At least 30 people have reportedly been killed, hundreds injured, and thousands displaced, since clashes erupted on July 31 between factions in Ain el-Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon where more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees live. As is often the case in times of violence, children who live in Ain el-Helweh are among the most harmed by the fighting.
Since August 19, armed factions have occupied all eight schools in the camp that are run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and reportedly looted education materials and equipment. Access to education for more than 11,000 Palestinian refugee children is at riskwith just days to go before the start of the school term.
Sparked by the attempted assassination of Mahmoud Khalil, a member of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab al-Muslim (“Muslim Youth”), and the subsequent assassination of Mohammed al-Armoushi, a military general of the Palestinian faction Fatah, the intermittent but fierce violent clashes have led to ”significant and widespread damage” to homes and infrastructure in Ain el-Helweh, according to UNRWA.
The violence has forced more than 4,000 people to flee their homes. Many are sheltering in three UNRWA schools and a training center outside the camp. If the violence continues, displaced families will not be able to return to their homes, and students will not be able to go back to school.
Today could be a turning point. Armed factions left the eight occupied schools this afternoon, while forces belonging to the Palestinian Joint Security Forces, a unit comprised of members of various Palestinian factions tasked with maintaining order in the camp, were deployed to guard the schools’ entrances, as part of ceasefire negotiations.
A tenuous ceasefire has held since September 14, but fighting could resume. Fatah has reportedly demanded the surrender to Lebanese authorities of those responsible for al-Armoushi's killing by the end of September. Thus far, the fighting, including artillery fire, has “led to massive destruction across most of the camp,” according to UNRWA.
Schools should not be battlegrounds. All parties should ensure the children of Ain el-Helweh can go back to school soon, and safely. Lebanon and Palestine have joined the Safe Schools Declaration to protect education. Armed groups should also follow the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use. And foreign donor governments should support UNRWA’s appeal for funds to aid camp residents, as well as the core budget its schools depend on, which could run out within a month.