Bitter mountain exile ends as peace beckons: A shameful saga of Palestinian deportees closes this weekend, Robert Fisk writes from Marj al-Zohour
Its passing will be recorded by the 215 Palestinian deportees in southern Lebanon with an inscription carved on a rock in the middle of their tent encampment. No one has yet decided on the words. Inevitably, Allahu Akbar (God is most great) is the favourite but one of the younger men, sitting on the mountainside on Wednesday, felt something more personal was called for. 'I would like to write on this rock one sentence,' he said. 'I would like to write: 'This land is not my land'.'
His land, of course, he calls Palestine and in the hours before Israel is supposed to begin its military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho on Monday, the deportees of Marj al- Zohour will be allowed to recross the Israeli lines inside occupied southern Lebanon and enter Israel itself. And from there - after a day or two in prison - most of the 215 will return to their homes, bringing to an end a miserable and shameful saga that began almost exactly a year ago.
For most of the past 12 months, there have been well over 400 deportees living on the cold hillsides here, deported by Israel after the killing of an Israeli border policeman because they were supporters of Islamic resistance groups in the West Bank and Gaza.
At one point, their deportation seemed likely to disrupt the Middle East peace talks in Washington although many of the Palestinians now suspect they were exiled with the PLO's connivance - to get them out of the occupied territories before the secret PLO-Israeli talks began in Norway.
Not that they idled away their hours below the snows of Golan. The deportees are - most of them - men of learning; English professors and imams, medical doctors and journalists, mixed in with some harder, less thoughtful, more angry figures.
And in their year of exile, 19 of them have written 30 books, all but two of them the story of their experiences of exile amid the snakes and frost, the mosquitos and baking summer heat of Marj al-Zohour. 'It was time that was given to us to study and learn and understand ourselves,' Sheikh Jarrar mused as he piled his food trays and chipped cups and plates at the side of his tent. 'We learnt to know the people here, the Lebanese, who have suffered so much these past years. We have benefited from their kindness. It was a unique experience and it will all be passed on when we return home.'
And that is the point. The Israelis intended to scatter these men to the corners of the Arab world. But when Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, refused to allow them into his country, they stayed where they were on the front line, to return this weekend with a resolve and cohesion they could never have achieved had they not lived in exile together. Hamas, Mr Arafat's principal Palestinian opponents, may prove immeasurably stronger because of their experiences here and because of the thousands of hours of night-time discussions that have gone on in the tents of Marj al-Zohour.
Dr Dweik of Hebron University was still teaching on Wednesday, explaining the movements of the earth, its axis and seasons to a group of bearded men, illustrating his lecture with drawings of tiny worlds spinning across a page. 'Ozone layer' it said in one corner. 'The fault of the West,' Dr Dweik announced with delight. But most of the men were packing, tying up bundles of clothes, preparing to hand their cutlery and plates and cups and water jugs, their generators and battered television sets back to the local villagers who provided them a year ago.
Fifteen of the deportees are so fearful of further imprisonment that they have refused to return, asking their lawyers in the West Bank and Gaza to arrange a deal with the Israelis: that they will voluntarily stay away from the occupied territories for two years if Israel promises they can then return in freedom. But at least 200 Palestinians will troop back down the narrow road from Marj al- Zohour when the Israelis tell them to.
Sheikh Jarrar was phlegmatic about it all as he stood among the hillside boulders, staring up to the first snows of Golan. The mountains loomed blue through a haze of rain. A few shafts of sunlight crept down the valley. 'Yes, it's very beautiful here,' he said. 'But it has been very hard. Like eating sugar and salt at the same time, month after month.'
The Israeli army arrested dozens of Hamas followers on Wednesday night in Gaza, Palestinian sources said last night.
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