Forgotten deportees divide into two camps: Robert Fisk in Marj al-Zohour camp finds Palestinians worried about betrayal by Arab states

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THE tent flap moved suddenly and a deportee in a red track suit crawled across the canvas floor towards us, a transistor radio clasped to his ear. 'They've shot two policemen - two Israelis are dead,' he shouted. In excitement, delight or despair? 'They said our deportation was to stop violence and look what they have got - more resistance than ever.' Word spread quickly in the spring heat that has now swamped the Palestinian encampment at Marj al-Zohour. The Israelis had sealed off the West Bank. Palestinian youths had been wounded by Israeli gunfire in Gaza. It was as if the Israeli-occupied territories lay just across the next hill; which, of course, they do.

From their front line inside Lebanon and from the melting snows high to the east on Golan, the Israelis can watch the 396 Palestinians moving between their tents, surrounded now not by frost and rock but by trees in blossom. Marj al-Zohour - in Arabic, 'field of flowers' - is now truly surrounded by carpets of purple and yellow blooms, the Hasbani river chuckling dark blue through its gorge below the tents. But 103 days have taken their toll.

The Arab nations plan to betray the deportees after all, and attend the Middle East peace talks in Washington on 20 April. So goes the most unpopular rumour, a short lead in front of a second unsourced but equally credible report. The deportees, so it has been put about in the camp, are to be allowed to leave Lebanon within a month - to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi Arabia will arrange the whole affair, putting up the Palestinians at their own expense - for an indefinite period - while relieving both Israel and Lebanon of their presence.

'Personally, I wouldn't mind,' Dr Abdullah al-Awaissi remarked with something approaching weariness. 'I've never been on the haj, which begins a month tomorrow. But it would obviously be a means of getting us out of the way - there would be no argument between the Americans and the Saudis about this. King Fahd is America's friend.'

Getting the deportees 'out of the way' is now of pressing concern to the Arabs as well as the Israelis. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation delegation are now regretting their earlier refusal to attend the April talks unless the deportees here are first returned home. The PLO would like merely an Israeli promise not to expel any more Palestinians as its price for attending the Washington negotiations. President Hafez al-Assad has his heart set on the return of Golan - towering over the deportees' encampment - rather than the return of the Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza, although Syria has not ignored their plight.

It is a point already grasped by the 50 or so Islamic Jihad men in the Marj al-Zohour camp who are now refusing to contemplate a trip to Saudi Arabia as a way out of the impasse. Sheikh Abdullah Shami, the spokesman for the group, insisted yesterday that he and his colleagues would leave only to return to the occupied territories.

He has no more love for Saudi Arabia than he has for Egypt whose government he now regularly denounces for its treatment of the el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) which is currently attacking both tourists and Egyptian policemen. Sheikh Shami's condemnation has angered most of the other deportees, who are sympathetic to the less fundamentalist Hamas movement.

There has thus occurred at Marj al-Zohour that most painful of all phenomena in societies which traditionally claim unity until death: The Split. Hamas has argued fiercely with Islamic Jihad about Egypt, whose support for the deportees has been received with gratitude by Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, the camp spokesman for Hamas. The two groups have fallen out over who has the right to issue press statements, with Mr Rantisi claiming that the deportees have no business involving themselves in inter-Arab disputes.

As the weather grows warmer, we shall no doubt hear more of The Split, to the satisfaction of the Israelis. All 396 deportees know that if they are indeed sent to Saudi Arabia, it could still be months before they are returned home - and even then in small numbers in order not to embarrass Israel.

In the meantime, they have increased their own communications with the outside world; three international cell-phones are now operating from their tents, giving each man the opportunity to talk to his family in the West Bank and Gaza.

And each day, Abu Ashraf, his face bearded and creviced by the harsh seasons of southern Lebanon, arrives with his mangy pack-horse from his Lebanese village of Lebaya with the latest supply of meat and fresh vegetables.

He takes dollars or Lebanese pounds from the Palestinians - they receive their currency from sympathetic local PLO and Hizbollah members - and takes the next day's order for food with each delivery. Meals on the hoof. 'When they eventually let us go home,' one of Dr Awaissi's men commented yesterday, 'Abu Ashraf is going to be the richest man in southern Lebanon.'