Israel's deportees form ragtag camp in land of snakes


January 24, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

MARJ AL-ZOHOUR, Lebanon -- Ala Akel Abdulwahab shiver on a rocky hillside each night listening to scorpions rustle about the edge of his tent.

The scorpions have been roused from their winter stupor by the warmth of 415 Palestinians transplanted more than a month ago atop their home, a barren patch of southern Lebanon.

"You can hear them crawling back and forth, trying to get in," says the slight young man, with a shudder not from the cold. Mr. Abdulwahab's winter plans have been similarly disturbed: He was to move with his American wife and three children to the United States this month.

Instead, he is among the Palestinians Israel deported a month ago, alleging they are ringleaders of terrorist Islamic fundamentalist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Perhaps they are. They say they are not. There is no way to tell without a trial, which none of them had before they were deported.

Many eyes now are on President Clinton to see how the new administration will act when the issue comes up in the United Nations, which has condemned the deportations.

"Do we look like terrorists?" demands Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a short, roundish physician and acknowledged leader of Hamas, amused by the sight of his fellow deportees. The ragtag group has the appearance of a troop from the city brought unwillingly for a camp-out in the wilderness.

That they are. The expelled Palestinians include -- by their count -- 170 college graduates, 88 university students, 36 merchants, 17 professors, 14 engineers, 12 doctors, four lab technicians and a chemist. A hundred of them are referred to as Islamic scholars.

Dr. Abdul Fattah al-Awaisi is one of these scholars. The history professor at Hebron University is a graduate of Exeter University in England and author of 10 books on the Middle East.

"I'm not a member of any of these organizations," he says. He has turned a rock into a lecture podium to teach "classes" to some of the students deported with him.

"I ask [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and his government to take me to court, and if there is any evidence against me, put me in jail," he said.

Yesterday, three British air force helicopters evacuated 17 deportees from the camp. The deportees, four of them sick and 13 expelled by mistake, flew to the Israeli port of Haifa in an operation arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Israel has said all these deported by mistake will go straight to jail, not to their homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The site of the Palestinians' deportation seems a perfect stage for the mutual hatreds that brought them here. It is harsh, cold, unyielding country, beautiful only to the eye that values starkness. The land's bounty is of stones, snakes and scorpions. Walking is difficult, there are so many rocks.

The Palestinians were bused from the West Bank and Gaza Strip Dec. 17, but the Lebanese stopped them from going farther. They have remained stuck in a two-mile-wide "no man's land" between Israeli and Lebanese checkpoints ever since.

The deportees remain a diplomatic sore for Israel and the United States. If the U.N. Security Council votes on sanctions against Israel for the deportation, as threatened, the issue is likely to become the first unwanted test for President Clinton on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

As the deportees hold rallies for the television reporters who reach them, and as they huddle over transistor radios for word of their fate, the arguments continue. Both the living conditions and the politics of the deportees are in dispute; each side offers descriptions that suit their side of the argument.

In two recent visits to the deportees, it appeared their living conditions -- while miserable -- were not immediately life-threatening.

They have sufficient food for now, even if it is mainly potatoes and rice. Meat is sometimes smuggled from nearby villages. They can gather scrub wood from the rocky hillside for heat and cooking. Their tents provide shelter from the snow; they have blankets and warm clothing to help ease the cutting cold.

The doctors among them worry about emergencies. They say they have rushed two cases to the Lebanese checkpoint for hospitalization, only to be rebuffed. The two men -- one with a scorpion sting and the other with a suspected blocked intestine -- survived, but the doctors say the next may not.

The doctors say a lengthy stay on the mountainside brings nutrition and sanitation problems and the need for treatment of more chronic ailments, especially among the older men.

Professors and merchants

The Israelis say the Palestinians' politics, not their safety, is the issue. But the political views of the deportees aren't as unanimous as their deporters describe. They range from avowedly apolitical to those who reject Israel's right to exist.

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