Quarterly Updates for (16 Feb 2017 — 15 May 2017)

Tensions flared along the Israeli-Lebanese border this quarter, which observers attributed to Lebanese pres. Michel Aoun’s friendly ties with Hezbollah (see JPS 46 [2]). The escalation began late last quarter when Aoun said (2/12) in an interview on Egyptian TV that Hezbollah played a “complementary role to the Lebanese army,” and that “as long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel . . . we feel the need for its existence.” His comments fueled speculation in the Israeli press that the Lebanese army had started coordinating with Hezbollah along the border between the 2 countries. The following week, Israel’s UN amb., Danny Danon, sent a protest letter to UN secy.-gen. António Guterres alleging potential Lebanese violations of UN Security Council Res. 1701, which prohibits Lebanon from fielding militias on the border, including Hezbollah (see Doc. A2 in JPS 36 [1]). Aoun responded (2/18) that “any attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the appropriate response.” He denounced Danon’s letter as a “masked attempt to threaten security and stability” in s. Lebanon. Around the same time, Hezbollah secy.-gen. Hassan Nasrallah told (2/16) a rally that Israel’s nuclear weapons facility at Dimona represented a “threat to the entire region,” and that Hezbollah would “turn it into a threat to Israel.” His comments prompted the Israeli govt. to send a backchannel message to Hezbollah threatening to retaliate in response to any aggression (al-Hayat, 2/19). While the rhetoric on both sides intensified at various times during the quarter, there were no serious indications that any of the parties was interested in escalating it to violent confrontation.

While Lebanese and Israeli leaders were rattling their sabers, violence erupted once again in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Fatah security forces and armed mbrs. of local Islamist groups clashed in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp (r.c.) on 2/25, leading to 3 injuries and forcing the closure of UNRWA’s schools and health facilities in the area. Although it is not clear what sparked the violence, the clashes coincided with Abbas’s visit to Lebanon and a visit to ‘Ayn al-Hilweh by the wife of exiled Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan. After a brief cease-fire on 2/26, a bomb detonated outside a call center in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh on 2/27, sparking a fresh round of clashes before the 2 sides reached another truce on 2/28 (2 Palestinians died of injuries sustained in the 2/27 clashes). The heads of various Palestinian factions in Lebanon, including Fatah and Hamas, then met (2/28) at the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut to address the persistent violence plaguing ‘Ayn al-Hilweh (see JPS 46 [3]). They issued a joint statement (3/2) demanding that Islamists wanted by the Lebanese authorities leave the camp, and reiterating their commitment to security and stability in all Palestinian camps across Lebanon. PLO secy. Fathi Abu al-Aradat added (3/2) that the Palestinian leaders had reached an agreement with the Lebanese govt. to form a joint security force to flush out wanted Islamists in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh, and turn them over to the Lebanese authorities.

Calm in the camp held for about 3 weeks before a new round of clashes broke out on 3/23–24. Two Palestinians were killed and 4 were injured in the renewed clashes. A 3d Palestinian died in the camp on 3/24, but Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that his injures stemmed from an unrelated, personal dispute. When the joint Palestinian force deployed in the camp on 4/7, an Islamist group attacked them, leading to 5 straight days of fighting; at least 10 Palestinians were killed, including 1 child, and more than 50 were injured. By 4/11, the Islamists had reportedly lost control of the perimeter around their base in the al-Tira neighborhood of the r.c. Their leader, Bilal Badr, evaded capture, and although the fighting subsided, his followers remained loyal to him. The joint force increased its numbers from 100 to 150 to regain control of alTira, vowing to maintain their presence until Badr was arrested.

The security situation in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh had stabilized by 4/14, according to UNRWA, and the agency was able to resume its services to residents. With Badr at large, however, tensions lingered. His followers threatened to bomb of the joint force’s positions nr. al-Tira on 5/9, and Badr himself was reportedly demanding cash payments—approximately $30,000 up front and $6,000 per mo. after that—to end his campaign (Daily Star, 5/9).