SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - Parading at night in death shrouds and dealing out beatings for drunkenness, the Jund al-Sham group was unpopular with Palestinians even before they were forced from their homes by its clashes with Lebanese troops.
Palestinians driven from Ain al-Hilweh camp into the nearby city of Sidon in southern Lebanon say they barely speak to members of the hardline Sunni Islamist group, who they described as reclusive.
Teenagers described how the hardliners had acted as morality police in the refugee camp.
Mohammad Essam said one of his friends had been beaten for being drunk. “He was lashed 40 times,” said Essam, who was sheltering with hundreds at a public building in Sidon, where some had slept on the floor.
“We knew of just six or seven of them before the fighting, then we saw more,” he said.
With a few dozen Palestinian and Lebanese members, Jund al-Sham has sided with Sunni group Fatah al-Islam, which has been battling the army at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
At least 114 people have been killed in the north Lebanon fighting since it began on May 20. Two soldiers and two militants were killed on Monday at Ain al-Hilweh, which with 70,000 residents is the largest of 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
Like the Lebanese army, Ain al-Hilweh resident Hani Bernawi blamed Jund al-Sham for the violence at his camp. “They’re just a gang who came to mess things up and destroy our security,” he said. “They don’t speak to us and we don’t speak to them.”
Ain al-Hilweh is largely controlled by Palestinian faction Fatah, a secular group which lost two fighters in a clash with Jund al-Sham in early May.
“Jund al-Sham say that Fatah are infidels and the state are infidels and that they are the real Islam,” said a Palestinian woman whose house neighbors that of Jund al-Sham activists.
“They hide behind religion,” she said, too scared to give her name out of fear she may have to answer to the group.
The militants would frequently go into the streets wearing explosive belts and black face masks and shout “to jihad” whenever they clashed with Fatah or others, she said.
“We cannot take this any more. My nerves can’t bear it,” she said, gathered with her family out of harm’s way in Sidon.
Jund al-Sham members had sent their wives and children out of the camp a day before the fighting began, said her husband.
“We asked them: ‘Where are you going?’ Now we know they were escaping,” he said. “They have a lot of money. Their women wear a lot of gold.”