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Hamas Expanding its Activity in the Lebanese Palestinian Refugee Camps

Over the past few months Hamas has been expanding its activity and influence in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. One vehicle for this expansion is a London-based center called “The Palestinian Return Center” (PRC). In November 1998 the center opened an Internet site, which at this time is still under construction. The stated aims of the PRC activity are as follows:

* To promoting the Palestinians “right of return.”
* To work to preserve the Palestinian identity and resist attempts to resettle the Palestinians of the Diaspora.
* To widen the awareness of the general public of the facts and issues concerning the plight of the Palestinian people.
* To introduce the general public in Europe, and especially in Britain, to the true dimensions of the Palestinian issue in general, in addition to the rights that were conceded through the peace accords.

The center is supposed to act through donations from sympathizers, both individuals and associations. Its directors claim that the center is not identified with any particular political trend in the Palestinian public. However, the linkage of its site on the internet to the official sites of Hamas and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood show that its ideological alliance is with the Palestinian Islamic movement. As such it serves the interests of the Palestinian opposition to the reconciliation process between Israel, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. The contents of its publication, Al-Awdah (The Return) also demonstrates an indirect connection with Hamas. The infiltration of Hamas to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is also reflected in the past few months in data and articles of its central organ, the monthly Filasteen al-Muslimah, also published in London.

Hamas has recently founded a new Islamic body in Lebanon—“The Association of the Islamic Clerics of Palestine in Lebanon” (Tajammu` ‘Ulama Filastin in Lebanon). This association is meant to serve as the movement’s highest Islamic council for the conduct of its activity among the Palestinians in Lebanon. The association is identical to the “Association of Islamic Clerics of Palestine,” a front group created by Hamas three years ago in the Territories. It is also identical to the “Association of Islamic Clerics in Lebanon and the Beqa` Valley.” This later is a very active front institution that was founded in the 1980s on Iranian initiative, in order to consolidate Shi`ite and Sunni clerics in Lebanon under the patronage of Iran and Hizballah.

The establishment of this latest Palestinian institution in Lebanon was announced at a press conference in Siddon in November 1998. Siddon is home to a number of veteran Sunni Islamic groups composed of Lebanese and Palestinians, the most prominent being Al-Jama`ah al-Islamiyyah. Representatives of various Palestinian organizations and refugee camps in Lebanon took part in the press conference. The founding of the association was consecrated by several prestigious Islamic clerics—the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani; the spiritual leader of Hizballah, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah; the Chairman of the High Shi`ite Council, Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din; and the Secretary General of Al-Jama`ah al-Islamiyyah in Saida Sheikh Faisal Mawlawi.

The association is headed by Sheikh Daud Mustafa and is composed of 67 Islamic clerics and an 11 members executive committee. In his speech at the press conference Sheikh Mustafa determined the basic objectives of the association as follows:

* The protection of the Palestinian people and its rights, together with its bolstering by Islam in order to carry on its role in the Jihad.
* The dissemination of the message that Palestine is Arabic and Islamic soil and that the Jihad for its liberation is a sacred duty.
* The promotion of the awareness of the Palestinian people to the need to oppose the disintegration of the Palestinian issue.
* The strengthening of the Islamic activity in the Palestinian public in all dimensions.

The infiltration of Hamas into the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is a new phenomenon. The movement has been altogether absent in these camps since the establishment of Hamas and its mother organization, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood at the beginning of the Intifadah. This infiltration has started mainly since the consolidation of the ten opposition groups that oppose the reconciliation process between Israel and the Palestinians. These groups are concentrated in Damascus under Syrian patronage. They held a joint convention in Damascus on the eve of President Clinton’s visit in Gaza to protest the abolition of the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian Charter.

This infiltration can be understood in the context of several recent changes in the Palestinian situation in Lebanon. First there is the void left by the Fath organization in the refugee camps in Lebanon in the wake of the removal of its headquarters to the Territories. Secondly, the diminishing support for the political process with Israel, and the transfer of the Palestinian “center of mass” to the Territories in the wake of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. And lastly, there is the perceived disregard—in the course of the negotiations with Israel—for the issue of the return of the refugees.

The void left by Fath in Lebanon brought about the increasing activity of rival groups, which were close to the Syrians. However, these groups have difficulty in enlarging their support due to of the lack of novelty of their message, the aging of their leadership and their lack of financial resources. Hamas, on the other hand, can present itself as the central Palestinian opposition force, and the central legitimate alternative in the Territories to the Palestinian Authority. The movement has a relatively large public following, and above all, is the main Palestinian element that has not only not abandoned the policy of armed struggle, but engages in intensive terrorist activities against Israel.

Another advantage of Hamas in its activity in Lebanon is its relations with Hizballah and Iran, its financial resources and its traditional activity as a Muslim Brotherhood organization in a variety of social and communal issues. Furthermore, Hamas has much greater independence than do such groups as PFLP, PDFLP, Abu-Musa etc., which act in Lebanon under Syrian patronage—a factor that greatly limits their activity.

The establishment of “The Association of Islamic clerics of Palestine in Lebanon” illustrates the strengthening of the relationship between Hamas and Hizballah. This is especially noticeable in its similarity to the older body established at the initiative of Hizballah and Iran, and its connections to Al-Jama`ah al-Islamiyyah in Siddon—one of the few Sunni Islamic groups in the Arab world under Iranian influence since the early 1980s.

It should be pointed out that the expansion of Hamas’ activity in Lebanon might also widen the gap between the “internal leadership” in the Territories and the “external leadership” in the Diaspora. Furthermore, the social development of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the past 50 years under the influence of the PLO was directed toward a clear nationalist-secular conception. However, the social and political developments of the Shi`ite community in Lebanon since 1982 and the strong influence of the Iranian supported Islamic movements there may serve as a model for the Palestinians too.

It would seem that from an Israeli point of view, the Islamist activity in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon brings with it the risk of further strengthening the Iranian elements and Hizballah in that country, by swelling their ranks with reinforcements whose past is replete with violence. At present this phenomenon seems to be in its infancy. However the large-scale socio-political activity of Hamas in these camps may strengthen the Islamist hold over this part of the Palestinian public. This, plus future developments in the talks with Israel, which will put the emphasis on the Territories at the expense of “the right of return” may also have internal consequences on the Lebanese scene relevant to Israel. The most important of these are the implications for the overall situation in Southern Lebanon and the possibility of terrorism against Israel from Lebanese territory in the case of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the security zone.