A startling claim is buried within a routine new United Nations report: That a Palestinian militant group is operating in Libya. The Panel of Experts on Libya, a United Nations working group, announced that its years-long investigation confirmed longstanding Libyan claims regarding “the presence of Palestinian military experts in Tripoli.”
The report states that although a Palestinian official interviewed by the Panel denied any activity in Libya, “he confirmed that eight members of his faction, who were members of the Palestinian diaspora in Libya, had been arrested in Tripoli in the course of 2016. The Panel is still investigating the case.”
The U.N. report is the latest piece in of evidence suggesting a Palestinian terror group is fighting in Libya, though U.N. representatives in New York declined to comment on the matter and its representatives in Libya were not available for comment. The report also concludes that efforts to prevent other foreign fighters from entering Libya has failed. It states that ISIL terrorists remain active in Libya and remain in contact with their colleagues in Syria. The report also describes an escalating role for mercenary forces in the conflict.
Open civil war has raged in Libya since disputed elections in 2014. Nominally, the Government of National Accord is Libya’s official government. However, despite recognition by the United Nations and the United States it remains militarily weak. The Libyan Civil wars involves multiple factions from local militias to coalitions which aspire to rule the country.
The General National Congress(GNC) also claims to be Libya’s legitimate government. The groub tends to be more Islamist in its outlook and is supported by Qatar and Turkey. Qatar’s support of Islamists in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East has led a host of nations to launch a diplomatic blockade of the country which began earlier this week.
The GNC is opposed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) is headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The LNA is the nominal armed-wing of the the Tobruk based House of Representatives which also claims to be Libya’s legitimate government. The LNA has enjoyed the support of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates who are concerned about the role of armed Islamist groups in Libya.
The United Nations report appears to vindicate the LNA which has repeatedly accused Hamas of fighting alongside other Islamist forces in Libya. Ahmed Al-Mismari, a spokesperson for the LNA, told the media earlier this month that Hamas was receiving support from Qatar for its military operations in Libya. Al-Mismari added that Qatar “destroyed the Arab region and that there is no hope for reconciliation.”
An LNA linked Twitter account released an alleged Qatari diplomatic document on June 7th in an effort to bolster that claim. The document dated to 2012 suggets that the Qatari armed forces were fighting in Libya. To further bolster their Hamas claim, LNA released photos on Twitter which they claim show headbands from the Hamas al-Qassam Brigade found in Benghazi. The Hamas al-Qassam is the armed wing of Hamas.
Hamas spokespeople have denied any involvement in the Libyan conflict. However, while Hamas usually avoids addressing African affairs it has commented on the situation in Libya. As recently as 2015 they warned Italy against becoming involved in a “new crusade” in Libya according to ANSA, an Italian press agency.
Grant Rumley, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy said there is clear evidence that Hamas has involved itself in regional conflicts. “Hamas has colluded with ISIL in Sinai in fighting against Egypt,” he said “Several members of Hamas’ military wing have smuggled themselves into Sinai to join up with ISIL there, while some ISIL fighters have received treatment and supplies from Hamas in Gaza.” However, Rumley expressed skepticism regarding a Hamas role in the conflict given the logistical hurtles necessary to transport fighters from Gaza to Libya Earlier this year an alleged Hamas spy was arrested in Benghazi according to Arabic-language press reports was arrested while spying on the LNA.
Experts are unsure why Palestinian factions have become embroiled in the Libyan Civil War. The country is home to a sizeable Palestinian diaspora. There are roughly 20,000 Palestinian refugees in Libya according to UNHCR. In 2015 concerns over foreign fighters prompted Libya’s internationally recognized government to ban Palestinians along with Syrians and Sudanese from entering the country.
“If there are Hamas terrorists in Libya doesn’t mean that Hamas is changing its priorities,” said Randall Stickley a researcher on Libya “the presence of such fighters could just signal that Hamas’s fighters are using the Libyan conflict as a training exercise until the next round of fighting between Gaza and Israel.”
Cover image by Surian Soosay