Exiles welcome repatriation offer: 395 Palestinians banished to Lebanon accept two-phase plan for return proposed by Israel

MARJ AL-ZOHOUR, Lebanon - Nearly 400 largely forgotten Palestinian deportees yesterday accepted an Israeli offer to take back 187 of their number next month, ending with cheers nearly eight months of defiance. 'We have decided to accept the new offer,' Abdul Aziz al- Rantisi, leader of the 395 men, said at their hillside camp in a south Lebanon no man's land.

Israel said the remaining 208 deportees would be allowed back in December. The men, who for months demanded to go home together, unanimously approved the Israeli proposal for a return in two stages. They cheered when their leaders emerged to make the announcement.

Israel was widely condemned when it banished 415 Palestinian men into the snows of south Lebanon on 17 December, accusing them of being linked to violent Islamic groups. The expulsion threatened to derail the Middle East peace process as Israel defied a United Nations Security Council resolution ordering it to take back the men immediately, but later the world began to lose interest in them.

Mr Rantisi said the decision to agree to the Israeli offer was forced on them as more than 100 of the men had fallen sick, the peace talks had resumed and the media had ignored their plight.

'The occupation authorities hoped we would refuse this new offer so it would have a pretext to deport us forever,' he said.

Mr Rantisi said they would still fight for the return of sick deportees through the International Committee of the Red Cross and for Israel to allow the rest back before next December. The ICRC yesterday asked Israel to include the sick in the first group to be returned.

'I've been living for the dream of returning for the past eight months,' said Khalil Abu Leila, a 40-year-old pharmacist from Khan Younis in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. 'Now I know the dream will come true. I am filled with joy and happiness, especially as I will kiss my daughter Ala. The bitterness of exile overwhelmed me.' Mr Rantisi said the men were also swayed by the failure of the Security Council resolution demanding their immediate return and by appeals from their families.

In Jerusalem, the Economics Minister, Shimon Shetreet, said the deportees' decision was a victory for Israel. 'They made the right decision. We have been offering them all the last month this proposition and I am glad they have accepted it.'

An aide to the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said Israel would allow 187 back in September and the other 208 in December.

Faisal al-Husseini, head of the Palestinian team to the Middle East peace talks, said Palestinians supported the deportees and no one had a right to object to their decision, 'because they know their circumstances better than anyone else'.

The men, given the names of those to be allowed back in September by their lawyers, spent the night discussing the offer and then lined up to telephone families with the news.

Israel agreed in February to take back 101 deportees and halve the expulsion period for the rest.