Sidon, Lebanon — Thousands of homeless Palestinians, who fled the shattered refugee camp of Ain Al Hilweh during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, are now living in abysmal conditions in abandoned buildings and open lots in this seaside city.
Additional hundreds have returned to squat amidst unexploded artillery shells in the total ruins of their former homes.
Little has been done so far to help them because their relocation involves thorny political issues for both Israel and Lebanon, issues no one yet seemed willing to tackle.
According to Brig. Gen. David Maimon, the officer in charge of civilian aid to Lebanon, the total figure for homeless refugees is between 20,000 and 30,000 - about half the total refugee population inside Israeli lines. (Lebanese and United Nations sources have estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Lebanese and Palestinians have been made homeless.)
Sidon, whose main street, harbor, and neighborhoods near the Ain Al Hilweh camp bore the brunt of the Israeli atttack, has made a remarkably swift recovery from the war. Its crowded streets have the bustling appearance of normal life. This makes all the more conspicuous the plight of the homeless.
''Look for a wrecked or unfinished building if you want to find them (the Palestinians),'' casually advised a Lebanese resident of Sidon. ''If the building is sound then Lebanese are living in it.''
Driving down the wide main boulevard leading uphill to the wealthy suburb of Aabra, Palestinian refugee women can be seen hanging laundry from the shattered balcony of a deserted two-story building, their children drinking water from a broken main near a dirt culvert. Nearby, whole families are camped under the open sky.
In one unfinished high-rise apartment building, refugees have moved into a row of future ground-level store fronts, now merely walls and ceiling open to the street. Nearly all are women, children, and elderly. They cluster around any foreign visitor, asking help in finding their menfolk who have been taken by the Israelis for questioning and from whom they have had no word.
''We only want to go back to Ain Al Hilweh to find our men,'' says Samira Nasrallah, a pale young woman in a dirty knit shirt and purple skirt whose four young children cluster round her. She, her family, another young women with four small sons, and her mother are crowded together in one 8 by 12 foot storefront.
They left Ain Al Hilweh for Aabra after four days of fighting, when Israel dropped leaflets telling them to ''flee the battle for safety.''
''But the Lebanese who owned the (unfinished) building where we stayed kicked us out,'' says Samira. Israeli soldiers then rounded up their husbands, a grocer , and a construction laborer, from their present shelter.
The storefront is jammed with blankets, mattress pads, pots, pans, and a useless refrigerator - there is no electricity or plumbing. They are possessions they carted from the wrecked camp, using their last cash to rent a truck.
The women say the one allotment of food they received, from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), is running out. They have no milk for the children.
''The Lebanese Red Cross told us to go away when my son was sick. They only help Lebanese,'' says Samira. (UNRWA says they have just opened a clinic in Sidon for the Palestinians.)
The Israelis, she says, have behaved correctly. ''They come and ask only for our men.'' The women are far more afraid of Maronite Christian militia men, the Phalangists. ''They come with cars and look and say, 'We will kill you when the Israelis leave.' ''
The issue of where - and how - to rehouse these refugees has taken on multiple political overtones. It involves not only the Ain Al Hilweh homeless, but refugees back inside that camp. It also involves 31,000 residents of three camps near Tyre, where destruction of camp houses by the war is estimated by UNRWA at from 35 to 60 percent.
General Maimon told a key parliamentary committee that shelter must be found for the refugees before the onset of the cold, rainy winter. But so far the Israelis appear divided over where to put them. One study examined the possibility of a massive rehabilitation effort like that made for hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries who arrived penniless in Israel in the 1950s. This idea has apparently been nixed. Another school of thought advocates erecting prefabs on the camp sites.
But there is a strong desire among Israeli relief officials to disperse camp residents into permanent housing in different Lebanese localities. ''They were kept in ghettos in inhuman conditions which were a hot house for terrorism,'' says Yisrael Gravinsky, assistant to Yaacov Meridor, the Cabinet minister concerned with Israeli relief operations. For this reason, says Mr. Gravinsky, the Israelis oppose establishing temporary tent camps, lest it ''take the steam out of pushing for a long range solution.''
But Israeli officials, like Mr. Gravinsky, stress that any solution must have the approval of the Lebanese government. Heretofore, Lebanese law has forbidden permanent housing in the camps. Lebanese elections, even if held on time, won't show clear results until September. Moreover, the spokesman for the Phalangist Party whose presidential candidate, Bashir Gemayel, is backed by Israel, told the Monitor bluntly that his party wants every Palestinian civilian out of Lebanon.
In the meantime, while the political questions remain unanswered, the Palestinian homeless remain in limbo.