27 July 2006
by Alaa Shahine
Ain El-Hilweh, Lebanon:
Palestinians in this impoverished camp have turned from downtrodden refugees to generous hosts as they offer shelter to Lebanese families fleeing Israeli bombardment.
With the southern city of Sidon reeling under the influx of thousands of people escaping devastated border villages, dozens of Lebanese families have found temporary homes nearby in the country's biggest Palestinian refugee camp.
"This is a first. Palestinians refugees are receiving the displaced Lebanese," said Ibrahim al-Maqdah, commander of the Popular Army, one of the numerous Palestinian factions that roam freely in the crowded alleyways.
"But they will enjoy staying here more than anywhere else. We are a nation of refugees, we know how to entertain them," said Maqdah, 45, a tall man with a long salt-and-pepper beard wearing green military fatigues.
Like many of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, Maqdah was born in a refugee camp after his family lost its home following the 1948 creation of Israel.
He fought with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and against Israeli troops that invaded in 1982 to expel Palestinian militants.
Palestinians were widely blamed in Lebanon for sparking the civil war and triggering Israel's invasion. The camps of the mainly Sunni Muslim refugees were attacked by both Christian and Shi'ite fighters during the war.
The end of the civil war in 1990 brought little relief as successive governments continued to restrict Palestinian employment and property rights, fearing they might settle permanently in Lebanon and upset its delicate sectarian balance.
In a sign of continued neglect, rubbish piles up in rutted lanes and sewage runs through the streets of Ain el-Hilweh. But aid workers say deprivation has not dented the generosity of the refugees, whose donations were so overwhelming they had to send a large surplus to other centres housing Lebanese displaced.
"People have been donating clothes, food, blankets and sheets," said Atef Moussa, a volunteer. "We had to call on them through mosques' loudspeakers to stop, they are in need too."
The Lebanese refugees were settled in three UN-run schools in the camp, sleeping in classrooms but supplied with television sets, washing machines and round-the-clock electricity, luxuries some other displaced centres do not enjoy.