AIN HELWEH, LEBANON— Ain Helweh is the largest of a dozen camps in Lebanon for Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and has been a cramped home for 80,000 Palestinians the past half-a-century. But now Palestinian Syrians are arriving and the camp is struggling to respond.
The direct translation of Ain Helweh is “sweet water spring,” but there is nothing sweet about the camp outside the town of Sidon that has housed refugees from northern Palestine since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Overcrowded and oppressive, the camp’s poorly built dwellings and confined streets have been grossly insufficient for the population for decades.
Now more refugees are squeezing in - Palestinians fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria.
The longer-term residents are sharing what limited space they have in their homes with some of the newcomers. Other arrivals are camping on small patches of wasteland in shelters constructed of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting.
Munir al-Maqdah, commander for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Fatah faction in the camp, was born in Ain Helweh when the original refugees were all still sheltered in tents.
This new wave of Palestinians brought back sad memories, he said, as he toured a squalid makeshift campsite arranging cash for food.
“We have 80,000 people living in one kilometer square. Twenty-seven thousand Syrian refugees came to the camp. Those are our families. We are going to split the piece of bread in half with them. The sewage system can’t hold anymore. Even the water supplies can’t handle any more. We have to split our water and our food with them,” he said.
The Fatah camp leader remained angry at the little assistance coming from the Lebanese government and international aid organizations.
“People need some money in order to buy their stuff. The most important thing is a place to live and to have continuous money for those families. It is just shameful for all the international community that people are still living in tents,” he said.
Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, the political representative for Hamas, the PLO’s rival, agreed. “The U.N. sometimes gives them small amounts of money. They are hungry, they are really hungry,” he said.
After a visit to the camp last month, U.N. agency officials appealed for $65 million to cover the needs of Palestinian refugees from Syria from January to December 2013. Of that sum, the agency has received over $25 million, and has confirmed pledges of an additional $3 million.
Ain Helweh is not only the biggest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It is also considered the most dangerous. There are 17 armed factions - including hard-line jihadist-aligned groups - represented in the camp and tensions are running high. Recently, a jihadist shot a Fatah bodyguard in the camp.
And some Palestinian gunmen from the camp joined in fighting in Sidon last month between radical Lebanese Sunnis and the Lebanese army.
Palestinian leaders meet regularly and have reached an agreement about trying to contain the tensions.
“Now we have an agreement. There is an agreement, at least there's an agreement. But sometimes some things get out of line and can’t be controlled,” said Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha.
Palestinian leaders believe they can keep the peace but they admit they are worried.