While most of the people of southern Lebanon have fled their homes in the past three weeks, leaving behind deserted towns and villages, one population centre has grown in size. The Palestinian refugees in Rashidieh, south of Tyre and within the zone that Israel has said it may occupy, are staying put and, in a remarkable role reversal, have taken in refugees from the surrounding Shia villages.
Hundreds of people have found shelter at the only secondary school in the camp, a blue and white painted building administered by the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. On Friday Palestinian supervisors were handing out sweets to a group of 30 Lebanese children in the schoolyard.
Rashidieh was struck in the first week of the hostilities and at least one person died but since then it has not been targeted. More than 17,000 Palestinians – refugees who fled across the border in 1948 and their des-cendants – have remained in the camp, many saying they have nowhere else to go.
The relationship between the Lebanese and the Palestinians who now number about 400,000, has not always been easy, with many Lebanese accusing the Palestinians of sparking the 1975-1990 civil war. In the mid-1980s the Shia Amal movement, now politically allied with Hizbollah, fought a vicious “war of the camps” against the Palestinians, in which thousands were killed.
But Sultan Abul-Aynain, the fatigues-clad leader of the Fatah-movement in Lebanon, said relations were good now and would be even better after the “inevitable Hizbollah victory”. Israel’s offensive against Lebanon was uniting the people, he said.
His Fatah movement controls Rashidieh and parts of other Palestinian camps, where the Lebanese authorities hold little sway. Mr Abul-Aynain vowed to def-end Rashidieh in case Israeli forces reached the area. “Even the children and women will fight,” he said. He recalled that during the 1982 invasion, it took Israel seven days to overcome the resistance in the camp.
From behind his office in Rashidieh, the impact of Israeli shelling and air raids could be seen in the surrounding hills. Watching the bombardments, Mr Abul-Aynain said: “History has come around. Sixty years ago it was the Palestinians who had to flee from war.”
The 300 families of Lebanese refugees who have come to Rashidieh are among the poorest, with many saying they had no car to take them further north and out of the way of the fighting. Others said they wanted to stay near their homes so they could go back as soon as possible.
One Lebanese man staying at the school echoed the Fatah leader’s words. “I never thought I would have to flee to a Palestinian camp. I always thought that the war was mainly between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
A Palestinian supervisor who was chanting with the children, jumped up and interjected. “You cannot say that. Say that Israel is the enemy of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians.”