Ain al-Hilweh – To the city of Sidon, the capital of southern Lebanon, was the destination, specifically to a square kilometer surrounded by a 9-meter-high fence with barbed wire and home to more than 85,<> people. Welcome to Ein El Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.

We enter the capital of the "Palestinian diaspora" through one of the 4 entrances controlled by the Lebanese army, from which only Lebanese and Palestinians in Lebanon (after presenting their identity) have the right to enter the camp, which was established in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with the aim of sheltering Palestinian refugees after the Nakba.

The camp was named "Ain al-Hilweh" after the fresh water that existed at the time of its establishment, as it was leased from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) directly from the Lebanese state for 99 years.

"Zarup for one"

We continue our walk to the heart of the camp – located 67 kilometers south of the city of Sidon and 67 kilometers from the border with occupied Palestine – which has been on a limited area for more than 7 decades amid a steady population increase.

As we walked, we heard the residents complain about the lack of spaces between the neighborhoods and neighborhoods, and we saw the adjacency of houses that piled on top of each other and suffer from poor ventilation, humidity and lack of sunlight.

Also, a large number of the camp's neighborhoods have become sub-alleys or the so-called "Zaroub for one person", in reference to their small size, and not as large as two people pass together.

For these and other reasons, such as the lack of financial resources and the high prices of renting or buying apartments outside the camp, many families were forced to adopt the vertical building pattern, abandoning the "hakoura" (a very small garden), to benefit from it by building one or more rooms to expand their homes, or to house their married son.

Ain al-Hilweh camp gave many martyrs on the path to the liberation of Palestine (Al Jazeera)

The camp's population swelled as a result of several factors, most notably:

  • Displacement to the camp as a result of the Lebanese civil war,
  • The destruction of Tel al-Zaatar camp and the Israeli invasion in 1982,
  • The destruction of Nabatieh camp, the war of the camps and the forced displacement from the south,
  • Adding communities attached to the camp but not officially recognized by UNRWA.

According to the Popular Committees, its population is about 85,57, including more than 1400,<> refugees registered with UNRWA, and there are <>,<> families classified as extreme poverty.

35 Palestinian cities in the camp

The residents of the camp belong to more than 35 cities and towns, and the neighborhoods of the camp still bear the names of Palestinian villages and cities, and it is remarkable that their arrangement remained successively as they were in Palestine, as if they were brought in a miniature form to the camp, this neighborhood of Titba, Akbara, Safsaf, Arab Al-Zubaid, and that neighborhood of Safuriyya, Al-Zeeb, Hittin and others.

But this camp, which has become linked to clashes, assassinations, deaths and destruction, has not been so since its inception, but has played a prominent political and militant role in the march of the Palestinian cause, and provided many martyrs and wounded on the path to the liberation of Palestine, but in the last two decades it has witnessed bloody internal clashes between the "Fatah" movement on the one hand and Islamic forces and groups, on the other hand, resulting in deaths, injuries, destruction, displacement and the departure of dozens of families to the camp.

Abu Ali Dahsha, who has lived in the camp since its establishment, said that the people of the camp were one family, solidarity and social solidarity among themselves, but the successive events that swept the camp separated people from each other, hoping that the clashes would stop, the outstanding issues between the warring parties would be resolved and the displaced would return to their homes inside the camp.

He concluded with a remarkable wish, "The Palestinians do not want to return to the camp, but to Arab Palestine."

Salah Awad, a resident of the camp, explains how "our people used to live in tents when they came from Palestine during the Nakba, and then they built their homes in the largest camp in Lebanon in the hope of returning to Palestine, despite all that happened and the destruction of the camp, especially during the Israeli invasion, and it was rebuilt after we sold the gold of our mothers and wives.

The conclusion of this camp for us is "the title of steadfastness and return to Palestine."

Palestinian journalist Abdel Halim Shihabi said, "As a Palestinian refugee, I was born, raised and educated in Ain al-Hilweh camp, the image of my camp changed a lot, as it was a model that combines the life of refuge imposed on our people who left their land with love for Palestine, in which I did not live, but beautiful images were drawn in my imagination because of my father's stories about that beautiful time."

Shahabi – who still lives in the camp – added that "in light of the difficult and harsh conditions that we lived and are still living these days, the situation in the camp has changed, yesterday the mornings of the camp were full of the smell of coffee and the neighbors were talking about matters of life and politics and about the mother issue, but today the neighbor wakes up to find a barrier separating him from his neighbor and the neighborhoods turn into islands separated by curtains and streets that obscure the view of each other, and perhaps the harshest thing I have seen or heard about is that "Members of the same family or neighborhood become enemies, carrying guns and shooting at each other."

"My camp is no longer what it used to be. Yesterday was a title of love and convergence, united by the love of Palestine and the dream of return, today I feel that there is a real threat to the hope of return."