Security Committees in Lebanon’s Refugee Camps take law into their hands
Beirut, Lebanon (Al-Hayat Newspaper) – For decades, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have had to live in poverty and deprivation. But recently, tens of thousands of them are having to endure more obstacles posed by armed militias. Affiliated with some Palestinian factions, those militias have been meddling in refugees’ affairs, sometimes even murdering civilians who have no recourse to protection or justice.
A casual visitor to the Shatila camp in Beirut might not detect signs of militancy while walking through the narrow alleyways of the densely-populated camp. But a close scrutiny will reveal countless tales of lawlessness and injustice.
In 2010, Mohammad Mustafa, also known as Abu Khazneh, was killed by members of the Security Committee – the body responsible for keeping the peace in Shatila camp in Beirut. He came to the committee to lodge a complaint against a businessman who put up an internet box on the wall of his home without his permission. But an argument ensued between Abu Khazneh and members of the committee.
He left their headquarters to avoid an escalation, but they attacked his house, confiscated his weapon and detained him.
Abu Khazneh’s relatives persuaded the committee to release him, but the committee refused to return his weapon. He insisted on getting it back, but instead they gunned him down.
Abu Khazneh’s brother flew in from Germany to lodge a complaint but the committee refused to do anything about it. The suspect was being protected, and the Committee did not want to start an inquiry or hand him over to the Lebanese authorities.
The people of Shatila camp are all too familiar with incidents like this one.
Mohammad Mustafa was not a random victim. In July 2008, Rim, a 17-year old woman, was killed at a checkpoint controlled by the Security Committee at the entrance to the camp. No one was held accountable.
For more than three decades, militants working for the Security Committee have engaged in arbitrary detention, often conducting investigations without having any jurisdiction to do so. In some cases, they provided cover to drug dealers operating in the crowded camp and surrounding areas.
Before the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, the residents of Shatila camp took care of running their own daily and legal affairs. Disputes were resolved with the help of dignitaries and powerful families.
When the war started, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) worked to unify all Palestinian factions. A Popular Committee was subsequently created to run the day-to-day affairs of the camp, such as water, electricity and real-estate. In 1982, a body dubbed as Armed Struggle (Al-Kifah al-Musallah) was formed to act as a police force.
Internal struggles ensued with the split of “Fatah al-Intifada” and the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. With the Syrian army entering Lebanon, fighting erupted between the PLO and groups backed by the Syrian regime (Fatah al-Intifada, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PLFP-GC) in what became known as the “War of the Camps”. As a result, dominating elements in the Popular Committees formed their own security committees, replacing Al-Kifah al-Musallah.
These Security Committees became power brokers, in the absence of any joint Lebanese-Palestinian agreement over the administration of the refugee camps.
Twenty-six year old Hani lives in a one-bedroom home that never sees the sun. “Unemployment has led me to addiction,” he says, as he lights a cigarette with a shaky hand.
“When drug dealers hear about a poor and jobless young man, they entrap him.” He says, “they offer him work, selling [drugs] in return for some cash. That is, if he doesn’t want to do drugs himself.”
Drug dealers usually target young men with criminal records who can’t find work or leave the camp. Hani, for instance, found himself caught up in a robbery which he says had nothing to do with him. He was taking a couple of his friends out for a drive in his uncle’s car in Beirut, and during the trip, they robbed someone.
The Lebanese authorities launched a search and Hani became a wanted man. Now, he can no longer leaves the camp for fear of arrest, and spends hours sitting in cafes.
It is in those cafes that drug dealers go on the prowl for young men. The Security Committee is unable to rein them in, especially because some of them are well connected and powerful. Some gang leaders are members of armed factions, or have close ties to members of the security.
Adnan, a drug dealer who was operating alone, was apprehended in the camp with nearly 7 kilograms of cocaine. When the Security Committee handed him over to the Lebanese authorities, they found only one kilogram in his possession. People familiar with the case say the Security Committee had resold the remaining amount to other drug dealers.
