Back in August, before the massacre in West Beirut, before the negotiations over Lebanon's future became so bogged down, Israel had a seemingly clear-cut policy toward the Palestinians who live in southern Lebanon: It wanted them dispersed far from Israel's border, to northern Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world.
At a press conference on Aug. 26, Economics Minister Yaacov Meridor, the official responsible for the housing needs of the refugees, announced that Israel would reluctantly allow the erection of tents in the devastated Palestinian refugee camps of south Lebanon as a "temporary solution" for the winter.
But, Meridor stressed, Israel's longer range goal remained the same. By next summer, he confidently predicted, the camps, considered "hotbeds of terrorism" by the Israelis, would be dismantled, with the Palestinians resettled in smaller enclaves in other parts of the region.
That was more than three months ago. In the intervening time, the refugees rejected the tents offered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Israel, meanwhile, moved well beyond the "temporary solution" of tents, coordinating efforts to provide cement to the refugees to rebuild their own housing and asking the U.S. Agency for International Development for funds to help the refugees purchase prefabricated homes.
Two weeks ago, Meridor, without a reference to his August pronouncement, proudly told a parliamentary committee that conditions in the refugee camps would soon be much as they were before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon on June 6.
The statement signaled a change in attitude by Israeli officials. Talk of "dispersing" the refugees throughout Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world has vanished. Instead, Meridor made repeated pledges through the fall that Israel would do all it could to help the refugees rebuild their shattered homes in the camps and would provide protection for them.
This apparent shift in Israeli policy toward the southern Lebanon refugee camps, never officially proclaimed, evolved out of necessity. The Lebanese winter closed in inexorably, and if the refugees would not accept the tents, some kind of housing, even permanent housing opposed by the Lebanese government, had to be provided.
What made this more than a humanitarian necessity was the knowledge -- dramatized in the aftermath of the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of West Beirut -- that Israel would be held responsible for the welfare of the Palestinians in areas under its control.
Like so much that has grown out of the war, the problem of what to do with the refugees who would be left behind after the Palestinian guerrillas were driven from southern Lebanon was not foreseen.
"They never thought about it when they went into the war," said Sam Halperin, an official of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a private organization that has worked closely with the Israeli government in providing cement, kerosene heaters, blankets and other supplies to the refugees. "They didn't think about a lot of things."
By all appearances, the Israeli policy toward the refugees is still evolving in ad hoc fashion, with no one thinking much beyond getting through the winter.
Israel's preference remains for the Palestinians to be assimilated into Lebanese society or otherwise prevented from reconcentrating in camps close to Israel's northern border, one official said. But the Lebanese government's position, he noted, is that all Palestinians without Lebanese resident permits -- meaning the bulk of the refugees who entered the country after 1948 -- must leave Lebanon.
That would be fine with Israel, he said, but executing such a policy is up to Lebanon. "We will have to wait and see what the Lebanese government makes of it," he said.
The future of the refugee camps also seems certain to become entangled in the negotiations on a troop withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel is demanding that before its troops withdraw adequate "security arrangements" be made for a 25-to-30-mile-wide belt of southern Lebanon that includes a number of the Palestinian camps.
If the camps remain, the Israeli official said, Israel will insist on guarantees that they "won't become new terror bases."
At this point, with the negotiations not even started and the winter approaching in full force, such factors do not appear to be of immediate concern here. But they could become points of internal dispute. Geula Cohen, a right-wing member of the Knesset (parliament), chastised Meridor recently for "a gross shortcoming" in allowing the refugees to remain in southern Lebanon.
Halperin, who has been working on the problem since shortly after the June invasion, said he sees no alternative but to allow the Palestinians to remain.
"Where are you going to move them to?" he asked.