Amid growing pressure for a UN sanctions resolution, Israel named the United States and Britain as centres of activity for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the occupied territories, and has announced that three Palestinian-Americans have been arrested for involvement with the group.
Last night the Israeli cabinet announced the immediate return of 100 of the deportees and promised to return the rest of them before the end of the year in an attempt to keep the Middle East peace talks alive.
But in Jerusalem yesterday, Western diplomats expressed extreme scepticism, impatience and irritation at the accusations against Britain and the US. 'They are trying to muddy the waters. We have seen this kind of ploy used in Iraq,' said a Western official.
Diplomats expressed scepticism about the charges brought against the three Palestinian-Americans and irritation at Israel's attempt to shift responsibility for the deportations away from itself.
British sources say there is now 'an enormous head of steam' building up in favour of a United Nations debate on a sanctions resolution against Israel, which could take place in the next two days. The multilateral meetings in the peace process are due to resume next Tuesday, but in current circumstances the Palestinian leaders will almost certainly boycott the talks.
The Israeli government announced on Sunday that two Palestinian-Americans, Mohammad Abdel-Hamid Salah (alias Abu Ahmed) and Mohammad Joma Hilmi Jarad (alias Abu Anas), both residents of Chicago, had been arrested six days ago by the Shin Bet, Israel's security service. Yesterday it was announced that a third Palestinian- American, Mohammed Tawfik Haja, had also been arrested. All three are being held in Israeli jails.
In a detailed report on the men's activities in the Israeli-occupied territories the government said that under interrogation they had confessed to being Hamas agents. The majority of the deportees are suspected supporters of Hamas, which has carried out an increasing number of armed attacks on Israeli targets in recent months. The investigation allegedly revealed that the men had visited Hamas contacts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leading to a further 40 arrests. They are alleged to have distributed 'thousands of dollars' with the aim of rejuvenating Hamas operations, damaged by the deportations.
The report named Mohammed Qassem Suwalha as a 'senior Hamas operative' who fled to London from the West Bank town of Ramallah.
In Chicago, news that Mohammad Salah and Mohammad Jarad were being jailed for so-called 'terrorist' offences was greeted with incredulity. Yesterday the Chicago Tribune newspaper ran a photograph of the Holy Land Bakery and Grocery in Chicago, which is run by Mr Jarad, along with interviews with customers saying: 'If he is a terrorist then anyone who is a Palestinian or a Muslim is a terrorist.'
Diplomats in Jerusalem challenged the Israeli authorities to present proof that Hamas was operating international terrorist networks in the US and Britain. 'Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in the US with American citizenship. They travel back and forth all the time,' said one.
'What the Israelis are trying to do is show that Hamas is not just their problem. They are trying to overblow the spectre of Hamas in the public eye showing that it is an international problem. But it doesn't matter how big a problem it is as far as the deportations are concerned. On the deportations the US position on this remains the same: they are illegal under international law.'
Growing frustration with Israel was apparent in the reaction of the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. He said the Middle East peace process would be at risk if Israel failed to settle the fate of the deportees in what he called this 'long-running and disastrous dispute'. That view was no doubt last night conveyed to Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, when he had dinner with EC foreign ministers in Brussels.