Exiles the world forgot bemoan fate: Israel has defied the UN on the Palestinian deportees, writes Robert Fisk in Marj al-Zohour

THE ISRAELIS got away with it. That is the message of Marj al-Zohour. Almost eight months after they were exiled by Israel against all international law, the 395 Palestinian deportees in southern Lebanon are still walking the roads beneath the great, grey, hot expanse of Golan, now largely forgotten by the world to which they once appealed for help. UN Security Council Resolution 799, which demanded their immediate return to the Israeli-occupied territories, was long ago ignored by Israel as flagrantly as any Serbian disregard for UN resolutions on Bosnia.

Many of the tents in the deportees' little no man's land south of Marj al-Zohour look positively shabby, the canvas stained a dark brown, the hillside below them littered with thousands of empty cans and orangeade bottles. Convoys of journalists once blocked the narrow road from Beirut to the border to record their daily life - their letters home, their hopes and anger, their athletics matches, their gimcrack university and their makeshift mosque, their hopeless little 'marches of death' back towards the Israeli occupation zone in southern Lebanon - but the crumbling road that leads to the land they call Palestine is now deserted.

In the months since they arrived here, more than 100 of the 350 married men among the deportees have become fathers of children they have yet to see. Farah Abdul Kader's wife gave birth to a baby girl five days ago. Many of the men have also lost fathers and mothers whose funerals they could not attend. Yussef Walaja's father died only this Wednesday in the West Bank, while another deportee's brother-in-law has been shot dead by Israeli troops in Gaza. Each night the Palestinians work their Hizbollah-supplied satellite phone to their homes in the occupied territories.

'No, we did not expect it would take so long,' Sheikh Bassam Jarrar lamented yesterday in tent 46. 'It has been many months. Israel succeeded in not having UN resolution 799 applied. And Israel succeeded in not allowing our immediate return. But how do you measure success? Is our staying here an advantage to the Israelis? In the long run, I don't think it is. They wanted to scatter us across the Arab world so we could never return home, but the Lebanese stopped that. Israel succeeded in proving to the whole world that the UN is a pawn in the hand of America and that Palestinians rather than Jews are an oppressed people. The Israelis are encouraging people to take revenge.'

Harsh words indeed. But there is more reflection than desire for retaliation among the deportees. Five of them have written books on their mountain encampment and on the need for an Islamic revolution; the latest of them, On the Border of Our Land by Nizar Kader, a journalist deportee from the Jerusalem paper An Nahar, is going off to a Beirut publisher today. Almost a thousand books, most of them on Islam, now line the 'Library' tent whose shelves are made from wooden fruit boxes but whose catalogue studiously records the tent location of each borrower. Hundreds of cassettes of sermons and religious texts line another wall.

The deportees have taken hundreds of videotapes of their camp while their spokesman, Aziz Dweik, has been filming the ruins of a Byzantine village he claims to have discovered near a dried-up river bed. There are oil paintings in one tent, of the moon over southern Lebanon, of that tiny, winding road south that leads to Israel.

Those deportees who support Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine - the ostensible reason for their deportation on 17 December - know well that, if there is a Palestine, they will be part of its history.

Of the 19 deportees flown by RAF helicopter back to their Israeli prison in February, four have now been released. The health of Abdul-Fattah Al-Aweissi, who founded the camp 'university' earlier this year, collapsed two months ago after he heard that his wife and children had also been deported by the Israelis, to Jordan. He left the camp at night and was cared for in a Lebanese hospital in the village of Mashgara until the Israeli's bombarded it in last week's blitz on southern Lebanon. Then he was spirited off to the safety of the Iranian-run Imam Khomeini hospital in Baalbek.

The deportees watched the Israeli attack with a mixture of concern and fatalism. With their mountainside physically shaking to the detonation of bombs on the neighbouring hills and the Israeli shellfire moaning through the sky to the south, many of the Palestinians could not sleep at night. Their food, usually brought by the Hizbollah guerrillas who were supposed to be the target of Israel's offensive, was rationed, although a local Lebanese villager carried supplies in to the camp at night by mule. 'Our greatest fear,' as Mr Jarrar said bluntly yesterday, 'was that the Israelis would shell or bomb us by accident. We were all frightened.'

The Palestinians' latest hope of a return is now placed on a Beirut newspaper dispatch which suggests the Israelis will take back 120 of the deportees now, another 260 on 17 September and the remaining five - who they might be is a subject of some importance to the men - on 17 December, the anniversary of their exile.

Hitherto, the Palestinians have spurned such offers and have demanded to return together on the same day. But the months have been long. After much weary discussion, the deportees have decided that if the report is true, they will swallow their pride and accept it.

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