Lebanon blocks UN visit to deportees

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The Independent Online
THE Lebanese government yesterday stopped the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General passing through territory under its control to visit more than 400 Palestinian Islamists caught in a political no man's land between Israel and Lebanon. Beirut has said it will not be Israel's dumping ground.

Lebanon said that the envoy, James Jonah, could only reach the men deported by Israel if he went via Israel and the Israeli enclave in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Prime Minister said the same ban applied to Bernard Kouchner, France's Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, and a French medical team who were expected to arrive in Beirut to visit the deportees.

In Jerusalem, Mr Jonah met a group of leading Palestinians who expressed their frustration to him, calling on the UN to force Israel to reverse its expulsion order. Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks, said after meeting Mr Jonah that the fate of the deportees had become an 'issue of immediate human urgency and concern . . . because of the tragic circumstances under which they are living'.

It has not been a happy couple of days for Mr Jonah. Stonewalled by Israel, rejected by Lebanon, harangued by Palestinians in Jerusalem, he has made no progress.

Meanwhile, the deported men are struggling against the bitter cold in mountains up to 3,000ft high. Both Lebanon and Israel are preventing all aid agencies from taking supplies to the deported Palestinians. 'It's a total stalemate,' said Bernard Pfefferle, chief delegate in Lebanon of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 'They won't survive the winter out there like this.'

The men are Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip sympathetic to various streams within the Islamist current, rather than the more nationalist Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The PLO and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, have been competing for influence in the occupied territories. It is in this context that yesterday's meeting between Hamas representatives and PLO officials at their headquarters in Tunis should be seen. Western diplomatic sources said the fact that Hamas, despite its rejection of the PLO, has hastened to meet the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, shows that it also admits only the PLO can mobilise international public opinion in favour of the deportees.

In a rare interview, the Hamas leaders said that during their talks with the PLO leadership they would press for the 'total withdrawal' of the Palestinian umbrella organisation from the Middle East peace talks. They said Hamas would 'never negotiate with Israel unless the Israeli leaders announce their total and unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories'.

(Photograph omitted)