When the Israeli government announced three weeks ago that it had approved the first stage of a plan to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, there was dancing in the streets at the Ein el Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp on the east side of this ancient port city.
The celebration lasted several nights--until someone bombed the home of local Sunni Muslim leader Mustafa Saad, killing his daughter and sending him to a Boston hospital, where doctors are still trying to save his sight.
Now, residents of Ein el Hilwa say they don't go out after dark. "Yesterday I couldn't eat, I was so afraid," said Nazmiya Hammudeh, 46. On Sunday, she said, five bullets crashed through the wall of her home at the camp entrance, narrowly missing her daughter-in-law and shattering a mirror on her dressing table.
The change of mood in Ein el Hilwa is symbolic of the increasingly tense atmosphere throughout this city of 200,000 with the approach of Feb. 18, when the Israelis say they will have completed their evacuation of Sidon as part of the first stage of the withdrawal. They have occupied the region since their invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982.
The Lebanese are even more elated than the Palestinians at the imminent departure of the Israeli army. As they see it, the resistance of Lebanese Shia Muslim guerrillas to the occupation has succeeded against the Israelis where entire Arab armies have always failed.
At the same time, though, most people here are nervous over what might happen in the power vacuum left by the withdrawing troops.
"When you have a vacuum, then all kinds of slime comes out," one relief agency worker said. "There is just one wild rumor after another. People are petrified."
On everyone's mind is the continuing struggle among various Lebanese factions in Beirut and the factional fighting that followed the Israeli withdrawal from the Shouf Mountains in the fall of 1983.
While Sidon is populated predominantly by Sunni Muslims, it has a Christian minority, and there are dozens of Christian villages nearby. About 70,000 Palestinians live in the area, mostly in Ein el Hilwa and the smaller Miye ou Miye refugee camp.
In the mountains a short distance to the northeast are the Druze, members of an offshoot Islamic sect, and just south of the city is an area dominated by Shia Muslims.
Lebanese officials insist that despite this potentially volatile mixture of religions and sects, Sidon will be different from the Shouf region, that factional battles will not break out when the Israelis withdraw. "We'll have a better withdrawal than you think,' said Dr. Nazih Bizri, a Sidon physician and Sunni Muslim member of the Lebanese Parliament.
Bizri, who is active in an inter-sect committee trying to ensure an orderly transition in the city, said all factions have agreed that the regular Lebanese army will take control as soon as the Israelis and their mercenary militia, called the South Lebanon Army, leave.
"If the Lebanese army is able to arrive to Sidon, I don't think anything will happen," agreed Mohammed Ghaddar, a Shia leader in Ghaziye, just south of Sidon.
The residents of Sidon hope desperately that these leaders are right, but they have little faith in an army that has so far been unable to establish order even in Beirut, the capital.
What if the regular Lebanese army cannot take control? Different groups suggest different possibilities, none of them pleasant for the people here.
The Palestinians say they fear that Christian militiamen of the right-wing Falangist Party will attack the camps as they did the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps just outside Beirut in September, 1982, where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed. There is already bad blood between the Christian residents of the Miye ou Miye village, southeast of Sidon, and the 5,000 Palestinians at the village's refugee camp.
Some see the well-armed Druze coming down from the mountains in a drive to capture Sidon's lucrative port, giving them a long-sought outlet to the sea. Others speculate on the chances of a clash between the Christians and the Druze here, spilling over from their fighting in the Kharoub region just north of the city.
Muslims said they most fear a battle for control of the camps between rival Palestinian groups--a fight that could easily spread to Sidon, where more Palestinians live.
The sound of gunfire in the city has become increasingly common in recent days, residents said. They contend that the Israelis and their militia allies do most of the shooting here. Many are sure that Israel ordered the bombing of Mustafa Saad's home--a charge the Israelis vigorously deny.
Bizri charged that the Israelis are trying to stir up sectarian tensions "to frighten the people and make them think the Israelis are necessary."
Unquestionably in trouble are those who aided Israel during the occupation. Last month, the Lebanese "National Resistance" movement distributed leaflets listing collaborators' names. Since then, a Lebanese source said, about one-fourth of those listed have been killed, half have left town and the rest are under heavy guard.
"There will be vengeance," a U.N. official in southern Lebanon said. "The only thing you can hope for is that it won't spread."
If nothing else, the uncertainty caused by the withdrawal has residents here on edge. "There's this general mood of tension," one said. "People aren't going out. Some stores are closing at noon."
Another resident said some people have left town, and others, while staying to guard their homes, have sent their families away until it becomes clear what will happen.
Ironically, given the fact that many people in southern Lebanon welcomed the invading Israeli troops when they marched north to dislodge the Palestine Liberation Organization, about the only thing that unites the various factions here is their opposition to the Israeli occupation.
There has been a sharp increase in guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops in the area since last month's withdrawal announcement. On Tuesday alone, a dozen soldiers were wounded in two bomb blasts east of Tyre, which is on the coast about 25 miles south of here.
The southern Lebanese leaders also said that while they will protect Palestinian refugees, they will resist the reemergence of a PLO base. "Please, let it be clear," Bizri said. "We have no Palestinians fighting with us in the south."
Ghaddar, the Shia leader in Ghaziye, added: "After 10 years, the people are tired of fighting. They want law and order here."
In Beirut, meanwhile, wire services reported that Lebanese army units moved south Tuesday along the main coastal highway from the capital to a few miles north of the present Israeli front line in preparation for Israel's pullback.