Despair assails Palestinians trapped in a gilded cage

Arafat's peace agreement has left two former PLO fighters abandoned in a UN no man's land. Robert Fisk reports
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Naqqoura, southern Lebanon - Khamis Khodr has grown silent and resentful, Mohamed al-Gulani is at turns generous and angry. It is difficult to live in a gilded cage.

In the seven months and 23 days they have spent inside the United Nations headquarters in Southern Lebanon, trapped between the Israelis who deported them and the Lebanese who refused to receive them, Mr Khodr and Mr al- Gulani have moved from hope to despair.

Their refuge, through "a humanitarian worker", has turned into a "golden jail". They have food, beds, books, television, the use of a phone, friends among the UN soldiers and pounds 150 each a month, but no passport, no country and no home.

"My life is over," Mr Khodr says and he means it. Deported from Israel after serving prison sentences for attempted attacks on Israelis - he served 23 years for taking a rifle across the Jordan river to the occupied West Bank not long after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and Mr al-Gulani 10 years for driving a carload of explosives near Israeli-occupied Ramallah - both men were turned back by Lebanese soldiers the moment they were expelled across the Israeli border last April.

Back in the spring they thought a few complaints from the UN would secure their future. Their expulsion by Israel to Lebanon, in contravention of Articles 45 and 49 of the Geneva Convention, could surely be reversed.

Prematurely old at 58 Mr Khodr, a PLO loyalist who would now like to go to Gaza, is in no state to take up arms again. Besides, Yasser Arafat's peace agreement with Israel means history has passed him by. Mr al-Gulani would be content merely to join his brother Omar in Jordan. But the Israelis refused both men permission to recross the border, claiming they were still security threats. Jordan then announced that Mr al-Gulani was a threat to its own security.

When humanitarian workers tried to arrange a visit from Omar to Mr al- Gulani, the Lebanese refused him permission to pass through their territory from Jordan; Lebanon was still technically at war with Israel, they said. Now that Amman had made peace with Tel Aviv, he could surely travel through Israel. But the Israelis refused.

By mid-summer, the Arab, Israeli and Western journalists who trooped to the UN HQ to interview the two Palestinians, had, like the rest of the world, forgotten them. In desperation, Mr al-Gulani wrote a personal letter to Mr Arafat, pleading with the PLO leader to help them. Mr Khodr, he wrote, would be happy to live under the control of his old PLO masters in "free" Gaza. But Gaza is not free, because the Israelis have the final say on who may or may not enter.

"I wrote a one-page letter to Abu Amar [Mr Arafat] in July," Mr al Gulani says. "A few days later, I received a phone call from someone in the PLO office in Gaza, called Dr Sami. He said Arafat had given his permission for both of us to move to Gaza, but the Israelis had vetoed our going there on the grounds of security. That's all. Nothing else. And we are still here."

Mr Khodr is building a cement wall for the UN soldiers, partly to show his gratitude for their personal kindness. When he suffered a hernia the UN operated on him. They have tried to cure Mr al-Gulani's ear infection and asthma but the two men suffer the twin curse of international generosity and personal despair. "Of course we get angry, because we want to start new lives," Mr al-Gulani says.

"We have served our sentences. We have paid for what we did for the PLO. Now the PLO has made peace with Israel, but we rot here without a future. Why? I get angry, even at the UN. They want to send a guard with me wherever I go. They are kind, but what can I do?"

It was one of their UN protectors who found the right words to describe Mr Khodr and Mr al-Gulani. "Political ghosts" is what he called them.