The Red Cross was to have flown the nine men home in a United Nations helicopter in the same way that they took 16-year old Bassem Siouri back to Israel on Saturday - and the same way they tried to take Zohair Lobbadeh home, too, only the Israelis would not let the sick man cross their border. Instead, Mr Lobbadeh - who suffers from a kidney malfunction - was packed off by Israel to a hospital in the Israeli-occupied area of southern Lebanon, scarcely 10 miles from the camp in which he had been living. Only Mr Siouri made it home to his overjoyed family in Hebron.
Yesterday, however, it was Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, who changed the Palestinians' travel plans, announcing that Saturday's flight had been a 'mercy mission' in which the Red Cross had exceeded their mandate; if the nine further Palestinians were to go home, he said, the Israelis would have to take them back through the Zommariya crossing-point a mile from the Palestinians' camp, not receive them in a UN helicopter.
The distinction may seem cruel - petty, to say the least - but the Palestinians trapped in the frost between the Israelis and Lebanese front lines fully understood its meaning. If the Israelis were to be forced to adhere to international law, they would have to reverse the expulsions in the same way that they carried them out - by bringing the Palestinians back through the same checkpoint where they were dumped into Lebanon. It would be Lebanon, not Israel, which decided such movement on Lebanese territory.
That is the theory. In the sleet that cascaded down on the tarpaulin encampment yesterday, the Palestinians were digging ditches around their tents to prevent floods of icy water pouring over the rocks into their damp homes, hauling plastic containers of fresh water along the broken road from the nearest stream, and dragging long-disused telegraph poles to turn into firewood. On one mountainside, the exiled men were climbing up through the mud to fill buckets from an animals' drinking trough.
'I suppose you think we're fanatics, extremists, madmen, don't you?' an old man with a full white beard remarked bitterly. 'We know our situation from the radio. You people will bomb Iraq for the UN but you won't help us when Israel ignores the UN.'
The Palestinians have had time to philosophise upon their plight. They cluster round the few transistors they have been given by local villagers, tuning ceaselessly from Beirut radio to Damascus, to Israel, to the BBC.
Iyad Zeinedin and Said Amr and their colleagues had woken yesterday elated at their imminent freedom. 'Of course I was ready to go,' Mr Zeinedin said coldly. 'I have no baggage. Nothing but myself. I slept well and prepared myself to go home. But now I feel very little. It was a false hope.'
JERUSALEM - Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, yesterday rejected an appeal by a UN envoy to bring home the Palestinian deportees, Reuter reports. The UN Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, has said that he would recommend further unspecified steps if the mission by the envoy, Chinmaya Gharekhan, failed.
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