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Death toll rises to 8 amid ongoing clashes in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp

April 10, 2017 5:09 P.M. (Updated: April 10, 2017 11:04 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Clashes in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp continued for the fourth consecutive day, after the death toll rose to at least eight people as of Monday morning according to Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA), breaking a short-lived ceasefire declared the previous night.

At least 35 more have been injured since violence broke out Friday -- including four year-old Zaher Khattab who was shot by a stray bullet Sunday evening -- as armed clashes raged between a new joint Palestinian force deployed in the camp and Islamist militants led by Bilal Badr -- who has alleged links to al-Qaeda and lives in the camp’s al-Tira neighborhood.

Palestinian security forces chief Subhi Abu Arab was quoted by Lebanese news sites as saying that Palestinian forces were committed to continuing operations until Badr and other gunmen turned themselves in.

Palestinian national security forces deputy head in Lebanon Munir al-Muqdah meanwhile warned that there would be an escalation of military action on Monday evening in order to put an end to the situation.

NNA reported on Sunday night that a ceasefire was brokered, as negotiations were underway between Palestinian political leadership and Bilal Badr's mediators. "Two Islamist delegates” who met with Bilal Badr agreed to the ceasefire, based on Badr's evacuating al-Tira, allowing Palestinian forces to deploy in the neighborhood, while Badr would be allowed to disappear into hiding and remain “pursued” by security forces.

Shortly after the news site reported that the initiative was still under review by Palestinian factions, clashes erupted anew, marked by heavy gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

According to NNA, Badr’s proposal was not well received by the Fatah movement, who “wanted to make a lesson out of Bilal Badr to anyone who would consider trespassing on the Palestinian consensus and causing tension within the camp.”

Monday morning’s “cautious calm” -- punctuated by occasional bursts of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades -- escalating by midday, as schools were forced to remain closed in the neighboring city of Saida and the surrounding areas, with the Lebanese army deployed around the camp.

Homes, shops, and other property sustained major damages, as Palestinian residents fled their homes amid the the violence.

At 2 p.m., NNA reported that a man, identified as Helmi Yousif Yaqoub, was pulled out from rubble after being buried for four days, and taken to a hospital for treatment.

A high state of alert was reported early Monday afternoon, after Badr’s group launched three assaults around the camp in a failed attempt to break the blockade established by Palestinian forces around its perimeter, according to NNA.

The clashes came as the latest episode in ongoing armed violence in Ain al-Hilweh that have left numerous Palestinians dead in recent months.

Badr and his followers are among non-Palestinian militants who reside in the Palestinian refugee camp, which also include Lebanese fugitives wanted by Lebanese security forces, that PLO factions have long sought to expel from the camp.

The violence has been strongly condemned by UNICEF and UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees, with UNRWA being forced to suspend its operations in the camp in a number of cases.

The largest and most crowded refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain al-Hilweh is home to some 54,116 registered refugees who fled their villages during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, according to the UN.

However, the population has significantly increased since 2011 as a result of the Syrian war, as Palestinians have been displaced a second time from refugee camps across Syria, with development nonprofit organization Anera estimating the camp's population to be closer to 120,000.

According to UNRWA, Ain al-Hilweh suffers from high rates of poverty and poor housing conditions, which have been further stressed as a result of overcrowding in recent years.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have the highest percentage of their population living in abject poverty from among the other countries the organization serves, according to UNRWA.
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