What the Palestinian exiles learnt at their mountain university

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The Independent Online
THE University of Marj el-Zuhour was a barren place, frosted over in winter, its suffocating hillsides alive with snakes in summer, the predictions of its graduates as bleak as their place of exile. Yitzhak Rabin created the University of Marj el-Zuhour the day he sent 415 Palestinian Muslims into exile on 17 December 1992. They were not 'terrorists' as the Israelis claimed, but doctors, teachers, imams, engineers, shop-keepers and students whose crime was not violence but political support for the Hamas movement and refusal to accept what they saw as Yasser Arafat's 'surrender' to Israel. Some of the exiles had no involvement in politics at all - there was a travel agent from Ramallah who was more interested in selling airline tickets than Islam - but most of these men formed the intellectual core of Hamas. They were thrown out of their country after the kidnap and murder of an Israeli border guard but even the Israelis later admitted that they were not gunmen.

Yet they were to become the most famous Palestinian refugees in the world, marooned below the ice of Golan, between the Israeli and Lebanese front lines, living in tents through a winter of blizzards, talking, discussing, debating - always reformulating the purpose of the Islamic state they planned to create in 'Palestine' - between flapping canvas and Primus stoves. Some became cooks, others librarians - there were more than a thousand books in their tent library, most of them religious works - and some became orators, while university teachers tutored the students who had been thrown out with them.

There really was a university at Marj el-Zuhour, with lectures in physics, astronomy, Arabic literature and, inevitably, Islam. Three doctoral theses were finished on the hillside. Five books were completed, three of them published before their authors trailed back to the land they called Palestine when Mr Rabin allowed the remainder of the exiles to go home, some to further imprisonment.

Their original deportation almost wrecked the Washington- brokered peace talks, their exile almost - and they noted with cynicism the qualification 'almost' - provoked the UN Security Council to vote for sanctions against Israel. But once Mr Rabin produced a timetable for their return, the Arab states went back to their peace talks. The following September, the Hamas men at Marj el-Zuhour learnt that Mr Arafat had done a secret deal with Israel. 'Betrayal,' was what their banners - cracking from flag poles in the cracked earth - said. From then on, they talked of destroying Mr Arafat.

They would speak quietly, dogmatically. 'Hamas aims to liberate all of Palestine and establish an Islamic state rather than a secular state,' Abdulfattah al-Awaisi told me one cold afternoon. It would include all of British mandate Palestine - there would be no 'Israel' left. There would be war with the Israelis. 'What can we do when the Israelis kill our children and blow up our homes? Hamas and the other Islamic organisations will fight against this kind of treatment of our people under occupation. We have our power - from Allah.'

Violence was neither advocated nor rejected, merely accepted as the response to occupation, as a coefficient, a determinant by men who knew the Israelis well. Many spoke fluent Hebrew and would have had no difficulty in passing for Israelis inside Israel. Some had debated their cause with liberal Israelis. Several - in the days when Israel encouraged Hamas as a counterfoil to the 'terrorists' of the PLO - had met Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, personally. None of them had forgotten how Israel once smiled upon them, believing wrongly that Islam was a tool that could be employed against the nationalist struggle of Mr Arafat's old guard. 'We are the creation of Israel - they helped us,' one Hamas member, a bearded accountant, used to repeat with a smile.

The Koran was learnt by rote. In the summer, the deportees held a celebration party of lamb and rice for an old man among them who had just learnt the entire Koran by heart. Two imams spent weeks combing the Koran for philosophical reasons to believe that Israel could not survive. A handful spent several nights with Hizbollah fighters, but the Israeli claim -now eagerly supported by Hamas itself - that the deportees learnt sabotage techniques in Lebanon shows just how little the Israelis understood their enemies.

The men of Marj el-Zuhour were planning their Islamic republic on the hillside, forming the political nucleus of a group which might otherwise have no political strategy. They had more important things to do - far more dangerous to Israel - than learn how to connect time-switches to explosives.

They argued sometimes - the more extreme Islamic Jihad members sulked in three tents of their own - but always they prayed and talked about religion.

In the tent mosque, the Palestinians of Marj el-Zuhour were addressed by an imam with a megaphone. 'Soon you will return,' he would say, quoting the word given to the Prophet Muhammad, his voice floating over the hills. 'And you will triumph over the unbelievers.' I once asked Sheikh Bassam Jarrar how soon it would be before the PLO locked up Hamas. 'They will never do that - we will never have a civil war,' he replied. Now we shall see.