S. Lebanon's Palestinians again ask: where can we go?
Tyre, Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon — If and when Palestinian guerrillas abandon Beirut, they will leave behind thousands of civilian Palestinian refugees to an uncertain and insecure future.
Families of fighters from refugee camps around Beirut will be permitted to leave with their men, according to Israeli sources, though it is unclear whether Arab host countries will accept them.
But in south Lebanon, where their men are either in Beirut or in Israeli prison camps, thousands of women, as well as children and elderly live precariously in bombed out refugee camps or in schools or construction sites. They wait fearfully for their fate to be decided. Israel wants to move them out temporarily into a multitude of new mini tent-camps before their permanent resettlement in small groups throughout south Lebanon.
Local Lebanese leaders want them all out of Lebanon.
And in a bizarre twist of fate, of the kind so common in this war, Israeli soldiers have become these Palestinians' chief protectors against Lebanese civilians bent on revenge.
''All the people here want to know where should we go?,'' wailed Oom Adnan, a Palestinian woman sitting on the ground in front of three stark blue walls. It is all that is left of her three-room home in Rashadiya camp near Tyre. ''The winter will come and where will I take my children?'' she asks.
Once a tent camp of refugees from pre-1948 Palestinian villages just inside the present Israeli border, to which was added an influx of 1970 refugees from the civil war in Jordan, Rashadiya had grown over the years into a village of 15 ,000 in pastel concrete bungalows sandwiched between rolling fields and the sea. Sixty percent of it is now destroyed, with chunks of blue and green concrete lying under rows of flattened roofs. About 5,000 refugees now live in its ruins.
UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which runs services in the camps, estimates there are 13,000 Palestinian homeless in the Tyre area. In the Sidon area, Ain Al Hilweh Camp -- which once housed 25,000 -- has been razed. Most of its inhabitants are living in public buildings and construction sites in the city.
Much of the destruction of Rashadiya occurred after the fighting stopped -- when Israeli soldiers dynamited air raid shelters built by the Palestine Liberation Organzation. The shelters were scattered throughout the camp and their demolition resulted in the destruction of surrounding houses as well.
Oom Adnan's house was one of the casualties.
Many other houses were bulldozed, according to camp residents and UNRWA workers, creating wide swaths leading to the sea.
The camp is rife with fear -- about its menfolk, relations with the Lebanese, and its future.
Inside the camp elementary school, every classroom has been taken over by women and children huddling on mattresses salvaged from their wrecked homes. In one room, a row of women in dirty dresses called out, ''Tell the Israelis to send back our men.''
One thin, young woman is silent; she left her husband in besieged west Beirut three days earlier, returning through heavy shelling to her parents in Rashadiya with 15-day-old twins and two toddlers.
The babies lay wrapped in gauze on a filing cabinet in the fly-infested room. Above them is a classroom map of pre-1948 Palestine over which an Israeli soldier has scrawled, ''Isrel'' (sic).
''No one knows what will happen to us,'' says curly-haired 15-year-old Ali, sitting with friends inside the school yard. ''Everyone just keeps asking each other.
''The Lebanese people hate us and don't want us. They say we destroyed their country. We are afraid the Lebanese will kill us if the Israeli soldiers leave.''
Guarding the entrance to the camp are six Israeli soldiers -- three of them Israeli bedouin Arabs. They say the Palestinians often ask if they can help them get Lebanese passports so they can live in Tyre.
Prior to the Israeli invasion, camp residents lived off the PLO -- most families had at least one relative on the payroll -- or from small businesses, working as farm laborers, or remittances from family members working elsewhere in the Arab world. With the PLO gone, and most of their men in prison, they are now totally dependent on international relief agencies and on UNRWA. The UNRWA has distributed blankets and kitchen kits, reopened a medical clinic (though markedly lacking in supplies), vaccinated children, and made tentative attempts to repair water and sewage systems.
But like the Palestinians, UNRWA must wait for an Israeli decision on the future of the refugees before making major investments in repairs.
With winter approaching, the Israelis have reversed an earlier policy and are now negotiating with UNRWA and local Lebanese authorities to find sites for temporary tent camps. In the second stage of this projected resettlement scheme, the refugees would be housed in new buildings dispersed among the major cities in south Lebanon.
The Israelis do not want to fund this housing; on Aug. 1 an Israeli Cabinet decision placed the reponsibility ''on the shoulders of the Lebanese government.'' But Israeli officials say they hope some of the $65 million in United States aid appropriated for Lebanon will be diverted for the tents.
The Israelis are adamant that no refugee camps be rebuilt within 45 kilometers of their border. They also do not want large tent sites, which ''might be a hothouse for terrorism,'' according to Yisrael Gravinsky, aide to Economics Minister Yaacov Meridor, who is in charge of civilian relief in Lebanon.
But the Israelis may have difficulties in selling their approach to the Lebanese. Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, backed by Israel for the Lebanese presidency, has just reiterated his opposition to the presence of Palestinian refugees on Lebanese soil. And in Tyre, Khalil el Khalil, Lebanese ambassador to Germany and head of the leading clan in the area, said he objects to Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. The Khalil family recently renewed its control in Tyre after the expulsion of the PLO from the area.
Ambassador Khalil holds court at a large dining table at the home of a friend. His guests line up to call. He says his own house was blown up by the PLO. ''If we let the Palestinians stay in Lebanon they may make trouble in Israel and we, the Lebanese, will pay,'' he said. ''We will let them know the Lebanese don't want them and then they will leave,'' he adds.
Last week, a row of stores and workshops on the outskirts of Tyre belonging to about 50 Palestinian families was plowed under as part of the municipality's effort to clean up debris. It was done even though the buildings were only slightly damaged. The debris removal project was funded by the American Joint Distribution Committee, an American Jewish charitable organization, which had left the decision about which sites to bulldoze in the hands of the local authorities.
A local Israeli officer said this was part of an attempt by the Lebanese to ''settle accounts.'' But they said the Israelis had no authority to interfere in the municipality's decision. Given such hostility, Israeli officials admit that small tent sites could be subject to attack by the Lebanese.
Ambassador Khalil suggested that the Palestinian refugee problem must be solved by ''everyone responsible, Syria, Israel, the international community, and Lebanon.''
For the refugees of Rashadiya, the problem is more immediate.
''Where shall I go, to Syria?'' shouts Oom Adnan, waving her arms at the sky. She insists the Syrians and all Arabs are ''the cause of all disasters. Either I go back to Palestine or I want to stay where I am. Otherwise, let them throw me into the sea.''