Thursday, July 21, 2005

My visit to `Ayn Al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp. I was distressed yesterday when I read that there was a clash between fighters loyal to the PFLP and others loyal to Fath in `Ayn Al-Hilwah refugee camp in Lebanon. The camp is so much an object of stereotyping and mythical press portrayal as if it is some jungle of sorts. The Palestinians there really resent that, I found out. My sister got us a cab in Beirut to go there one day, and the cab driver thought that we were going to Sidon (close to the camp). When into the car, the driver realized that he was driving us to `Ayn Al-Hilway camp. He looked horrified and terrified. I immediately said to him that you are under no obligation to go, and that we can find another cab. He called the headquarters of his cab company, which instructed him to proceed. A man met us in Sidon, and we drove into the camp. As soon as we entered the camp (an army check point sits at every entrance), we were stopped at the main entrance by an army check point. The soldier looked inside the car, and said: "I only want to see your documentation." (He was talking about me.) We then entered through the main street: that street is the one that receives the most coverage in the Lebanese press because it houses the radical Sunni groups that we hear so much about (Fanatical Sunni fundamentalist groups like `Usbat Al-Ansar and Jund Ash-Sham among others are present there). I saw from the pictures and graffiti and the style of the beards that this was indeed the street in question. We then were stopped, and a Mercedes car was stopped ahead of us, with all of its doors left wide open. Suddenly, scores of armed gunmen started rushing into that car, while our car was made to stop behind it. My sister (who knows the refugee camps in Lebanon better than anybody I know) was surprised: it is not common to see people openly running with AK-47s in the camps. Alarmed, she asked our escort about those gunmen. He said that they were bodyguards for VIPs. She assumed that they were escorting some Palestinian leader inside the car, when he told her (not thinking that I could hear) that they were to protect "your brother" during the visit. We drove through the most rough and narrow streets imaginable, and then we entered the hall. What I love about Palestinian society, among other things, is how politicized it is: whenever you go to a Palestinian political event, you see all ages there; the young and the old, the women and the men, etc. This was no exception. And women were veiled and unveiled, unlike the Burj Barajnah refugee camp from last year. I wanted the event to be more an exchange of opinions, and different political organizations and factions were represented although the Abu Mazen supporters knew that I would be critical of his administration. Somebody was videotaping the event, but did not know who. The armed gunmen stayed at the entrances, which gave a tense look to the place. At one point, I got nervous that some fight or clash may erupt, but as a guest of the camp I could not express preferences regarding security. I wanted to take pictures in the camp but did not take many; I did not want to appear like a tourist among the refugees although they were most welcoming.