Nearly six decades ago, the Lebanese gave shelter to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homeland when the state of Israel was created. Now some of those refugees' descendants are returning the favor. Hundreds of Lebanese who have abandoned their homes have sought shelter in the Palestinian camps ringing the southern coastal town of Tyre.
The hospitality has its roots in the close ties between the southern Lebanese and the inhabitants of what was Palestine before 1948. Those ties endure in the respect that many Palestinians in Lebanon have for Hizbullah, the Shiite group battling Israeli forces.
"The Palestinians in the camps see a victory for Hizbullah as a victory for themselves," says Sultan Abul-Aynayn, head of the Palestinian Fatah movement in Lebanon and commander of this camp.
Rashidiyeh's Palestinian population of about 17,000 has been joined by as many as 1,000 Lebanese, who have settled into the empty classrooms at Ain al-Qassem school. The Palestinian popular committee that runs the camp provides food three times a day, mattresses, and medicines.
"There was very heavy shelling in Deir Qanoun [two miles southeast] and I just wanted to leave," says Manna Mughniyeh. Wearing a pink shirt and head scarf, she pats the head of her 9-year-old son, Mohammed, and says, "When he hears shelling he runs to me and hugs me tight. Look, his hair is turning gray with fear."
One small classroom has become a temporary kitchen. A woman stands over two caldrons on small gas stoves, stirring a stew of cracked wheat and chickpeas.
"We are doing our humanitarian duty," says Aliya Zumzum, who runs the women's committee overseeing the feeding of the arrivals. "We have been guests in their country for more than 50 years and they have been our guests for only a few weeks."
Ibrahim Shweir arrived a week ago from Mansouri, four miles south, with his wife, wounded in the leg by shrapnel, his four children, and a nephew. A laborer who looks much older than his 54 years, Mr. Shweir says he lost an eye in 1989 from Israeli artillery shelling. His wife was paralyzed in one arm a year later in another Israeli bombardment. "It's painful for the people," he says wearily. "Everybody's had enough."
A head-scarfed teen, identifying herself only as Zeina, disagrees. "No, we haven't," she says. "We will remain steadfast. As long as the resistance is with us, we have nothing to fear."
In one room, Zeinab Mughniyeh stands at the chalkboard copying verses from a Koran. "These are verses we should recite to bring victory," she says.
To the south, in banana plantations and citrus orchards, smoke rises from artillery barrages and airstrikes. The thump of exploding shells is heard every few seconds. Six bangs north of Rashidiyeh signal Katyusha rockets streaking toward Israel.
While people go about their business, the camp is on a war footing. Mr. Abul-Aynayn has donned a military uniform for the first time in 12 years. "When the Israelis enter the camps, we will not be fighting them in civilian clothes," he says. A vast signed photograph of Yasser Arafat hangs on his wall. "When they get here, we won't be any less of an obstacle than Hizbullah."
The echo of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon resonates loudly in the narrow streets here. Then, residents of Rashidiyeh and the other two camps around Tyre put up a stiff defense for several days. "It was a tough battle.... We were kids but we fought them hard," says Abu Shawqi."God willing, they will come. They're killing our children in the West Bank and Gaza and we are ablaze with eagerness to fight them."