Until five weeks ago Ain Hilweh (Sweet Spring) was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with at least 25,000 residents. Today it is totally destroyed.
Foreign journalists were banned until this week from visiting the ruins. The first correspondents officially allowed into the camp, located next to the city of Sidon, saw a bombed wreck more than one mile square.
Israeli officials are now saying they do not want this camp or three other partially destroyed camps in south Lebanon rebuilt, lest they provide a base for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to reemerge.
Only a smattering of half-destroyed buildings still stand in Ain Hilweh amidst a wasteland of rubble, their roofs collapsed or walls gaping open and relieved only by an occasional lonely cypress tree or a television antenna clinging precariously to a slab of concrete.
Israeli military officials say they can give no casualty figures for the camp. They say the figures for the dead here are not included in statistics being released for total civilians killed in south Lebanon. The camp population is dispersed in fields, in public buildings in Sidon, in other refugee camps left badly damaged, and in the neighboring villages of Ghaziye and Aabra.
The Israeli military officials say they fought one of the toughest battles in the war in Lebanon here. They say they had no choice but to destroy the camp. They insist that they warned civilians by loudspeaker and airborne pamphlets to leave before the final destruction, and that they delayed entering the camp a day and a half in an attempt to negotiate its surrender before the final battle.
Until its fall, Ain Hilweh was a densely populated residential semislum, crowded with blocks of concrete one-and two-story houses, shops, markets, schools, clinics, and mosques as well as PLO office buildings, arms, and storage depots.
According to Israeli military sources in Sidon, the batle of Ain Hilweh, which occured during the first week of the war, took three and a half days. These sources say pamphlets and loudspeakers were used the first day of the seige to ask Palestinian civilians to leave the camp.
After almost two days of futile negotiations via Palestinian and Lebanese intermediaries over a surrender, the Israelis ''had no alternative'' but to bomb and shell the camp prior to the entry of tanks and armored personnel carriers. According to the Israeli account several hundred PLO men were holed up in more than 20 heavily fortified concrete bunkers around the camp.
''To attack such a number of bunkers in a crowded area would have caused us a lot of casualties,'' explained a military source. The battle as waged ''was not costly'' for the Israelis, said the source, with ''few casualties.'' As for Palestinians in the camp, ''nobody knows up to now how many people were killed there,'' said the source.
The story from the refugees trickling back into the ruins is less clear. Fatima Darwish, a 15-year-old girl in ragged print skirt and blouse picking through the rubble of her two-story concrete house, said, ''papers came from the plane on the third day telling us to go, but they were bombing while they dropped the papers.''
Amin Mahmoud Amin, an electrician, stayed in a basement in his apartment building on the edge of the camp with 35 people for seven days with almost no food or water. After heavy shelling of the camp, he said, an Israeli loudspeaker gave the refugees one hour to leave on Wednesday June 9, apparently the third day of the seige. His electrical supplies business, in which he had invested all his savings, was destroyed.
Of the many refugees from Ain Hilweh interviewed in different locations, all denied Israeli reports that Palestinian fighters had prevented civilians from leaving the camp. ''Nobody forced us to stay. Some people were afraid to go out, '' said Abdel Kader, a university student. ''Many people were buried under the rubble.'' Israeli military sources confirmed reports by the refugees that there was no single leader of the Palestinian armed stand at Ain Hilweh. The leader of Fatah, the largest PLO group, had fled before the battle, said the refugees.
The Israelis clearly do not want the refugee camps rebuilt as before. Yaacov Gravinsky, an assistant to Cabinet Minister Yaacov Meridor, who is supervising Israeli relief aid for Lebanon, said that the refugees have been denied tents for temporary shelter because this would turn into a ''permanent'' solution.
''We don't want Palestinian camps within the 45-kilometer range of our border ,'' he added. ''The camps are a hothouse for terrorists and terrorism.''
Gravinsky said any permanent solution for the refugees would have to be devised together with the Lebanese government and other parties. One Israeli military source in Sidon suggested that ''the best thing is to spread the refugees among the local (Lebanese) population.''
But the Lebanese government, delicately balanced between Muslims and Chiristians, has always opposed settling the mostly Muslim Palestinian population permanently on Lebanese soil. This opposition is even stronger now. Pierre Gemayel, father of the leading Israeli-backed Maronite Christian, Bechir Gemayel, recently called for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Lebanon.
The future of the refugees from Ain Hilweh and other camps is unclear. UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which is responsible for the refugees, says about 35,000 in the Sidon and Tyre area are homeless. Scores of refugees have been returning to Ain Hilweh. They say Sidon officials have told them they must leave the public buildings where they are camped. Children play amidst unexploded heavy artillery shells; families shelter in half-wrecked buildings or squat in the headquarters of Fatah's police headquarters.