Israel offers deal over deportees

ISRAEL, in an effort to polish its public image tarnished over its deportation of 415 Palestinian Islamists on 17 December, yesterday offered to let a Red Cross medical team through Israeli lines to treat the men in southern Lebanon if the Lebanese government allowed through a food convoy.

Israel thus put the ball into Lebanon's court. But the Lebanese were not playing with this particular political football, and the Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri, rejected the offer. He said the UN special envoy, James Jonah, would be wasting his time raising the offer on his arrival from Israel.

Lebanon's refusal to take up the proposal brought a stinging response from the Red Cross in Geneva. 'This proposal was our first hope to get out of the impasse,' said Claude Voillat, the ICRC spokesman for the Middle East. 'A door was slightly opened but now it's been shut.'

Israel's Defence Ministry spokesman, Oded Ben-Ami, said: 'Israel proposed a one-time passage of two convoys - one from Israel, a medical crew of the Red Cross, and the other one at the same time from Lebanon with a convoy of supplies, food and water.'

The men were deported after Israel accused them of supporting hostile Islamist groups. This followed the killing of six Israeli soldiers by Palestinian Islamists.

On 18 December, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 799 in which it 'strongly condemns the action taken by Israel, the occupying power (and) demands that Israel ensure the safe and immediate return to the occupying territories of all those deported'.

The deported men, however, have become a political football between Israel, which says they are no longer its responsibility, and Lebanon, which does not wish to accept them for fear of setting a precedent. Both sides have refused to allow aid through. Humanitarian considerations by either Israel or the Lebanese are therefore not an issue, despite the assertion of Mr Ben-Ami that 'what we are proposing to the International Committee of the Red Cross is a humanitarian way to solve the humanitarian problem'.

Israeli officials said they distinguished between humanitarian and political problems of the deportees. They said they hoped Mr Jonah, a UN Under-Secretary- General on a fact-finding mission to Israel and Lebanon, could find a way for Lebanon or another country to absorb the deportees. In Geneva, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, is due to meet the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, today.

'We hope that once the humanitarian problem has been alleviated, we can through Mr Jonah find a solution to the departure of the expelled persons from Lebanon to third countries,' a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Eviatar Manor, said.

BEIRUT - For the first time in eight years, the Lebanese army yesterday moved into Beirut's lawless southern slums, a Shia Muslim stronghold where Western hostages were kept in chains and suicide bombers launched attacks that killed hundreds, AP reports.

Nearly 2,000 soldiers, backed by 40 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, went in before dawn to establish some state control.