Palestinians' 'death' march ends in picnic: Robert Fisk in Zomhoriyeh watches a protest by 'forgotten' deportees

THE FIRST Israeli shells smashed into the rocks high above the Palestinian deportees, on the hillside to the west, fluffy little puffs of smoke that floated off down the wadis. The fourth shell came with a crack that took the Palestinians' breath away as they sat on the roadway within sight of the Israelis. Minutes later came another round, slightly closer this time, sending a spray of rock, debris and metal splinters into the air only 200 feet from us. Then a tank appeared over the ridgeline to the south. Another Palestinian 'death' march home was about to come to a halt in southern Lebanon.

The quotation marks are essential. For however cruel - and illegal - the fate of the 396 Palestinians still marooned in the mountains here more than four months after Israel exiled them from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there was an essential element of theatre about yesterday's little drama.

It was a co-production of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, co- starring the Israeli army, the so-called 'South Lebanon Army' and, quite possibly, Sister Syria as well. Which is why, by dusk last night, no one had been hurt.

The deportees' march from their camp at Marj al-Zohour to the edge of Israel's occupation zone at Zomhoriyeh was staged to protest at the Middle East peace talks, which resume today. 'The Arab nations and the United Nations have forgotten us,' a Palestinian wailed mournfully over a Tannoy before yesterday's march. But, of course, things were not that simple. For the Palestinians in southern Lebanon - most of them sympathisers of the two Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad - know full well that Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has endorsed the talks. So, too, has Lebanon, their unwilling host nation, and - more importantly - Lebanon's much-trumpeted sister-country, Syria. Indeed, there was even a carload of journalists from the Damascus government newspaper Tishrin beside the Palestinians yesterday to ensure that things did not get out of hand.

And, 600 feet farther down the road - upon which the Palestinians sat holding their Korans - we could also see Israeli soldiers watching the deportees through binoculars, without making any further attempt to drive them back. They and their 'South Lebanon Army' militia colleagues did fire several dozen bullets but sent most of their shells into the hills.

For their part, the Palestinians resolved to spend the night on the highway just north of the Israeli lines. 'We'll not move forward any more,' the Palestinian closest to the Israelis confided. 'We don't want to commit suicide, just to make a protest.' By late afternoon, therefore, the deportees were munching bread rolls and listening to their transistor radios without bothering to glance at their enemies any more. A dangerous picnic, perhaps, but not yet a deadly one.