Barren exile teaches useful lessons: The Palestinian deportees believe they are winning the fight to go home, Robert Fisk writes in Marj al-Zohour

'WE are winning,' Mahmoud Zahar said, jabbing his index finger skywards in the general direction of God. 'Warren Christopher will fail. The Palestinian delegation can never go to the talks until we all return as one unit. I have learnt this as I sat here on the mountain. I have learnt that even if we are the weakest people in the world, we can win if we express our feelings. At the moment, we here on this mountain are the focus, the most important point in the Arab-Israeli conflict.'

Across the hills, far to the west, the boom of Israeli artillery fractionally changed the air pressure and allowed Mr Zahar the opportunity to glance meaningfully at his audience of bearded Palestinian deportees, sitting around him on the grey rocks like Old Testament prophets. 'Mr Christopher will fail until he solves our question - we are at the centre of everything,' he repeated, more slowly this time.

On the broken roadway behind him, the deportees were holding their Korans in one hand and clasping transistor radios to their ears with the other. English, Arabic and Hebrew whispered across the hillside as BBC, Lebanese and Israeli broadcasts told them of the refusal of the Palestinian delegation in Jerusalem to return to the peace talks. The 396 Palestinians of Marj al-Zohour have even acquired a battery-powered television and nightly watch the Hebrew news on Israeli television - most of them speak the language of those they regard as their oppressors - and are talking privately of their chances of returning home by mid-summer.

They are well aware of the irony that lies behind Mr Christopher's mission. None of the deportees in southern Lebanon supports the current Middle East peace talks or the work of the Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem. But all know that the desire of the Palestinians and the Americans to restart the 'peace process' represents their greatest chance of going home - because no Palestinian delegation dares talk to the Israelis until the deportees return to the West Bank and Gaza. Hence they were scenting victory yesterday, if a little worried by the enthusiasm of other Arab delegations - the Syrians, Lebanese and Jordanians - to press ahead with negotiations.

Moussa Amro, still limping from the broken foot he suffered before his deportation in December, walked from his tent towards the deportees' morning prayers with a harsh glance at the sun. 'We are going to have hard times before this is over,' he muttered. 'It is getting hotter. It will soon be very hot. Even now, the stream of water over there is drying up. There are snakes here in summer - and many scorpions.' The deportees have just discovered to their consternation that the hillside upon which their grubby tents are pitched is known to local Lebanese villagers as Mother of Scorpions Mountain, a sinister prelude to a long hot summer.

The deportees' encampment is slowly turning into a theological college with a tented mosque, religious discussions and regular prayers on the road.

A 'University of The Return' has been opened by the academics among those expelled by Israel, complete with a dean and rector. Several expressed the view yesterday that their presence in southern Lebanon would ultimately end Israel's system of deportation and thus bring about a real political victory for the Palestinians.

Perhaps. There are those among the detainees who would accept Middle East peace talks that were more formally tied to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 - calling for the withdrawal of Israel from occupied land - and which envisaged a UN protection force in the West Bank and Gaza. Even these sages, however, are having difficulty convincing their colleagues that the UN should still be trusted.

'If thousands of Muslim girls are raped in Bosnia, the UN does nothing,' a Palestinian engineer complained. 'But when a single Israeli soldier is killed, this allows the Israelis to deport 400 Palestinians.'

Since Mr Christopher arrived in the Middle East, there has also been growing among the tents a more palpably anti-Western - rather than anti-Israeli - sentiment, harshly articulated by Mr Zahar. 'The West is a cancer,' he told his little congregation yesterday. 'Do you know what the meaning of cancer is? It is defined as 'an uncontrollable and purposeless growth'.' And there followed a litany of condemnation, of the West's immorality, of the infliction of Aids, and assertions of the purity of Islam here amid the Lebanese foothills where high principle is as clearcut as the snows of Golan and reality as slippery as the diminishing stream of water that flows past the tents.

(Photograph omitted)

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