Hope lives in cold city of dreams: Thoughts of home sustain exiled Palestinians sure of a return to Israel, writes Robert Fisk from Marj al-Zohour

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THE Palestinians live now in their little dream towns. The deportees from Ramallah live together in four tents, the men from Hebron in seven. The exiles from Jenin have clustered into two. Another canvas township is called Jericho, another Bethlehem and others Tulkarm and Gaza. The Palestinian refugees from 1948 live like this in the great camps across Lebanon, each street bearing the name of a long-lost home. But the 413 men of Marj al-Zohour abjure the word 'camp'. It is too definite, too final, too hopeless. They call this their 'station'.

Green flags and banners of Islamic script float from one small, exclusive enclave of four tents. The sympathisers of Islamic Jihad decided on the first day of their exile on 17 December that they would place their religion before their neighbours. But the men of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, live alongside their apolitical townsmen, Sheikh Bassam Jawar sharing his tarpaulin roof with Alla Abdul Wahab, a Ramallah travel agent with more interest in selling tickets than reading the Koran. Across the frozen scree in 'Hebron', Dr Abdul Fattah El-Awaisi was yesterday conducting Khaled Thwaid, 28, through his final examination in the history of the Ottoman empire. Professor and student were exiled from Hebron university.

Time, however, has not tempered the magnitude of what happened here 20 days ago. The men have no homes, no outside medical attention, no contact with their families and only smuggled food to live on. The latest illicit shipment of coffee arrived from local villagers late on Tuesday night. And having offered to receive back 10 Palestinians whom they now claim to have mistakenly deported, the Israelis have listed only three crossing points by which they may return - all of them impossible for the men to reach. They will not be allowed to walk down the road and cross at the checkpoint from which they were first exiled.

Israel's condemnation of the Lebanese government for refusing to feed the Palestinians cuts as little ice with the Lebanese as it does among the Palestinians. Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, has, after all, adopted the first policy of any Lebanese government in 15 years to attract the wholehearted support of almost every man and woman in the country. The Sunni Muslims do not want an influx of Palestinian Sunnis into Lebanon, the Shias do not want an increase in the Palestinian presence, the Maronites fought against the Palestinians throughout most of the civil war, while the Palestinian residents of Lebanon do not wish to encourage the Israelis to deport more of their fellow countrymen.

So what can the Lebanese do? Mr Hariri might allow the Red Cross to visit the deportees again but this would be to acknowledge Israel's non-existent right to have sent them to Lebanon. He could, in theory, give the deportees tickets to New York, put them on the next flight out of Beirut and let the Americans sort out the problem with their Israeli friends when the 413 arrive in the United States. But in reality, Mr Hariri is likely to let the men sit out their ordeal on the hillsides of southern Lebanon in the hope that Israel will endure further condemnation.

The Palestinians are well aware of the embarrassment of those who deported them. A gymnastics competition staged on the mountain road yesterday was more for the benefit of camera crews than for the physical health of the deportees. Never before have so many Muslims - be they fundamentalist or travel agent - welcomed so many journalists with so many smiles as the Palestinians of Marj al-Zohour. No wonder the Israelis complained last week that the Lebanese government had no right to allow journalists to visit the 413 if they would not give the same access to the Red Cross. But what worries the Palestinians is that Israel's public relations catastrophe will come to overshadow the illegality - and immorality - of herding men across an international frontier out of their homeland.

All day and much of the night, the doctors and professors and lawyers - and the much more politicised Hamas members - debate their plight, the response of the West, the future of the Middle East, comparing their exile with the experience some have of imprisonment without trial inside Israel itself. 'We are starting to use the same language as prisoners,' one said. 'We talk of 'outside' when we mean anywhere but here.'

Mohamed Shalbak, a mechanical engineer from Ramallah, suspects that his own character has begun to change. 'I am now forgetting - deliberately - many things at home,' he said. 'I stop myself thinking of my family, except perhaps at night. I no longer worry about the children or my job. I don't have these strong feelings towards my family any more. I used to write poems but not any more. I only think about the reality here.'

Across the mountainside, the Palestinians sit on slabs of rock gazing at the frost of the Golan Heights. When a miniature blizzard arrived before Christmas, the men from the Gaza tents stood in the road; they had never seen snow before. But wives and children have not been forgotten.

The moment they realised the Independent could telephone their homes from London, the men of one tent - in 'Ramallah' - begged for messages to be sent. 'Call my sister Muntaha and tell her I am alive and well,' one of them pleaded. 'Tell Saida we are OK,' said another. 'Tell Aisha how much I love her and ask for me how our baby is.'

(Photograph omitted)