Caught between a rock and a hard place: Charles Richards, Middle East Editor, says there is little to choose between the indifference of the Israelis and the Lebanese to the Palestinian deportees

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THERE is little Palestinians relish more than the opportunity to bemoan their fate as the victims of the machinations of foreign forces larger than themselves. And between them, the Israeli and Lebanese governments have conspired to fuel that sense of resentment and victimisation.

For sheer indifference to human suffering, there is little to choose between the Israeli and Lebanese governments over the plight of the 415 Palestinians deported by Israel to southern Lebanon. The Israelis refused permission for the Red Cross to take a food convoy through the Israeli enclave in southern Lebanon to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians. And the Lebanese on Friday ordered that a small number of the deportees, who had been taken to hospital with various ailments, be discharged and sent back to their bleak campsite in the mountains.

But then the suspension of the Palestinians in this limbo somewhere between Israeli-controlled south Lebanon and Lebanese-administered south Lebanon reflects the divide in political cultures between the two, and has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns.

For the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the situation is clear. The men are no longer on Israeli territory. Therefore they are no longer an Israeli responsibility. If the Lebanese or the Arab world are so concerned about their plight, perhaps they should do something about them.

For the Lebanese, their resolved stiffened by a new prime minister and an assertive Syria, the issue is also one of principle and precedent. Quite simply, they do not wish to permit the entry of the deported men lest sometime in the future Israel might decide to expel, say, 4,000 men in one go to Lebanon or Jordan. For even if those hardline Likud ministers who believed in the 'transfer' of the Palestinian population across the Jordan are no longer in power, many Arabs suspect that the hidden Israeli solution to the Palestinian problem is its elimination through the enforced deportation of the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There is little sympathy in Israel for the deported Palestinians. Many see the rise of obscurantist Islamist militancy as something beyond understanding. It has been suggested that Mr Rabin acted to appease his own hardline supporters. But polls show that 91 per cent of Israeli Jews supported the deportations, a near unanimity almost without precedent.

The incident which sparked the deportations again reflected the cultural divide between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis regarded the kidnapping and murder of the border policeman Nissim Toledano as cowardly, dishonourable and barbarous. Palestinians saw him as a uniformed member of the armed forces which have occupied their land for the past 25 years and therefore a legitimate target in a resistance struggle. He was of course picked up in Israel proper: but Hamas sees Israel as an aberration, doomed to survive only a moment of history, like the Crusader kingdom, before Palestine reverts to Islamic rule. Palestinians ask why they should condemn an Israel border guard's killing when Israel shows little remorse in the killing of women and children in the intifada.

Deportations have always been the harshest sanction deployed by the Israelis. It has also been the most effective. For it is not merely rhetoric that makes Palestinians declare they would prefer death (or martyrdom as they invariably put it) to exile. For separation from the land of their forefathers cuts them off from what gives them their national specificity.

The targets are nearly always the political leaders the Israeli authorities wish to see out of the way, the journalists and doctors and trades union officials, accused usually of subversion and incitement. Palestinians suspected of acts of violence are nearly always tried and imprisoned.

Letters, page 12

(Photograph omitted)