After a bitter debate that left Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government sharply divided, Israel's Cabinet voted Friday to bar the Red Cross from sending food, water and medicine through Israeli-controlled territory to 415 Palestinians expelled into Lebanon last week.
By an 8-6 vote with two ministers abstaining, the Cabinet upheld a Rabin order barring the International Committee of the Red Cross from assisting the deportees from Israel and its self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
In a toughly worded communique, the Cabinet declared that the Palestinians, summarily deported from their homes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and now trapped in a no-man's-land in southern Lebanon, are the responsibility of the Lebanese government.
"The Israeli government sees no reason to comply with the request of the Red Cross to have the convoy (of relief supplies) pass through the security zone," the Cabinet declared, echoing Rabin's adamant view that Israel would not relent in its punishment of the Muslim fundamentalists it holds responsible for a recent surge in attacks on Israeli security forces.
But Rabin was strongly opposed by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, two other ministers from his Labor Party and three ministers from the left-wing Meretz bloc, Labor's principal partner in the coalition government; two other Labor ministers abstained, refusing to take sides as Rabin and Peres renewed their long rivalry.
The split vote, which came at a special Cabinet meeting convened by Rabin to counter Peres' challenge, raised a score of questions reaching well beyond the fate of the deportees to Rabin's style of leadership, the cohesion of the current government and its ability to make the concessions that will be necessary in negotiations with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.
Rabin, however, downplayed the hawk-dove division in his Cabinet, saying later that, "If the matter had been purely humanitarian, Israel would have allowed food to be transported."
Lebanon, he said, was refusing to permit the Red Cross to assist the deportees to pressure Israel to reverse its expulsion orders; the Red Cross request for access to the Palestinians through Israeli lines, he added, consequently was an attempt to establish a permanent link that, in effect, would make Israel responsible for them.
In its communique, the Israeli Cabinet said it "severely condemns the cynical behavior of the Lebanese government" in permitting journalists to visit deportees at their encampment "while at the same time it prevents them (from having) access to food and water, apparently from purely propagandistic considerations."
Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who backed Rabin in the Cabinet meeting, observed that, "The government of Israel has taken a decision, and once we take a decision we are determined not to change it. It is the responsibility of the Lebanese government to let the Red Cross into the camp."
Obed Ben-Ami, a Rabin aide, said the Lebanese government was preventing relief supplies from reaching the deportees to produce "heart-wrenching pictures" that undermine international support for Israel and to weaken the government's case when the Israeli Supreme Court here reviews the action again.
Rabbi Arye Deri, the interior minister, commented, "If we give in, that will trigger a slow process of extremely heavy international pressure on Israel to take back (the deportees)." Deri--the leader of the Shas Party, which draws most of its support from ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews--said the whole matter should have been left for Rabin to decide.
But Peres and his supporters had argued that Israel was compelled by moral considerations to permit the Red Cross access and that the Israelis would be the losers in the propaganda struggle if they refused.
Uzi Baram, minister of tourism and religious affairs, said: "I think this was a mistaken decision. We would have only demonstrated our magnanimity."
Peres had made it clear this week that the expulsion of the Palestinians, even assuming that all were supporters of the militant Islamic Resistance Movement and Islamic Jihad, did not sit well with him and would likely complicate Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. The Israeli foreign minister had been in Japan when Rabin decided to crack down on Muslim fundamentalists following the deaths of six Israeli soldiers and police over eight days; he was chagrined that neither he nor his deputy had been consulted before Israel acted.
Amnon Rubinstein, the energy minister from Meretz who had been "troubled" by the original decision, said after the Cabinet meeting: "There was no division of opinion that it is the responsibility of the Lebanese government to supply food and water to the deportees. . . . But we thought, for the sake of Israel's own interests, we should accept the Red Cross request."
At the Palestinian camp, between Israel's security zone and Lebanese army lines, conditions continued to worsen as temperatures dropped, snow fell and food supplies dwindled with the Beirut government refusing to permit either the Red Cross or the United Nations to assist the deportees.
"It was a miserable night," said Dr. Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, a physician and Muslim leader from the Gaza Strip. "The cold was severe, and we had no heating fuel."
Rantisi said that the Palestinians accepted the Lebanese position and saw Israel as responsible for their fate. "Israel is seeking our slow death after it expelled us," he told journalists. "This is proof of its barbarism."
The Palestinians had fasted from dawn to dusk on Thursday, saying they needed to conserve food supplies, but an Associated Press correspondent visiting Marj Al-Zohour on Friday found them cooking meals of rice, chickpeas and canned meat.
Meantime, nine deportees who were undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital were ousted from the medical facility by the Lebanese army Friday night.
Five of the nine were injured last Monday when the Palestinian deportees tried to re-enter Israeli-controlled Lebanese territory. Israeli-controlled militia in the area fired warning shells that exploded near enough to the group to injure some of the Palestinians. They were hospitalized, along with other deportees suffering diabetes, stomach ulcers, kidney disorders or chest pains.
But on Friday, reporters at a hospital in Rashaya watched an army officer and four soldiers burst in and demand that all the Palestinian patients leave. Within minutes, nine patients, still dressed in hospital gowns, were taken from the hospital on stretchers and in wheelchairs and driven back to their no-man's-land camp in Lebanese Red Cross ambulances.
Times special correspondent Marilyn Raschka in Beirut contributed to this report.