Rumors abound as Sidon prepares for Israeli pullout

In two weeks, give or take a day, Israeli troops will leave the Lebanese port city of Sidon. No one can say what will happen when they go.

People of Sidon have a long list of worst-case scenarios of what may occur. In one, the Druze sweep down from their stronghold in the mountain above Sidon to seize the port. In another, intercommunal fighting within Ain Hilweh refugee camp spreads into the town around it.

The people seem unconvinced by their government's assurances that the Lebanese Army, now deployed a few miles up the coastal road from Sidon, will enter the city and enforce order once the Israelis complete their pullback to lines farther south.

``In Beirut, the Lebanese Army came, but still the war is around,'' observed Fathi, a Sunni Muslim.

The Israelis are pulling out partly because their people view the loss of each soldier as almost a personal tragedy and closely follow newspaper counts of troops injured or killed during the occupation. They have had enough of Israelis dying in a war that seems to have no end.

But in Sidon no one counts the Lebanese and Palestinians who have been wounded or killed since the Israelis announced that they would end their 31-month occupation.

At night, masked men enter Ain Hilweh, which houses more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees and carry out ``executions'' of people believed to have collaborated with the Israelis. During the day, militias battle on the streets. Random gunfire from automatic weapons is heard every night.

The bomb attack on Sunni leader Mustafa Saad last month seems to have dashed hopes among the factions that their would be a smooth transition from Israeli control to Lebanese control. Mr. Saad, who was seriously wounded, had been coordinating meetings among the factions and working to sooth intercommunal tensions. There is no one, Sidon residents say, to take his place.

``There is going to be a power vacuum and somebody is going to fill it,'' said one relief worker. ``When you have a vacuum, all kinds of slime come out.''

Rumors abound about which faction will attack which other faction for what gain. The Palestinians of Ain Hilweh are convinced they will be the target of attacks -- probably from Phalangist militiamen. They remember Sabra and Shatila, the refugee camps in Beirut where Christian Phalangists killed more than 600 people in 1982.

``I don't know that it is a logical fear, a rational fear, but it is there,'' said a second relief worker, who noted that the Christians are a minority in Sidon and would be unlikely to take on the Palestinians.

Each faction seems to harbor fear of what the Israelis might do before and after they pull back from Sidon. But the Israelis, said Nazih Bizri, a Sunni south Lebanese member of parliament, are inciting the tensions among the factions.

``All the talk of bloodshed is just rumors to frighten the people and make the people believe that Israel is a necessity here,'' said Dr. Bizri. His comment was repeated Tuesday by Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami, who accused the Israelis of offering to arm several religious groups in Sidon. An Israeli military spokesman denied the allegations.

``Trying to stir up trouble in Lebanon is like trying to make it sunny in Florida,'' the spokesman said. ``Those people are going to kill each other until they run out of bullets. They don't need any help.''

In Ain Hilweh, Nazmiya Hammudeh wishes somebody would run out of bullets. The mother of 14, she has the misfortune of living in a house on the outskirts of the camp, exposed to the town's heights. Every night for the past week, she says, she has packed up her children and taken them to a neighbor's house deeper in the camp to escape the shooting coming from the hills.

Last Sunday, Nazmiya says, someone opened fire from the hills in the early morning, riddling her concrete home with bullet holes. Her pregnant daughter-in-law was standing in a bedroom where bullets came through the walls, shattering a dressing table mirror and drilling holes in a wardrobe and door. No one was hurt, but Nazmiya says she feels her home is unsafe.

``I wish to God the UN would come so I could sleep in my own house,'' said Nazmiya.

Palestinians say they believe the Israelis fired into the camp, a charge dismissed by the military spokesman.

``People just cling to one wild rumor after the next,'' said the first relief worker. People also pass on equally graphic rumors of imminent rescue, the worker said.

``People to this day believe [UN troops] or the French are going to come in when the Israelis pull out. That's why things are relatively calm now. There is even one rumor that the British and the Italians are in Cyprus now, poised to spring into Lebanon and take over. They are sure an outsider is going to save them.''

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