Tears as RAF lifts 17 from no man's land

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The Independent Online
FLYING Officer Guy Hallam got it about right as the snows of the Golan Heights towered above him and the 17 Palestinian deportees knelt in prayer before the Wessex helicopter of the RAF's 100 Squadron, crying: 'Allah akbar' in front of the astonished British crew. 'I never thought I'd live to see a day like this,' he said.

Weeping, embracing each other, still unable to believe that they were going home, the four sick and wounded, and 13 of the men whom Israel said it deported by mistake were led by the Red Cross towards the lead helicopter for their journey home to the land they still call Palestine.

At the eleventh hour, Israel had refused to accept another four deportees whom the Red Cross had decided needed hospital treatment - no explanation was given - but nothing could dim the emotions of the Palestinians, some in robes and turbans, as they were pushed into the door of the lead helicopter.

'They've got tremendous spirit, haven't they?' FO Hallam said. And even the Red Cross had to admit he was right.

Two of the 15 uninjured deportees allowed home by Israel elected to stay with their 400 colleagues on the bare mountainside below Golan where Israel dumped them on 17 December. But even those who remained could be seen crying as they watched the lucky few walk to the British helicopters, carrying their grubby hold-alls and string-tied cases. The helicopters later landed at an Israeli air force school in Haifa. Israeli security forces said the 'mistaken' deportees would be detained.

As Lebanese cameramen and Palestinians besieged the first helicopter, the British crew and Red Cross officials desperately tried to keep them from clambering into the machine. Georges Comninos, the principal Red Cross delegate, was punched in the chest.

Again and again, the Palestinians knelt in two rows on the narrow roadway before the helicopter, bowing in prayer. On board were two of the deportees wounded when they tried to walk back through the Israeli occupation zone towards Israel on the day after their expulsion; both still suffered from shrapnel wounds in the jaw and elbow. Of the four men whom Israel refused to take back, one was suffering from ulcers and another was diabetic.

Red Cross officials had argued over a mobile phone with the Israelis for more than an hour and were eventually forced to tell the deportees' leaders that none of the men might return if they insisted that all eight to be hospitalised were put on the British helicopters. For 10 minutes, as the Red Cross party stood on the rocks 20 feet away, the Palestinian delegation huddled in angry conversation but then reluctantly accepted the Israeli restriction.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, offered the use of the three helicopters from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus on Thursday night, adding that the gesture was conditional on a further humanitarian visit to the deportees by the Red Cross.

History in Lebanon rarely lacks its ironies and the deportees who remain had not forgotten that the nation which sent the helicopters to take 17 of their men back to Haifa was the one that helped to create the state of Israel with Lord Balfour's 1917 declaration that the Jews should have a homeland in Palestine.

The three British helicopters came bedecked with Union flags below their cockpits, blue United Nations stripes on their flanks and large red crosses across the doors, freshly painted on by FO Hallam and his colleagues on Friday afternoon.

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - Israeli helicopter gunships blasted suspected Shia Muslim guerrilla strongholds in South Lebanon yesterday, shortly after a roadside bomb killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded one other, AP reports. Security sources said two Cobra gunships mounted eight rocketing and strafing runs on four villages. The Shia Muslim Amal group said it planted the bomb.