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First deportees still dream of returning home to West Bank: Israel's use of expulsion as a political weapon is nothing new, writes Sarah Helm

EARLY ONE November morning Hanna Nasir, a leading Palestinian intellectual and political activist in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was taken in an Israeli jeep with a group of other prisoners, handcuffed and blindfolded, to the Lebanese border.

Without charge or trial, with no time to say goodbye to family or friends, Mr Nasir, 37, was ejected on to Lebanese soil and told he would be shot if he tried to return. After many hours persuading Lebanese border guards to allow them to pass, he and the group trudged about six miles through icy hills towards the small village of Marj al-Zohour.

The year was 1974, Mr Nasir the president of the fledgling Bir Zeit University, on the West Bank. His crime has never been revealed. But his punishment, like that of the nearly 400 Palestinians camped in Marj al-Zohour after being dumped over the same border in December, was deportation.

'I got a letter from Marj al-Zohour the other day,' says Mr Nasir, sitting in the Bir Zeit liaison office in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he is the university's president-in-exile. 'Five of my students from Bir Zeit are among the deportees there now.' Photographs show the new campus he has never seen, crowded with students he has never met. Mr Nasir runs operations by fax and telex. Bir Zeit is only an hour's flight away, but the university and its president have been separated for 18 years.

The world responded to December's deportations as if they were something new. But Mr Nasir and 2,400 other Palestinians ejected since Israeli occupation in 1967, most now living in Jordan, have seen it all before. The latest expulsions were shocking because of the numbers involved but the purpose and method have changed little over the years.

Rasmieh Odeh, 42, a teacher in Amman, deported after 11 years in jail for her activities in the military resistance, recalls how the army blew up her family's home after her arrest in 1969. 'Then they used dynamite to destroy houses. Now they use RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). The effect is the same,' she said.

Israel has used deportation to remove the thinkers behind the resistance - those who might have built a Palestinian future. Camped out now in Marj al-Zohour - refused entry by Lebanon - are doctors, lawyers and scientists, feared by Israel because they allegedly support the Islamic movement. The pre-1992 deportees, feared for their support for an earlier Israeli demon, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), were taken in by other countries and have, over time, faded from view. But they are still out there, lecturing in universities, arguing in courts, or sitting in smoke-filled PLO offices.

'To Israel it is as if we are dead - gone,' said Asad Abdul Rahman, exiled by Israel in 1968, and now director of Amman's political and cultural centre, the Schoman Foundation. 'But we are coming back to life.' Mr Rahman and others believe the latest expulsion might help the previous deportees by focusing attention on the illegality of the measure, which breaches the Fourth Geneva Convention. If the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is forced to review the cases of December, what about the 2,400 who went before?

The earlier deportees live in a kind of no man's land, shadowing the lives they might have led at home, divided from families. 'My daughter has the right to travel to the West Bank still,' says Assam Abdul Haddi of the Palestinian Women's Movement, deported for her political activities in 1969. 'But her children will have no such rights because she has married a Jordanian. Deportation is a way of removing us forever from our land.'

Looking back, Mr Nasir says he cannot be sure if, had the deportees stayed, the fight for a Palestinian state would have been more concerted. But he is sure that if they go back they will want to build again.

The language of the pre-1992 deportees is still radical. But they are not the firebrands they once were.

'I am a scientist first and foremost,' Mr Nasir says. 'If I go back I would like to set my telescope on a hill and watch the stars.' He has begun to dream of crossing back over the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank. 'I dream that I am going across the bridge and the Israeli media is waiting on the other side, asking me to express gratitude for being allowed back. I refuse and say I owe the Israelis no thanks. Then they turn me round and send me back here again. I wake up stiff with fear.'