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Residents fearful as clashes continue in Palestinian camp in Lebanon

EIN EL-HILWEH, Lebanon — Fruit and vegetable seller Ismail Akkawi had no choice but to brave days of intermittent but deadly fighting in Lebanon’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp in order to make ends meet.

The produce market at the heart of the restive Ein el-Hilweh camp — in the southern coastal city of Sidon — is usually bustling with vendors, but few have ventured out since clashes broke out in the camp late Saturday. “I have to leave the house, despite the horrific circumstances for selling vegetables,” said Akkawi, who is in his sixties. If the violence continues, “who will put food on the table for me and my family?” he asked.

Outbreaks of violence are common in the camp, but 11 people have been killed in the current flare-up — the worst in years, pitting members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Islamist militants. The clashes erupted on Sunday when Islamic militants shot and killed Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, a prominent military official from Fatah, and three escorts as they were walking through a parking lot.

Ain al-Hilweh is home to more than 54,000 registered refugees, mostly descendants of Palestinians who were driven out or fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Thousands of Palestinians from Syria who sought refuge from the civil war have also joined the camp in recent years.

Palestinian factions said they had agreed on a truce on Sunday but it failed to hold, and fighting continued on Monday and Tuesday with automatic weapons and rockets being used.

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Deserted buildings stand riddled with bullet holes on the front lines, while charred cars litter the camp’s southern district of Hittin, which witnessed clashes and shelling.

A man walks past closed shops in the aftermath of clashes between the Fatah movement and Islamists inside the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in the southern coastal city of Sidon on August 1, 2023. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Fear of shortages

Bread vendor Mukhtar, 62, said panicked residents were stocking up on supplies.

“People are buying two bags of bread, fearing shortages due to the security situation,” he said, declining to give his surname.

The fighting has prompted the United Nations to suspend its activities in Ein el-Hilweh, while shops and public institutions have also closed in Sidon, the largest city in southern Lebanon.

“Arrangements are underway to establish a serious ceasefire,” senior Fatah official Mounir Makdah told AFP on Tuesday.

Palestinian security forces are working “to remove the gunmen from the streets and form an investigation committee” to identify those responsible for the violence, he added. “All factions have collectively decided to hold perpetrators of breaches and security incidents to account.”

Lebanon hosts an estimated 250,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants, according to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees which has faced longtime criticism for allowing the refugee status to carry on indefinitely to descendants. Most live in one of Lebanon’s 12 official camps, and face a variety of legal restrictions, including on employment.

By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army does not enter Palestinian refugee camps, leaving the factions themselves to handle security.