BEIRUT (AP) — Damage to the school complex in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp from recent clashes between factions could delay the start of the school year for some 6,000 children, a United Nations official said Friday.
The concern arose after heavy street battles broke out Sunday in Ein el-Hilweh between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and Islamist groups Jund al Sham and Shabab al Muslim. The clashes erupted after Fatah accused the Islamists of gunning down a Fatah military general, Abu Ashraf al Armoushi, in the camp.
The fighting has killed at least 13 people, injured dozens more and displaced thousands from the camp, which is home to more than 50,000 people.
Although an uneasy calm has prevailed over the past two days, staff from the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been unable to access the camp to make a full damage assessment or to provide services.
Dorothee Klaus, Director of UNRWA in Lebanon, told The Associated Press that a heavily fortified complex of four of the agency’s schools “was raided by the involved militants and was unfortunately also used as a starting point for the battle.”
Militants from the Islamist groups reportedly shot Armoushi from a position inside the school complex.
In the fighting that followed, the schools incurred “significant damages,” Klaus said, and “the school year for 6,000 children … may have to be delayed until we enact the necessary repairs.” The UNRWA school year is currently slated to begin in the first week of October, in parallel with Lebanese schools.
This week’s clashes were not the first that have broken out between factions in the camp. As a result, Klaus said, the school complex “was over time fortified to ensure that when … clashes erupted outside during school time, (the children) are safe.” But recently, it’s also been used as a fortress, she said.
“I believe we will have to reflect on the entire architectural design of the school to ensure that looking forward, the school cannot … ever again be used as a launchpad for assassinations and armed activities,” she said.
The cost of repairs and reconstruction within the camp is likely to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Klaus said. It is unclear where that funding will come from.
Even before the recent clashes, UNRWA officials had warned of major shortfalls in the agency’s funding that could result in service cuts or being unable to pay staff salaries by the fall.
UNRWA was founded after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to serve hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. Today, their numbers have grown to some 5.9 million people, most in the Gaza Strip and Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as neighboring countries in the Middle East. In recent years, the agency has been in a near-perpetual state of financial crisis.
Reconstruction of another camp in Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared, which suffered massive destruction in 2007 during fighting between Islamist militants in the camp and the Lebanese army, has still not been completed. Klaus said the agency is still missing $40 million to complete the reconstruction.
Klaus said any reconstruction taking place in Ein el-Hilweh should be tied to a “road map” to ensure that the clashes are not repeated.
“Any investment that would be undermined by further destruction … later in the year because no sustainable solution has been found, would be very much deplorable,” she said.
There are nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, although the actual number in the country is believed to be around 200,000, as many have emigrated but remain on UNRWA’s roster.
Palestinians in Lebanon are restricted in their rights to work and own property, and the vast majority of them live in poverty.
Klaus said the recent clashes are “reflective of an unresolved conflict, of the unresolved status of Palestine refugees here in Lebanon.”
“One can only hope that major crises, such as we’ve just undergone in Ein el-Hilweh, would also open the door to reflecting on how can more sustainable approaches to the Palestine refugee presence in Lebanon be found,” she said.