab al Muslim.

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Fatah has accused the Islamists of gunning down a Fatah military general, Abu Ashraf al Armoushi, in the camp on Sunday.

File: PA President Mahmoud Abbas holds a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on July 25, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

The fighting has so far killed more than a dozen people, wounded dozens more, and displaced thousands.

In the city of Sidon, outside the camp’s borders, around 100 camp residents who had fled the clashes were sheltering in a nearby mosque on Thursday. Sheikh Ahmad Nader said that around 2,000 people had sheltered at the mosque since the beginning of the clashes.

“We are tired of all of this,” said Mohamed Sabakh, an Ein el-Hilweh resident staying in the mosque with his family. “We have children.”

Even outside the camp, Sabakh said, they feel trapped by the fighting.

“Look around you, all the stores are closed. People are locked down in their houses. There is nowhere to get bread even, all the roads are closed.”

Dr. Riad Abu al-Einein, head of Al Hamshari Hospital near the camp, told The Associated Press that the hospital had received the body of a person killed in Wednesday night’s clashes, bringing the total number killed in the battles to 13, with dozens more wounded.

Empty bullet cartridges are seen lying on the road during a third day of clashes that erupted between members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and Islamist factions in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, July 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zaatari)

If the situation continues, he said, “it will affect not only the families in the camp but all of the people in Sidon, especially as there were several rocket-propelled grenades and gunshots hit residential areas in the city.”

Maher Shabaita, head of Fatah in the Sidon region, confirmed that one of the group’s members was killed in Wednesday night’s clashes.

He said Fatah fighters had defended themselves after the Islamist groups attacked one of Fatah’s centers in the camp, breaking a ceasefire agreement reached Monday, in what he described as part of a “project to destroy the camp and transform the camp into a camp of militants, possibly a camp of terrorists.”

Palestinian factions in the camp have formed an investigative committee to determine who was responsible for Armoushi’s killing and hand them over to the Lebanese judiciary for trial, he said.

Smoke rises during clashes that erupted between members of the Palestinian Fatah group and Islamist militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, July 30, 2023. (Mohammad Zaatari/AP)

The Lebanese army generally doesn’t enter the Palestinian camps, which are controlled by a network of Palestinian factions, and hasn’t taken an active role in the conflict in Ein el-Hilweh.

In 2007, the Lebanese army battled Islamist extremists in another Palestinian camp, Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, razing most of the camp in the process.

Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general who is now a researcher in military affairs, said it was unlikely that the army would intervene in the Ein el-Hilweh clashes, because — unlike in Nahr al-Bared —the combatants haven’t directly targeted the army.

Palestinian refugees and their descendants are not entitled to Lebanese citizenship, no matter how many generations their families have lived in the country, and don’t receive the same benefits and rights as Lebanese citizens.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.