A Palestinian refugee camp rises from ashes - with Israeli help

While rival Lebanese factions near Beirut proceed to batter their opponents' towns and villages into rubble, one community in Lebanon has risen from the ashes.

The Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Hilweh, near Sidon in southern Lebanon, which once held nearly 50,000 people, has been almost totally rebuilt under the protection of the the very Israeli Army which razed it during its June 1982 invasion.

The camp's rebirth has annoyed many Sidon Lebanese and infuriated nearby Maronite Christian villagers and armed fighters who want the Palestinians all driven out. Last summer they burned down half of nearby Mieh Mieh Palestinian camp.

But the Israelis, conscious of the approaching mid-September anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, which was perpetrated by Christian Phalangist militiamen, have banned the Phalangists from the camp - though they still harass Palestinians in nearby Sidon neighborhoods and sometimes in Mieh Mieh. Israeli authorities have also armed certain cooperative Palestinians in Ain Hilweh to guard the premises.

As Palestinian refugees flee southward from the fighting in Beirut, one Israeli military source in south Lebanon said exaggeratedly, but with a grain of truth, ''Ain Hilweh camp is one of the safest places right now for a Palestinian in the Middle East.''

The rebuilding of Ain Hilweh one year after its destruction testifies to a stunning about-face in Israeli policy and to the amazing resilience of the refugees.

Concrete homes and shops, some two and three stories tall - and scaffolding for more - now line the dusty rutted main street of Ain Hilweh. On the same street in August 1982 children played amid unexploded shells near the few homes which survived artillery assault and Israeli bombing raids against determined Palestinian fighters. Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning civilians to flee; no one knows how many died.

Israeli policy initially explored the idea of disbursing the camps which were regarded as breeding grounds for the Palestine Liberation Organization. But with winter 1982 approaching and refugee conditions deteriorating, Israeli policy turned 180 degrees. At first it permitted tents, then it allowed construction.

Ironically, building policy would have been far more limited had the Lebanese government resumed control over south Lebanon. Its regulations forbid the refugees to build permanent shelters.

Much of the building was done by women, children, and old men since the bulk of the camp's men are prisoners in Israel's Ansar detention camp in south Lebanon.

Despite surface appearances of returning normality, life for the refugees remains precarious. UN officials say there is a shortage of land as Lebanese landlords claim back property. Three to four hundred Ain Hilweh families remain shelterless along with 200 more in Mieh Mieh whose homes were destroyed. Some families have money problems as it becomes increasingly dangerous to send women couriers across the mountains to east Lebanon to bring back PLO money. Many families, however, still receive remittances from relatives working in the Arab Gulf.

Nor have security problems ceased, despite Israeli attention to Ain Hilweh. UN officials responsible cite 107 incidents of eviction, killing, bombing, or kidnapping of Palestinians in the Sidon-Tyre area since May 1.

In Mieh Mieh, Christians in the adjacent village of the same name do not disguise their desire to revenge reputed Palestinian misdeeds during the years of PLO domination. Several Palestinian shops and homes in Mieh Mieh were bombed in February 1983.

Most terrifying, say Ain Hilweh refugees, has been the wave of evictions, accompanied by violence, of Palestinians from Sidon apartments which they own or rent, forcing them back into Ain Hilweh camp. On one apartment building from which a Palestinian was kicked out, graffiti reads: ''No Palestinian will remain on Lebanese soil.'' While perpetrators have rarely been caught, local Phalangist officials have said they are responsible.

A report on human rights in Lebanon issued by the American Friends Service Committee in August 1983 estimates that over 3,000 Palestinians had been evicted from their homes in the Sidon area by the end of May 1983. One young Palestinian worker in Ain Hilweh, who like everyone else interviewed insisted his name not be used, recalled, ''In February I saw my neighbor shot dead by the Phalange in front of our apartment building. That was enough to make me move my family the next day back to Ain Hilweh.''

Local Western voluntary agency workers estimate that one Palestinian a week is still picked up by Phalangists in the Sidon area and threatened or beaten, although eviction appears to have decreased.

Israeli miltary sources say they have clamped down on Phalangist excesses. But Palestinians says that Israeli controls, while protecting Ain Hilweh itself, had little effect on evictions outside.

The Israelis have issued arms to a ''national guard'' of about 200 men in Ain Hilweh for use against intruders. Camp residents say the ''guard'' members are also often asked to inform on camp residents and that some took the job as the price for release from Ansar.

Having learned to cope with the day-by-day uncertainty of life, the Palestinians in Ain Hilweh are far more uneasy about their future. ''No one has any practical solution,'' says one well-educated resident.

Many just want to get out of the camps. ''We are fed up with this situation, '' blurts out a senior camp resident. ''After 35 years of no settlement, no peace, we want security for our children. If people had the chance to emigrate, they would leave.''

Ironically, some Ain Hilweh Palestinians see in the current Lebanon chaos a chance that their situation will improve. They point to Israel's souring relations with its former Phalangist allies, and speculate that the victory of the Syrian-allied Druze sect in the central Lebanese mountains may pave the way for the PLO to return to Beirut.

But others believe Israel will remain in south Lebanon for many years and see this as their best protection. However, in contrast with last summer, few Palestinians now say this in public.

But their year-long exposure to the Israelis - while puncturing some illusions about Israelis as superpowered or supermen - has produced no clear trend toward acceptance of the Jewish state. A few refugees talk at length of their human contact with individual Israeli soldiers. ''They brought food every day to my sick relative whose husband is in Ansar,'' said one Palestinian in Mieh Mieh. But other Palestinians see individual Israeli generosity as a trick and insist the Israelis are ''more the enemy than ever.''

Visits from Arab relatives with Israeli citizenship who stayed behind in 1948 and were cut off from contact for 34 years seem frequently to have made a negative impression. ''They are controlled. If one tries to study engineering, he can't get the same kind of job as an Israeli can,'' complained one Ain Hilweh man who had just met cousins from Israel. Yet some Ain Hilweh residents, in their desperation, say they would live under Israeli rule if permitted and hundreds who have been allowed to visit relatives have tried to stay.

Perhaps the most shattering break with illusion has come to those who have had the courage - and the Israeli permission - to visit the remains of their childhood villages in present day Israel whose every detail they had taught to their own children. One man recalled staring from his rented car at the few remaining huts on his village's land, which is now farmed by Israeli collective settlements in the Galilee. He sat there and wept, but was unable to get out of the car.

Another man in Mieh Mieh clutched in his hand a color photo of his smartly dressed niece, standing in front of the stone hut where he had lived in the no-longer existent Arab Galilee village of Meiroun. ''Why to go back and suffer so much pain?'' he asked quietly. ''I would rather stay here with my dream.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.