Refugees grasp at bin Laden's words

Palestinian groups in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp have little sympathy for US battle.


Ali Al-Ali, a former Palestinian fighter, resides deep inside the slums of Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp.

Living in appalling squalor and surrounded by 70,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom long ago lost hope of returning to their former homes in what is now Israel, Al-Ali has seen how his neighbors are desperately seeking to salvage some hope from Osama bin Laden's speeches of support for the Palestinians.

They may disapprove of his methods, and most condemn the Sept. 11 attacks, but for some in Ain al-Hilweh, Mr. bin Laden has become a symbol of defiance to the US, Israel's main ally.

Al-Ali has lived for nine years in the Ozo district of the refugee camp. Ain al-Hilweh is Arabic for "Sweet Spring," the waters of which once irrigated the orange groves surrounding the coastal city of Sidon, 20 miles south of Beirut. But today, the only running water is the raw sewage trickling down open drains. Barefoot children play in the filth outside Al-Ali's front door.

His wife and four children sleep on the floor of his cramped home. "I get the bed," he says, pointing at a rickety iron bedstead next to the glassless window. The tin roof lets in clouds of dust in the sweltering heat of summer, torrents of rain in the bitter winter.

The other room in the hovel is where the family cook. They have no bathroom. Plastic bags serve as toilets. There is only one cupboard. A bag of stale Arabic bread is suspended from a hook on the wall, out of reach of the rats that thrive in Ozo's alleys.

There is a palpable sense of despair in Ain al-Hilweh, the grimmest and most politically volatile of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The camp is surrounded by Lebanese Army troops, but lies outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state.

Palestinians are banned by the Lebanese authorities from all but the most menial of jobs. Al-Ali earns $3 a day from scavenging scrap metal and cardboard. He also receives a monthly pension - worth little more than $20 - from the Palestine Liberation Organization for his years as a fighter.

Al-Ali lifts his shirt to reveal several crude scars, a permanent legacy of his violent past.

But in Ain al-Hilweh, the residents talk of the possibility of future violence. One of the many Palestinian fac-

tions found inside Ain Al-Hilweh is Esbat al-Ansar, an extremist Islamic group reportedly with close links to bin Laden's Al Qaeda. President Bush listed Esbat al-Ansar last month as one of 27 groups and individuals accused of terrorism whose assets in the US were frozen.

Esbat al-Ansar's leaders emerged from the camp's shadows briefly to refute the charges.

"We in Islamic Esbat al-Ansar have no financial organizations nor accounts in the US or anywhere else.... We also have no organizational links with Sheikh Osama bin Laden, and our actions and decisions are independent," a spokesman, Abu Sharif, told reporters.

The group's sudden elevation to the ranks of major terrorist organizations provoked laughter in Ain al-Hilweh. Esbat al-Ansar, consisting of no more than 300 people, has a reputation for being poor.

"When they call me on their mobile phones, they let it ring once and then hang up and expect me to call them back. That's how poor they are," says Col. Mounir Moqdah, a veteran Palestinian guerrilla commander and the most powerful man in Ain al-Hilweh.

Yet, a source close to Esbat al-Ansar said that emissaries of bin Laden traveled to Ain al-Hilweh three years ago to hand over funds. The injection of cash allowed Esbat to purchase weapons and sparked a series of shootings and grenade attacks in the camp against officials of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, traditionally the dominant party. The source said Esbat also used the money to secure allegiances in the camp, including Colonel Moqdah.

But Moqdah denies having anything to do with Esbat al-Ansar. "Esbat al-Ansar is so small, it's not worth considering," he says. "My relations are with the bigger groups involved with the liberation of Palestine."

There is a fear in the camp that the US may pressure Lebanon into sending troops into Ain al-Hilweh to wipe out Esbat al-Ansar. Such a move would spark a war, Moqdah says. There is little support for bin Laden in Ain al-Hilweh, he says, but also little sympathy for the US.

"For 53 years, our people have been suffering and America has been the main support for the Israeli occupiers," he says. "If they want to fight terrorism, they should start with themselves and Israel. The hands of America are stained with blood."

Ibrahim Hamid lived in New York from 1988 to 1993. The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center made him feel "very sad," he said. "They were innocent people. I really felt like I wanted to cry, because I lived there."

Mr. Hamid, a mechanic, says he has not left the camp for nine years, ever since his return from New York. "The Lebanese authorities want me for something. I don't know what," he says with a grin and a shrug.

But later, one of Moqdah's bodyguard says it's not the Lebanese that want to arrest Hamid. "It's the Americans," he mutters. The reason is chilling. "He was one of the plotters in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993," the bodyguard says. "He left America that same night."

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