Deported Palestinians face uneasy homecoming

August 29, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

MARJAZ-ZOHOUR, LEBANON — MARJ AZ-ZOHOUR, Lebanon -- The Palestinians cast by Israel onto a barren Lebanese hillside last year are readying themselves to return home to a hero's welcome.

"We can smell the air of our homeland," crowed Aziz Dweik, a geography professor, as a breeze fluttered through his open tent.

About half of the 415 Palestinians deported by the Israelis and dumped into the cold here last Dec. 17 are to return to Israel and the occupied territories beginning next month. Nineteen who were sick or deported by mistake left earlier. The rest will return by Dec. 17, Israel has announced.

Their return is likely to renew the headache these deportees have caused Israel. What Israeli officials had expected to be a swift and bold stroke against alleged Muslim radicals was bogged down in legal challenges, condemned internationally and weakened under pressure from the United States.

Now, as the deportees return a year ahead of their original term of exile, they are likely to be hailed in the West Bank and Gaza for having embarrassed Israel and achieved at least a public relations success.

"We have become symbols of steadfastness and heroism," claimed Mr. Dweik.

Such a celebrated return of these men, most of them staunchly opposed to the Middle East peace talks, will put further pressure on the already troubled moderate Palestinian delegation to the talks.

Mindful of that, Israel has issued notice that many of the men will be going straight to prison, and others face interrogation or detention without charges as security risks.

Dr. Abdul-Aziz Rantisi said the deportees have accepted that prospect, and still want to return.

"Surely I will be jailed," said the physician, whose denunciations of Israel appeared daily in the international media for a while. "They have already said that. They don't need grounds to put me in jail."

Cultivating support

The political strategists among the deportees actually take some glee in the prospect. They conclude that the longer Israel spreads out the release of the 396 men -- some next month, some in December, some after months of detention -- the longer will be the wave of public support among Palestinians.

"Israel is being very foolish," said Dr. Mahmoud al-Zuhhar, a Gazaphysician and one of the leaders of the group.

But others are personally more sobered by the prospect of a return to Israel's prisons.

"I'll stay to leave with the last group," said a glum Naim al-Ghoul, 27, who said he faces charges of plotting military action against Israel. He thinks he will spend five years in prison.

"Personally, it would be better for me not to go back," he said. The open scrublands that surround the camp offer an easy escape at night around the two Lebanese Army posts on the road to the camp. But politically, he said, all the deportees must return as a symbol of defiance.

"If I refuse to return back, other Palestinians will be encouraged to leave their lands, and the Jews will take the land," he said.

Israel ordered the mass deportation, the largest in its peacetime history, after a kidnapping and five murders of Israeli soldiers were claimed by Muslim radical groups.

Israel acknowledged that the men likely were not involved in the killings but said that they all are activists in Hamas or Islamic Jihad, two fundamentalist groups opposed to Israel and the peace talks. They were picked up at their homes and taken to the border without trials.

Subsequent accounts suggested that even Israel's intelligence service was surprised by the size and haste of the deportations ordered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the group that found itself together in south Lebanon was a mix of avowed radicals and non-political Muslims caught in the sweep.

Ala Akel Abdulwahab was one of those mystified to find himself )) in the camp with such company. A travel agent in Ramallah, he said he had shunned politics to concentrate on his business and was making plans to open an office in New Orleans with his American wife and three children.

In January, he spoke with blinking disbelief at his plight. Now, after surviving a bitter winter in the camp and a spring plagued with clouds of mosquitoes, he seemed at ease with the place.

He had added pounds and tanned muscle to his slight frame and said he spent most of the time reading.

"After a while, anything becomes normal," he said. "I used to worry so much whether our customers' tickets had arrived and whether they would be out at the airport on time. Now, I don't worry about anything."

Some of the deportees say they personally have thrived on the experience. It is an inordinately white-collar group -- more than half are college graduates or students, they say -- and the rigors of living outdoors toughened some of them.

"It's been good," said Fawzi Barhoum, 31, a nurse from the Gaza Strip. "I've had to learn to depend on myself. I've had to learn to be patient."

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