AIN EL-HILWEH, Lebanon—Twenty young men from Ain el-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, have died fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Their portraits hang in honor here, plastered to filthy walls, taped to store windows and hung from the crisscrossed electrical wires that form a ceiling above narrow alleyways.
Now the image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has joined them, and—to the consternation of Lebanese officials—many of the camp's residents find both inspiration and shame in his face.
"I wish all the Palestinian groups were like Hezbollah," said Abu Adnan Sayegh, his voice angry and loud as he spoke from a plastic lawn chair in front of his rundown home in the camp. "Unless they do what Hezbollah did here, we'll never win. The Jews took Palestine by force and it's never going back to us except by force!"
"Yeah, if you throw one rock, it's better than waiting in these lines," fumed Fuad Abu Khurj, pointing to a throng of Palestinians jostling for weekly food handouts.
Ever since Nasrallah declared victory over Israel after a 34-day war in which Israel fought Hezbollah to a draw, militants among the 60,000 people who live in this encampment in the port city of Sidon have grown more strident in their calls for armed action against Israel.
That worries the Lebanese government and moderate Palestinian factions in the camp, who fear the strengthening of the radical group Hamas over the increasingly unpopular and moderate Fatah party.
For decades, the government has struggled to keep Palestinians confined to their seething camps while—human rights activists charge—neglecting the dismal conditions that help turn young men to militant Islam as an escape from their dead-end lives.
Nasrallah, however, seldom fails to mention Jerusalem in his speeches, portraying himself as a champion of the Palestinians at a time when peace negotiations are stagnant, other militants are focused on the war in Iraq and the Hamas-led Palestinian leadership is struggling to pay government salaries.
"Our hearts and our flags today belong to Palestine," Nasrallah told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a recent Hezbollah rally. "There's a young man dying every day in Palestine. There are homes destroyed every day. How long must we bear this shame? Let's support our people, morally, politically and financially."
Lebanon is home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees—10 percent of the country's total population—scattered among a dozen official camps and clusters of smaller ghettoes. Overcrowding, poverty and unemployment are endemic. As noncitizens, Palestinians are prohibited from working in more than 70 trades.
A report last year by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which deals with displaced Palestinians in the Middle East, said refugees in Lebanon "do not have social and civil rights, and have very limited access to the government's public health or educational facilities and no access to public social services."
Camp residents in Lebanon constitute the majority of the agency's hardship cases.
Faced with such bleak facts, few Palestinian youths in Ain el-Hilweh dare to dream of lives beyond the forbidding, heavily fortified walls of their camp, where the 60,000 residents occupy barely a square mile of land.
Many are lured to Sunni Muslim militant groups by promises of battlefield glory, where, they believe, death wins them the eternal favor of martyrdom. There's little to lose, they say.
"What future?" asked Mohamed Jamal, 25, gesturing to the bleak camp. "You see how black the surface is, so what do you think is inside us?"
There's no police force or court system in the camps, so lawlessness is rampant, and shadowy militant groups can plot attacks with virtual impunity. Checkpoints manned by members of Hamas, Fatah and other extremist groups provide the only semblance of security. Bombings, assassinations and street fights among rival forces have punctuated a delicate power-sharing arrangement in recent years.
Hezbollah's war with Israel only heightened the tension, officials at Ain el-Hilweh said, with Nasrallah attempting to win over Palestinians by portraying his group's fight as a victory for their cause.
"The rhetoric of Hezbollah always references Palestinians," said Ron Mosrie, the country director for American Near East Refugee Aid, which works in the camps. "In the south, you see signs that say, `Jerusalem: 112 kilometers,' like, `We're on the way.'"
When he was asked whether Palestinians in Lebanon really believe that they'll return to their homeland, Mosrie was quick to answer: "They do so more than they did two months ago."
During the conflict, Israeli airstrikes killed at least 19 Palestinians and wounded 58 throughout Lebanon, according to Hamas and Fatah leaders. Four Palestinians died and 15 were injured in strikes on the Fatah headquarters and another target in Ain el-Hilweh. Dozens of homes, businesses and vehicles also were destroyed.
While Hamas, which shares Hezbollah's close ties with Iran, describes the recent conflict as a success, Fatah leaders aren't celebrating. To them, Israel's withdrawal from the Lebanese front means more punishment in the Palestinian territories. And with swaths of southern Lebanon laid to waste, Palestinians have seen humanitarian efforts diverted from their ramshackle camps.
"Sure, we feel happy if anyone fights Israel, but we weren't totally on (Hezbollah's) side, either," said Khaled Aref, the Fatah camp leader and the head of south Lebanon's branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "Before the war our people lived in very bad conditions, and now it's worse than ever."
Hamas leaders see their fate as closely tied to Hezbollah's. "If they win, we win. If they lose, we lose," said Abu Ahmed Fadel, the camp's Hamas leader. "What you see now with Hezbollah's resistance is that Israel is going to go down soon. Israel's system wasn't built to last long."
Hezbollah's fight with Israel has become a rallying point even for those who ordinarily wouldn't seem to be likely fighters.
Hanady Diab, 20, the mother of a toddler and whose disabled husband can't work, described how Hezbollah's "victory" broke the monotony of her life.
"God bless the Lebanese resistance! We were so proud of them," she said, her dark eyes gleaming. "I started to think, what if I could go make jihad and become a martyr? It's my dream."
But what about your little boy, she was prodded, what about your family?
"What do you mean?" Diab asked. "You think they wouldn't be proud of me?"
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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