Trapped in no man's land: UN acts as Lebanon refuses to accept Palestinians

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The Independent Online
WITHOUT even a prayer rug, they knelt on the muddy, rain- soaked ground for Friday prayers: in exile, in no man's land.

The group of 418 Palestinians expelled by Israel were trapped at Marj Zohour, in its south Lebanon security zone, without food or shelter under the guns of Lebanese and Israeli troops.

'God take a revenge on Rabin,' declared Dr Abdel Aziz al- Rantisi, the prayer leader, his hair flowing like Lear on the stormy heath. In everyday life Mr Rantisi a large, bearded, dark man, is a paediatrician in the Gaza Strip, and a well-known spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement.

'Amen,' came the chorus of approval from 418 Palestinians, bedraggled and cold, sheltering behind the earth barriers (built as protection for tanks), but spiritually strengthened by life in exile and sure they were more sinned against than sinning.

'This is the peace Rabin seeks. The peace of deportation . . . He only wants evil. We tell Rabin this deportation is the first nail in the coffin of the Zionist State.'

It was unlikely that the soldiers of the Lebanese Army, on one side, who were refusing to let the Palestinians past their lines, or the Israeli troops on the other side, who had herded them over the border - many clutching copies of the Koran - the night before, could hear them because their voices were drowned out by the driving sleet.

But Mr Rantisi's words were carried loud and clear on the winds to the world beyond. The United Nations Security Council was preparing to pass a resolution to resolve the Palestinians' plight. Britain issued a statement on behalf of the European Community deploring their treatment.

But Britain stopped short of threatening punitive measures, saying only that it would support any action taken by the UN.

Bill Clinton, the US President- elect, said he was 'concerned'. Arab leaders voted to meet in special session in Cairo to discuss the crisis.

The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the Palestinians' treatment as a breach of the Geneva Conventions, and the EC called for the immediate return to Israel of Mr Rantisi and his followers. In Israel itself, Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, must have been beginning to fear that his mass punishment of the Palestinians was not coming off too well.

On Thursday night Mr Rabin had hoped he had devised a way to crack down swiftly and brutally upon members of Hamas and the smaller Islamic resistance group, Islamic Jihad, after several attacks had been carried out on Israeli targets, including the murder of an Israeli border guard. Mass deportation in secret into Lebanon was the answer, he decided.

Mr Rabin had been hoping the deported Palestinians would swiftly disappear and the international community would quickly forget its anger. Premature disclosure, however, and lack of co-operation by the Lebanese government scuppered the plan.

The stand-off between Israel and Lebanon over what should happen to the deportees has only given more time for international anger to mount and for sympathy for the 418 to strengthen in the occupied territories, where there were demands yesterday for a general strike and mass protests.

But Israel watched unmoved as the group wandered, wanted by nobody, like a lost tribe. 'Not even Iran has shown any interest in taking them,' said one Western diplomat.

The Israelis first transported the Palestinians in lorries, dumping them at the Lebanese lines in the early hours of the morning. Then they were turned away, and the lorries went back to Israeli- held lines.

But the group could not stay there. The Israeli army fired a volley of shots over the heads of the Palestinians and they trudged on foot six miles back to the Lebanese lines. Again, there was nobody in, the tank guns were pointing and the barriers were up.

'What shall we do,' they cried. 'We will freeze to death. Where is the Red Cross?' The Red Cross was not far away and soon would arrive to provide blankets and tents.

In Jerusalem, other Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters were swift to show solidarity. At the al- Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest shrine, demonstrations were held.

'Your sons the Mujahedin (holy warriors) have sworn to come to the aid of the people against its oppressors,' said a leaflet circulating among Hamas supporters at the mosque.

A preacher in the mosque compared the expulsions with the exiling of the Prophet Mohamed. 'We do not want to complain to the 'council of insecurity' or to the United Nations, but only to God.'

In Washington, Palestinian negotiators said Mr Rabin's action could be the death blow to the Middle East peace talks. The Palestine Liberation Organisation said Palestinians would not return to the talks until those expelled were allowed home.

Despite the international outcry, Mr Rabin showed no regret. 'What will be made by other nations or by the United Nations, I have to wait and see. We have no intention to change the decision,' he told journalists. 'I believe . . . I had to take measures, and tough measures, against the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists among the Palestinians.'

As a Red Cross truck carrying 50 trucks arrived, the 418 were spending their second night in no man's land. The only solution being seriously considered by the rest of the world was that Israel would have to take them back.

The image of Mr Rantisi praying in the mud may yet live to haunt Mr Rabin.

(Photograph and map omitted)