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Clashes in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp leave homes 'beyond repair'

April 16, 2017 2:16 P.M. (Updated: April 17, 2017 3:50 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Fierce clashes in Lebanon’s Palestinian Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp have left scores of buildings riddled with bullet holes and rendered numerous homes completely uninhabitable, residents said, as photos depicting the breadth of destruction have begun to circulate on social media.

Nine people were confirmed to have died, while at least 104 others were reported wounded amid armed fighting that began on April 7 and lasted for nearly a week between gunmen affiliated to an Islamist group led by Bilal Badr and a newly deployed joint Palestinian security force charged with expelling Badr and his supporters from the camp.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) was forced to suspend its services in Ain al-HIlweh, as residents were displaced fleeing the violence. UNRWA administers eight schools and two clinics in the camp.

UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness said last Wednesday that some 100 houses and 75 shops were damaged or destroyed, noting that the numbers awaited verification until UNRWA crews could gain access the camp. UNRWA health clinics reopened Friday, as security conditions finally began to stabilize.

Resident of Ain al-Hilweh Muhammad Awwad told Ma'an on Saturday that locals were “shocked” with the scope of the damage and destruction, particularly in certain areas such as Suhun, al-Ras al-Ahmar, and the farmers’ market. A large number of homes in the neighborhood of al-Tira -- where Badr had been based and which thus saw some of the heaviest fighting -- were rendered completely uninhabitable, Awwad said.

Angry homeowners have urged Palestinian officials to repair and reconstruct the damaged buildings, Awwad said, highlighting that residents of the camp have already been suffering from dire economic conditions and could not afford to repair the damages on their own.

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

Awwad said that shop owners in the farmers’ market organized a protest urging official Palestinian organizations to repair the damages to the market, and to compensate them for their losses.

According to Awwad, "Bilal Badr has kept himself out of sight" after the ceasefire was reached, while the joint Palestinian forces continued to patrol the camp, especially the al-Tira neighborhood.

Sources in the neighboring city of Saida said UNRWA engineers had started a comprehensive evaluation of the damages in the al-Tira, al-Ras al-Ahmar, Suhun, and al-Safsaf neighborhoods, and that based on the evaluation, the UN agency would start to distribute aid and study the possibility of repairing and reconstructing buildings, Awwad added.

The largest and most crowded refugee camp in Lebanon, the one-square-kilometer area is home to some 120,000 Palestinian refugees, who are among more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled their villages during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and their descendants.

Prior to 2011, the camp’s population was recorded by UNRWA to be 54,116, but as a result of the Syrian war, tens of thousands of Palestinians took refuge in the camp after being displaced a second time from refugee camps across Syria.
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