Sidon, Lebanon — The winter rain has turned the paths between those few broken houses still standing in the Ain Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon into thick black swirls.
Huge swaths of the camp, once home to 50,000, where whole quarters of two-story houses were smashed by Israeli bombs, shells, or bulldozers during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon have been cleared into empty lots.
Wearing rubber boots or sometimes only clogs to keep out the cold and mud, clusters of children, women, and old men - most of their breadwinners are still in Israeli prison camps - are busily building new concrete houses on those lots for a totally uncertain future.
For the Palestinian refugees of south Lebanon, the main concerns today are security and economic survival in a complex political world:
* The Lebanese government has yet to formally declare its position on which of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 stateless Palestinians can remain in the country after the exodus of the Palestine Liberation Organization, once their formal protectors.
* In south Lebanon, the Israeli Army, which defeated the PLO, has ironically become the protector of Palestinian refugees from Lebanese Christians who want their ouster.
* Disorganized and rudderless, the 20,000 or so current residents of Ain Hilweh are confronted with a new group of self-appointed leaders who claim influence with Israel but are suspected by many camp dwellers of being opportunists or worse.
Just off the main market street of Ain Hilweh, where small shops have been reestablished in tin shacks or partially damaged buildings, ten members of the Mahmoud family are spreading cement between concrete blocks.
''Of course, we are rebuilding,'' says 15-year-old Ali Mahmoud matter-of-factly. ''Where else would we go?''
The Mahmoud family lost their two-story house during Israeli bombing but fled unharmed when Israel dropped warning leaflets. They now live in one of the camp schools with scores of other refugees, the holes in its roof patched with plastic. Ali's school classes are held in a huge circus-like tent nearby.
But Ali is fortunate. His father is at home, unlike the many breadwinners who remain in Ansar, the Israeli prison camp in south Lebanon, or who left their families to depart with the Palestine Liberation Organization fighters.
Moreover, his eldest brother is studying in California and is able to send money. Camp men are unable to depend any longer on the PLO economy, which subsidized thousands of jobs. Often they are no longer welcomed by Lebanese employers or fear to leave the camp lest they be picked up by Lebanese Christian militiamen. Thus money from relatives working abroad has become a key source of income.
Camp residents are somewhat less apprehensive than during the summer months about attacks by anti-Palestinian Christian militiamen, who in August burned down half the small Mieh Mieh refugee camp nearby. (Stories abound, however, of Palestinians living outside the camp who have been forced to move in by militia harassment).
The camp's sense of security, ironically, comes from Israeli patrols. ''I don't know what will happen if Israel pulls out of here,'' says Geoffrey Shakespeare, Sidon director of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which provides relief and emergency food rations.
In the absence of most men and of organized leadership, a self-appointed committee of about 40 men arose recently, headed by UNRWA doctor, Fikri Faour. Interviewed in the UNRWA clinic, Dr. Faour took credit for easing the camp security situation, ''I went to the Israelis, I went to the Phalange (Christian militias).''
The committee is acutely aware of camp mistrust of UNRWA, voiced constantly, because of slowness in distributing relief supplies. For example, as of Jan. 4, only 288 of 1,500 donated heaters had been distributed despite the biting cold.
As Dr. Faour spoke, about 25 members of the committee were beating up an UNRWA employee and upturning furniture in an UNRWA warehouse. ''The real reason ,'' said a well-placed eyewitness, ''is that his employee took the names of dead refugees off the aid rolls.''
In previous confrontations in November, committee men manhandled Mr. Shakespeare and tried to close down the Sidon UNRWA office when UNRWA tried to suspend Dr. Faour for breaking agency rules by talking to the press. He subsequently formally resigned from the committee.
Israeli military officials are not taking Dr. Faour as seriously as he would like. Despite some favorable articles in the Israeli press, Israeli officials have yet to release any prisoners from Ansar at his request and they did not endorse his wish that cement be distributed through him rather than UNRWA.
''The real problem,'' said a respected camp resident, ''is that any genuine leadership left here is afraid to speak out lest the Israelis suspect them of PLO affiliation and arrest them.''
But the most pressing refugee problem in south Lebanon, housing, finally appears on the way to solution.
Until recently refugees wishing to rebuild were caught in a maze of Israeli, Lebanese, and UNRWA politics. The Lebanese government, anxious to reduce their number, did not want the camps rebuilt. Israel wanted them dispersed through Lebanon, a scheme rejected by Lebanon. And UNRWA would not act without a Lebanese go-ahead.
''The Sabra-Shatila massacre (of Palestinians in Beirut by Christian militiamen) and the imminence of winter turned the Israeli position around,'' says a foreign voluntary agency worker in Sidon.
The compromise solution: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an umbrella charitable agency, donated 1,550 tons of cement for rebuilding, as well as the stoves. This prodded UNRWA to clear and distribute lots and provide additional cash payments. ''The Lebanese government never gave hard approval but didn't object,'' says the American Committee's supervisor in Lebanon, David Harman. Israel also went along.
The result: Throughout the camp small two- and three-room houses are rising, some with tents temporarily beside them. About 650 have been started, with 1,200 more started or repaired without UNRWA help. But only a few lots remain as Lebanese landlords anxiously try to reclaim once barren but now valuable private land on which the camps were built. Should more refugees return, they will face problems.