Islamic extremism in Palestinian communities in the Middle East is emerging as a significant security threat. These relatively ungoverned spaces are proving vulnerable to radical takeover from without and within.
The Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus was invaded by ISIS troops in early April. Reports of the security situation are confused. Local Palestinian militia groups such as Hamas-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were reported to have repelled ISIS but it is now thought ISIS has reclaimed around 90% of the camp; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS have taken over 80% of the camp. According to the Syrian Government, the majority of civilians have now left Yarmouk and only 6000 remain; the UN is demanding access.
Reports from civilians in the camp only a few days ago said they are terrified to go out for fear of being killed. Their terror serves to compound the misery of constant shortages of food, water and other essential services, which has been ongoing since a siege on the camp launched by the Syrian Government in 2012 as a result of infiltration by anti-Government forces.
For years in Lebanon, Palestinian camps have been regarded by the Lebanese as a source of radical Islam. In recent years unrest has emerged from Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli and Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon. In 2007, the group Fatah al-Islam took over Nahr al-Bared, with around 170 soldiers and 64 civilians killed in the ensuing battles. For years, Ain al-Hilweh was known locally as a place that the Lebanese Armed Forces dare not enter for fear of being attacked. It is known to house some of the more extreme Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad, Jund al-Sham, Shabab al-Muslim, Fatah al-Islam, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. It was the site of support for the political activist turned terrorist Sheikh Ahmad Assir, who launched an attack on an army checkpoint in Sidon in 2013. While the army managed to disperse Assir's group in Sidon, Assir himself was not caught and some of his supporters are believed to be hiding in the camp.
The tension between Sunni and Shia military groups is often exposed inside the camps and may be leading to increasing violence. Earlier this month Marwan Issa, a member of the Hezbollah-linked Resistance Brigades, was found dead in Ain al-Hilweh. The Government and the Lebanese Army have announced publicly that they are strengthening checkpoints around the camp and will work with the camp committee to develop and enforce a more comprehensive security plan to prevent the rise of Islamic extremism. A confidential source however has revealed that an attack is being planned, led by Fatah forces and supported indirectly from Ramullah and the Lebanese Internal Security Services to drive extremist Islamists from Ain al-Hilweh.
Another camp, Burj al-Barajneh, is less known for its militant activities, but this is may be changing. During the bombings in Beirut in the summer of 2013, when I lived in the adjacent Hizbullah heartland of Dahiyeh, Hizbullah surrounded the camp a number of times as it was rumoured that two bomb-laden cars lay in waiting to be driven out to suitable destinations for detonation. True or not, local suspicion surrounding the camp remains high, not least because a large number of Syrians have moved in, fueling fears that they are developing radical movements to coordinate attacks in pro-Hizbullah areas.
Lebanon's experience with Palestinian camps is the main reason the Government has thus far refused to establish formal Syrian refugee camps. The Government is understandably concerned that establishing Syrian refugee camps would create the same conditions of unrest and sanctuary for criminals and terrorists. And just like the Palestinian camps, the occupants would remain in Lebanon far into the future. As many of the original refugees who fled Syria were Sunni, there is particular concern that sympathy for ISIS would be fostered there.
The camps are not the only problem. Sympathy for ISIS among young Gazans is reported to be growing; Hamas' failure to negotiate a working alliance with Fatah and the desperate living conditions residents have experienced since the Israeli offensive last year are among the causes. Hamas is working hard to combat rising support but after years of failing to advance the Palestinian cause, it is unsurprising that a large number of youth look fondly on what they see as the success of ISIS. The bombing of the French Cultural Centre in Gaza City on 12 December last year is claimed to be the work of Islamic groups that support ISIS, and some academics and journalists have allegedly received threats. Hamas is working hard to downplay local ISIS support, as it recognises the threat the group poses to support for the Palestinian cause in the international community.
As if the peace process didn't have enough problems after Netanyahu's declaration that he does not support a two-state solution (a statement since somewhat unconvincingly retracted), the rise of support for ISIS in Gaza provides further justification for Netanyahu's argument that Israel cannot have a terrorist state formed in its heartland. Rising support for ISIS could also further damage Hamas-Egypt relations. And on a practical note it could lead to the withdrawal of humanitarian actors who fear for their safety in light of ISIS killings in Syria.
In the absence of a political solution to the Palestinian issue, there is an urgent need to combat poverty, which helps drive localised violence in Palestinian communities but also potentially something more sinister. It has never been more important to prevent these communities from becoming breeding grounds for further radicalisation.