From the hilltop on which a part of this Palestinian refugee camp sits, the view is one of pastoral beauty. Workers, tiny dots on the landscape, move through the green fields below, while to the west the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean sparkle in the midday sun.
The view is illusory. For all across the camp itself, from the hilltop ridge to the sea, Rashidiyah remains today what it has been for more than two months -- a maze of rubble where children scamper over the ruins of their homes and old men sit forlornly, clustered beneath homemade canopies that shelter them from the sun.
The rubble of Rashidiyah, estimated by U.N. officials to have been 60 to 70 percent destroyed, is one of the long-term legacies of the Israeli decision to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization out of southern Lebanon once and for all. Long after the PLO guerrillas are gone from Beirut, the people of the refugee camps will remain -- unlikely to be beneficiaries of the kind of high-powered diplomatic rescue mission that helped the PLO fighters leave.
The estimates of the number of homeless Palestinians in southern Lebanon range from 30,000 by Israeli authorities to 40,000, the count of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. They have many needs but one is overriding and, in the words of an UNRWA official, growing more acute daily.
"The big problem now is housing," said Jean Rousselot, who is in charge of UNRWA operations at the three refugee camps, including Rashidiyah, that are clustered near the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre.
The approach of winter and the first rains along the coast in October and November give Rousselot a sense of urgency.
"I can tell you that on the coast it can be very cold and wet in the winter," he said. "The way I see it there is no time for anything but tents. Time is the factor we can't change."
Rousselot's concern is shared by Mohammed Ahmed, 25, a school teacher who lives in Rashidiyah with his wife and three children.
"The people who have no homes, how can they live in the winter?" he asked. "Where can they sleep?"
Food, water, blankets, medicine and other supplies have been provided to the camps -- often in inadequate amounts according to residents -- by international agencies and the civilian assistance units of the Israeli forces. But virtually nothing has been done about the problem of shelter in the more than two months since the fighting swept through here.
Houses, destroyed by air or naval shelling or blown up later by Israeli forces because they were thought to have served as PLO bunkers, remain as they were, crumpled and uninhabitable. Meanwhile, the homeless live in makeshift shelters in public buildings or somehow make do on their own in or around cities such as Tyre and Sidon.
It is not surprising that the housing question has not been resolved, for it poses, in miniature, the central dilemma of the region -- where are the Palestinians to go?
Today's announcement by Israeli officials that they will allow the erection of tents in the camps as a "temporary solution" to the winter housing problem was both a bowing to the inevitable and a tacit acknowledgment of the complexity of the problem.
But Israel is determined that the tents that will shelter the refugees here this winter will not be the beginning of a permanent reconcentration of the Palestinians in southern Lebanon, close to the Israeli border.
The Israelis say they see this as only a first stage in the search for a permanent solution that will not jeopardize Israeli security interests. The government has appointed a committee under Cabinet minister Mordechai Ben-Porat to recommend solutions.
Israeli officials, who want the refugees cleared from at least a 25-mile-wide corridor along southern Lebanon's border with Israel, have suggested that the refugees could be scattered and eventually absorbed into Lebanese society as have other Palestinians. In a radio interview yesterday, Ben-Porat suggested that the Arab countries, which he said import "millions of workers from the Far East," should be more than willing to absorb several hundred thousand Palestinians.
But that seems unlikely. Standing near the charred, rusting hulk of what was once his Datsun automobile, Ahmed pointed to the ground of the camp and said, "All the Arabs, they like this. They want the Palestinians in Lebanon."
But the Lebanese do not.
"We don't know why the Lebanese hate us," he said. "We hear them up in Tyre. They don't want any Palestinians. How can a Palestinian work there? How can you work with me when you hate me?"