Ain Al Hilweh camp, Sidon, Lebanon — There is no alternative: Palestinian refugees are rebuilding among the ruins of their war-devastated camps.
The first tents were being erected Nov. 2 on a bulldozed field in this sprawling camp for 15,000 Palestinians. So far, the weather has held, and relief officials are confident family shelters will be built before the winter rains begin later this month.
Setting up the tents is a clear sign that, in the absence of a decision on resettling the many-times-over refugees of southern Lebanon, they will go on living in battered camps. No one has a better idea. Although the tents are officially deemed temporary shelters, it is virtually certain that they will evolve into more permanent structures.
''I have no doubt that these are the foundations of their homes going in,'' a disaster-relief official in Sidon said as he pointed out the eight-foot by eight-foot sites. Cinder-block walls three feet high will serve to keep out the winter wind and rain, he said, ''and it won't be a surprise to see more permanent roofs put on those walls by next spring.''
As it is, almost everyone has some form of shelter already. Many are crowded in with relatives or are still in the schools and shelters to which they fled in early summer when the Israeli Army overran and smashed these camps.
''There are very, very few people who don't have a roof over their heads,'' says Dennis Brown, Sidon director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). At Ain Al Hilweh, only 25 to 30 percent of the original structures are still standing.
Quick relocation of refugees into the new tent cities will help open the doors of Sidon-area schools to youngsters, Mr. Brown says. Of 11 area school buildings still standing, seven are being occupied by refugees, one is occupied by the Phalange, and only three are open for the current term. Three others were destroyed in the war, and one was taken back by the landlord.
Mr. Brown says that classes are conducted in shifts in the three buildings that are open. By moving refugees into the tents the other buildings can be used.
Life in the tent cities will not be easy, Mr. Brown says. Communal water taps and latrines are being installed. Families will be crowded six to a tent. Heaters will be issued, but Mr. Brown says a severe winter could be difficult for the tent dwellers.
The Lebanese government has been vague about whether the camps can be rebuilt where they are. Lebanese landowners of Ain Al Hilweh have been pressuring the government to allow them to take back their property, first lent out in 1948. And the Amin Gemayel government, seeing the camps as a breeding ground for Palestinian guerrillas, would like to disperse the residents or send them out of Lebanon.
Despite these feelings, rebuilding was the only option, Mr. Brown says. To disperse the refugees in Lebanon would cause a problem of homelessness elsewhere. The government does not want to give the refugees citizenship (and most consider their country ''Palestine,'' not Lebanon). Going back to the West Bank, Gaza, or Israel proper is ruled out due to the absence of an overall Mideast settlement. And none of the neighboring Arab countries has the capacity to absorb the 300,000 to 600,000 Palestinians who would be expelled from Lebanon.
To drive more refugees into the Bekaa Valley behind Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization lines - where many refugees fled last summer - would create a situation where Palestinians would outnumber Lebanese Bekaa inhabitants.
''Here at least they're under control,'' says Mr. Brown. ''I can't see the Lebanese government doing anything else.''
Still, the level of frustration in the camps has been running high. When UNRWA officials set up a demonstration tent at Ain Al Hilweh last week, Palestinian youths burned it in protest. (Mr. Brown blames the presence of television cameras for the incident.)
Israeli soldiers police the camps. Since the Beirut massacres at the hands of Lebanese rightist Christians, officials say, Israeli patrols have been better received here. In these circumstances Israelis are being trusted more than the Phalange or Maj. Saad Haddad's Israeli-backed militia.
Sidon director of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Thomas Reugg, says refugee camps have become more normal as men held in Israeli prison camps have been released.
''It's much better now,'' he says. ''Life has taken on another speed. Shops are opening. They are repairing the remaining houses.
''But the tents give them only a solution in the short term. And the Palestinians know it. What will happen if the Israelis pull out? How will the Lebanese government (or the Lebanese rightist militias) respond?''
In many ways, the tents are symbolic of the situation these Palestinians have been in since 1948: They are only a temporary solution. In the long term their plight seems as shaky as a tent in the winter wind.