Ahmad A., a former member of this Committee, says committee officials often confiscate the items found with the detainees (e.g. contraband, cash, motorcycles, pistols), but no one knows what happens to them afterwards. Detainees are then either handed over to the government, or smuggled out in return for cash.
Dealing in contraband does not stop at the borders of Shatila, as the outskirts of the camp are intertwined with many Lebanese slums, where the Lebanese government is almost absent – from the Rihab neighborhood to Sabra, and then from the neighborhood of al-Gharbi to the neighborhood of Farhat.
This geographical overlap has resulted in a corresponding overlap in security-related and social issues. Many drug dealers are thus frequently spotted moving between the camp and the slums.
O.Y. is a Lebanese national who often visits the areas adjacent to the refugee camp, openly selling drugs. The members of the Security Committee, it seems, have been turning a blind eye to him to avoid a Lebanese-Palestinian dispute.
Over the years, Shatila has gone through a major transformation, as more than two-thirds of its inhabitants have left the camp and rented their property to Syrian and Lebanese nationals.
According to figures from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the remaining Palestinian population of Shatila is now estimated at 5,000.
Non-Palestinian residents have also been subjected to abuse by the Security Committee, which “levies” protection money from them. The Committee sends out patrols to non-Palestinian shopkeepers to collect money in return for security. But this has gradually descended into a form of extortion.
On the other hand, the Popular Committee, which is in charge of managing services in the camp, handles its finances and fees-collecting system without any monitoring. Residents say the Popular Committee often charges non-Palestinian residents high prices for rent.
Raafat Morra, a Hamas political official in Beirut, says that “officials in charge in the Popular Committee are involved in reselling water and electricity allocated for the camp.”
But, despite all the abuses, many people continue to voice their support for the security and popular committees, because they feel their presence “is better than nothing,” as Morra said.
The composition of the security committees in the camps
Initially, the Security Committee was made up of members belonging to various Palestinian factions, who were seconded by their leaderships at the PLO.
Today, the PLO comprises 11 factions, most notably Fatah, the Popular Front (PFLP), the Democratic Front (DFLP), the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF). The PFLP-GC had suspended its membership in the PLO, and together with Fatah al-Intifada, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, formed the Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF).
The security committees were formed in 1985 in the refugee camps of Beirut. But in 1988, they became dominated by Fatah al-Intifada, the PFLP-GC and As-Sa’iqa.
In the Palestinian refugee camps in Sidon and the south, meanwhile, Fatah and other PLO factions continue to be in control through Al-Kifah al-Musallah.
The extent of the violations committed by the security committees varies from one camp to another. The Lebanese government does not recognize the legitimacy of the security committees. But at the same time, it takes advantage of their presence by coordinating with them to transfer wanted fugitives.
But even then, committees cannot hand over fugitives to the Lebanese authorities unless the decision is unanimously approved by the factions, as was the case when members of Fatah al-Islam escaped to the Baddawi camp from the Naher al-Bared camp near Tripoli in 2007.
Usually, a security committee is made up of 12 members, while 20 others (two men from each faction) are supposed to report to the committee in shifts. In some cases, there are members who take salaries without showing up for their shifts.
“The staffers are not saints,” said Hassan Zaidan, an official in Fatah al-Intifada, when he was asked to comment on allegations of corruption. “They make mistakes just like other employees in any administrative position. But there is no one to hold them accountable.”
The Palestinian official then stressed that “a main concern of the Security Committee is to apprehend drug dealers, and there is no one who is not handed over. The only ones that stand to benefit from [the Committee’s] absence are those dealers and thugs.”
The Palestinian factions – with the exception of the PFLP-GC – refuse to participate in the Committee, citing the lack of funding for their members who would join it, according to Zaidan.
Despite all this, the Fatah al-Intifada official stressed that the “Committee will continue its work despite its weakness, until the day comes when the people and the rest of the factions will support it.”
This investigation was supported by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Bissan al-Sheikh