Israel has agreed reluctantly to allow the erection of tents in the devastated Palestinian refugee camps of southern Lebanon to provide temporary shelter for the homeless during the winter, senior Israeli officials said today.
The decision, announced by Economics Minister Yaacov Meridor, came after weeks of negotiations with Lebanese authorities and officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency over the acute housing problems faced by the refugees following the war in Lebanon.
Meridor stressed that Israel agreed to this "temporary solution" only after it concluded that there was no other choice, and he said Israel remains determined to see the camps dismantled and the refugees dispersed to other Arab countries or relocated in smaller enclaves elsewhere in Lebanon within the next year.
Israel has opposed rebuilding the camps because it considered them centers of PLO activism close to the northern border of Israel. Today, Meridor criticized the U.N. agency for allowing the camps to become "hotbeds of terrorism" in the past.
Last month, Yisrael Gravinsky, a top aide to Meridor, said Israel was opposed even to the setting up of tents in the camps on a temporary basis for Palestinians left homeless by the fighting.
But Meridor said today: "We are faced with a situation with the approaching winter and the need to open the schools in the camps. . . . There is no other solution but the temporary solution we didn't want -- to let UNRWA back into the camps to clear the debris and put up tents."
Israel had sought to relocate the refugees north of Sidon, a comfortable distance from the border with Israel.
But Lebanese authorities, who are eager to have the refugees removed from all of Lebanon, refused to make land available and forbade the use of concrete or other permanent materials in rebuilding the existing camps, according to Meridor.
A permanent solution to the refugee problem in Lebanon, Meridor said, is to be handled in the next year by a committee headed by M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and including representatives of Israel, Lebanon and the United Nations.
Before the war, according to Israeli officials, 60,000 Palestinian refugees lived in half a dozen camps in southern Lebanon. The main camps were Rashidiyah, outside of Tyre, with a population of 15,000, and Ein Hilwe near Sidon, with a population of 24,000.
United Nations officials estimate that Rashidiyah was 60 to 70 percent destroyed during the fighting there or by the later deliberate destruction of houses that had been used as bunkers by the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas. The destruction was even worse at Ein Hilwe, which has remained closed to journalists.
Israeli officials put the number of Palestinian refugees left homeless by the war at 30,000, while the U.N. relief agency estimates the number at 40,000. In recent weeks, many of those who fled north during the fighting have drifted back to the ruins of their homes in the camps. However, reconstruction efforts were forbidden by Israeli authorities as they searched for methods to prevent the reconcentration of the Palestinians in southern Lebanon.
Officials for the U.N. agency could not be reached for comment, but Meridor said it had ordered about 8,000 tents from Pakistan that are expected to arrive in Beirut in two weeks. He said that the U.N. agency will finance the effort but that Israeli charitable organizations would provide heating stoves for the tents and that the Israeli Health Ministry has been asked to make mobile maternal- and infant-care units available at the camps.
The refugee problem is one of a number of issues still to be resolved in the aftermath of a war that, from the Israeli side, clearly appears to be winding down.
Another is the fate of about 8,000 suspected PLO members, most of whom are being held in a prison camp in southern Lebanon. In recent days, Israeli officials have said they are gradually releasing prisoners they have determined did not belong to the PLO, although they have refused to provide numbers or indicate the extent of the releases.
Foreign Ministry officials said this week that no firm decision has been made on whether to prosecute those prisoners believed to be guerrillas.
Meridor said today that former suspects who are released will be free to return to the refugee camps.
Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that Israel is diminishing its military presence in Lebanon as the evacuation of the PLO fighters from Beirut continues. Roads in southern Lebanon that a few weeks ago were clogged with military convoys traveling north toward the besieged Lebanese capital are now clogged with traffic in the opposite direction as tanks and other heavy equipment are returned to Israel.