Palestinian deportees confronted by tanks

CONFRONTED by tanks and with two of their number wounded by Israeli mortars, the 418 Palestinian deportees dumped in Lebanon by the Israelis retreated last night to their tent encampment on a bare mountainside, as the Israeli government continued to ignore the growing international outcry over their plight.

The Palestinians had earlier tried to walk back into the Israeli occupation zone in southern Lebanon - in the direction of their homes in the West Bank and Gaza - but were halted by gunmen from Israel's proxy Lebanese militia who fired around the deportees with machine guns, assault rifles and mortars. The militiamen, who are armed, trained, paid and commanded by Israelis, laid a minefield across the roadway just outside the occupied zone to prevent the Palestinians from advancing further.

Two young deportees, Sulieman Kawasmi and Amjad Zamel, were wounded by mortar fragments, one of them in the face, when they tried to shelter behind rocks as the shellfire exploded around them. The militiamen drove two tanks towards the unarmed Palestinians - many of them academics, doctors, lawyers and accountants sympathetic to the extreme Islamic Hamas movement in the occupied territories - while two Israeli helicopters circled overhead. In response, the Palestinians stood in the freezing rain, some of them praying, and waved copies of the Koran.

Yesterday's confrontation began after Lebanon announced that the deportees would no longer be permitted to remain in their encampment between the Israeli and Lebanese frontlines inside Lebanon, a decision applauded by the Palestinians themselves. With journalists and photographers accompanying them, the deportees then trudged two miles south towards the Israelis, to be met - as they must have known they would be - by the Israeli-controlled militiamen.

As a military gesture to prevent the Palestinians returning, it could be counted a success. But television pictures of the Palestinians being greeted by gunfire and tanks are likely to ensure a propaganda disaster for Israel. After deporting the men in retaliation for the murder of an Israeli border guard by Hamas, the Israelis apparently believed that the Palestinians would be allowed into Lebanon - as other deportees have in the past - by the hitherto impotent administration in Beirut. But the Israelis clearly took no account of the determination of Lebanon's new Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, nor of his government's ability to impose its will in southern Lebanon.

What was supposed to be a demonstration of Israel's resolution to smash Palestinian militants in the occupied territories is becoming an international scandal, with the US Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, describing the deportatiuons as 'a terrible step'. If, however, the Israelis intend to keep the deportees in Lebanon, it is difficult to imagine the Lebanese authorities backing down. Mr Hariri yesterday expressed his sympathy for the deportees but said that his country would not be a dumping ground for Israel to deport men from their homes in the West Bank and Gaza. About half-a-million Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon.

Until yesterday, the International Red Cross was the only aid agency allowed by Lebanon to assist the deportees. But late yesterday Franke De Jonge, Coordinator of Operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said President Hariri had told the agencies they would no longer be allowed to provide the deportees with emergency aid.

Last night, the deportees were talking of another attempt to enter the Israeli occupation zone - what the Israelis call their 'security zone' - and suggesting that they preferred 'martyrdom' to remaining on the mountainside. 'We won't live in tents for the rest of our lives,' one of their leaders, Aziz Dweik, said. 'We don't like camps. We don't want to be labelled refugees. We are determined to return home or face martyrdom.'

The deportees oppose the Middle East peace talks and their stand in Lebanon is a deep embarrassment to Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, whose only response so far has been to 'suspend' the peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis to which he gave his support last year.

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