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Nicolas Dot-Pouillard , researcher at the Institut Français pour le Proche-Orient

March 2019
Countering Radicalization and the Role of Mediators in Mitigating Violence in Ain el Hilweh

Lebanon’s collective understanding of the Ain el Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp is often reduced to a vague sense of “lawlessness”, or a belief that camp residents actively shelter members of jihadist groups. Among these groups is Fatah al-Islam, which in 2007 engaged in fighting with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in North Lebanon. But our understanding of Salafi groups need not be confined to such an example. Indeed, a distinction should be drawn between political and jihadist Salafism in order to better understand and deconstruct the violent actions undertaken by some adherents. Clearing up the rather opaque understanding of these groups and their methods could allow for the introduction of concrete action centered on building dialogue with the Lebanese state and, ultimately, stemming outbreaks of violence. Such an initiative would be framed according to a mediation approach—focusing on promoting dialogue and bolstering coordination efforts in and around the camp. 
Since 2011, the security situation in Ain el Hilweh has been precarious, in no small part due to the spillover effects of the Syrian crisis. Despite Palestinian-led efforts to counter the influence of extremist groups—most notably through the establishment of a joint security force comprising non-Salafist movements such as Hamas (Islamist), Fatah (Nationalist), and The Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Leftist)—jihadist groups have managed to maintain a presence in the camp. In the fight to contain and remove these groups from Lebanon, there is rarely an effort to distinguish between them. The nuances and unique characteristics of such groups, both violent and non-violent, offer a view into the camp that is otherwise seldom considered. 
Not all Salafi jihadist factions in Ain el Hilweh share the same goals and their leadership is not stable. Undoubtedly, Salafi jihadists are present in Ain el Hilweh, but should not be seen as part of a single homogeneous movement. Consider that the Islamic State has a rather muted presence in the camp and lacks a genuine popular base while what remains of Fatah al-Islam is not guided by robust and cohesive leadership—a point illustrated most recently by the departure of Bilal Badr to Syria at the end of 2017. 
Political Salafism in Ain el Hilweh, by contrast, has interwoven itself with the Palestinian social fabric, largely on account of it offering a remedy to the statelessness experienced by Palestinians in camps. Its aspirations are not explicitly focused on conflict in Syria or Iraq, and politically active Salafist groups work with recognized Palestinian institutions in Lebanon such as the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut. Political Salafism’s history in Ain el Hilweh dates back to the early 1990s. Such groups include the Partisans’ League (Osbat al Ansar) and the Islamic Combatant Movement (ICM) of Sheikh Jamal Khattab. These groups embrace religious fundamentalism but do not seek confrontation with the Lebanese state, nor do they explicitly question security cooperation between Lebanese and Palestinians. One should also consider the case of the Young Muslims (Shabab al-Muslim), a political Salafist group founded in Ain el Hilweh in 2015 that aggregates young radicalized Palestinians, often those who had previously been close to Fatah al-Islam and more moderate elements. Ideologically, the Young Muslim gathering exists at a crossroads between political Salafism and jihadist Salafism. 
The main challenge for Palestinian forces and Lebanese authorities is securing the gradual disarmament of such groups, and maintaining lines of communication and fostering dialogue with their leadership. Such action should be undertaken to encourage a shift from radicalism to political and religious moderation, all with an eye toward ending destructive rounds of fighting in the camp. 
There is an asset already present in Ain el Hilweh that could help: Local mediators. Their work can comprise another, complementary approach in containing and countering violent jihadism in Ain el Hilweh through the embrace of new and innovative mediation dynamics. Already, Lebanese and Palestinian mediators have proven adept at negotiating and securing agreements between rival factions. In recent years they have even managed to convince some Palestinian fugitives to surrender to the LAF. Mediators include Islamic clerics such as Lebanese Sheikh Maher Hammoud in Sidon, and Palestinian Islamist leaders belonging to Hamas and the Combatant Islamic Movement, in addition to social workers and members of the Neighborhoods Committees, a local organization comprising Palestinian activists. Through their daily involvement with the camp’s youth, mediators maintain a regular, informal dialogue with Palestinians who might otherwise be prone to embracing radicalism. These local mediators have a primary role to play, in that they can curb the rise of jihadist Salafism without the use of military force. 
However, at times, such mediation is poorly coordinated and hampered by an absence of mutual trust. A comprehensive approach would entail the establishment of a mediation committee. Associated Lebanese and Palestinian figures—both religious and civil society—could then foster better coordination of ongoing mediation initiatives between Palestinian forces and radical groups.
For such a strategy to be effective, it must be collectively understood that there is no contradiction between mediation and the goal of fostering greater security. Ostensibly, all factions work in concert to improve the security situation in the camp through the joint security force. In practice, these factions distrust each other. The reinforcement of the Palestinian national dialogue in Lebanon—with the support of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Gaza—is a prerequisite for the camp's long-term stability. 
To complement this, efforts should be undertaken to reexamine the relationship between Palestinians and the Lebanese security services. Despite genuine cooperation, dialogue between them is affected by contradictory agendas. Thus, Palestinians have difficulty accepting some of the security measures adopted by the LAF (episodic closing of the camp's gates, the erecting of a wall around Ain el Hilweh), while Lebanese authorities believe Palestinian factions are not actively working to apprehend fugitives. Local Lebanese and Palestinian mediators could play a key role in fostering a robust political and security dialogue between different stakeholders and helping ensure its durability. 
In closing, any dialogue will not be sustained without a genuine solution to the marginalization of Palestinian youth in Lebanon, fundamentalism will find fertile ground in Ain el Hilweh. Jihadist ideology feeds on unemployment, uncertainty about the future, and legal discrimination. If we are to reach a stage at which young people reject or are not enticed by violent ideologies, we must first focus on their dignity.

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