Nearly 200 Palestinians, exiled by Israel to southern Lebanon a year ago on suspicion of belonging to radical Islamic groups, returned Wednesday, their leaders vowing to battle the plans for limited Palestinian self-government.
“We will continue in our struggle to thwart this ‘peace process,’ ” declared Dr. Abdulaziz Rantisi of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, as he crossed into Israeli-held territory. “We are returning in order to continue the struggle, and from the moment we return to the (West Bank and Gaza Strip) there will be an escalation in the action to upset that peace process.”
Brought back by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin under an agreement brokered by the United States earlier this year to salvage Arab-Israeli negotiations, the 197 men were put aboard buses with whitewashed windows and taken to three detention centers for interrogation and medical checks.
About a third are expected to be jailed or held for trial, according to Israeli officials, but most will be freed early next week and allowed to go home--and return to the Palestinians’ superheated politics in advance of autonomy for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank’s Jericho district.
“This is history in the making,” said Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar, another Gaza physician and Hamas leader, as the group left its tent camp. “Marj Zahour was the last Palestinian refugee camp established since the Palestinian diaspora began in 1948. Now, it is the first being dismantled.”
Rabin had banished, for periods of up to two years, 415 suspected Islamic militants on Dec. 17 last year. He sent them into exile in southern Lebanon after members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another radical group, had killed six Israeli policemen and soldiers during the previous month.
After an international outcry--including condemnation of the action by the U.N. Security Council, a breakdown in negotiations with its Arab neighbors and television and newspaper pictures showing the men living in snow-covered tents on a windy mountainside--Israel relented, cutting the period of exile in half.
In September, 180 men returned, ending their stand of “all return or none will.” On Wednesday, 18 chose to stay in Lebanon to avoid prison terms in Israel, and a few others came back earlier because of poor health.
The return of the rest, including the most prominent Hamas leaders among them, brought angry protests from Rabin’s right-wing opponents.
More than 100 demonstrators blocked the highway at the northern town of Metulla as the 10 buses rolled south; police eventually removed the protesters.
“Two hundred terrorists are being given the opportunity to strike again,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a Parliament member from the opposition Likud Party, who led the protest.
Later, Rabin was driven from the rostrum of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, by heavy heckling as he sought to justify the men’s return in the context of the peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization and as a fulfillment of the agreement negotiated by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
“Shout, demonstrate, call me names,” Rabin declared when he went back to the podium. “But this government has a right and a duty to seek a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Earlier, at a news conference at an army base in the southern Gaza Strip, Rabin sought to reassure Israelis that the return of the Hamas leaders will not mean a further upsurge in terrorist attacks.
“We will not hesitate to take tough measures against them even if we have only the slightest suspicion that they intend or are involved in (guerrilla activity),” he said.
Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni, a member of the leftist Meretz Party in Rabin’s government, originally backed the expulsions. But on Wednesday she called them a mistake that had harmed Israel’s international standing and complicated the search for peace with the Palestinians.
“The considerations were those of internal politics,” Aloni said. “We did not see the entire possible chain reaction. . . .
“Since 1967, in fact, we have always had a narrow point of view, focusing on Israeli need while denying or ignoring . . . that a people whose human rights, civil rights and political rights do not exist will rebel, as we rebelled when we wanted our liberation.”
But the opposition exploited the Palestinians’ return to the maximum in embarrassing Rabin.
Moshe Peled, a Knesset member from the ultra-rightist Tsomet Party, commented, “The deportees are returning as victors, trained in terrorism, better able to carry it out than a year ago.”
Zeev (Benny) Begin, a Likud leader, described the return as “the theater of the absurd--these are the enemies of peace, of Israel, even of the PLO, and this government is letting them back.”
Noting the recent upsurge in Hamas terrorist attacks against Jewish settlers, Shai Bazak of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza commented, “Yesterday, Rabin warned us to be careful of Hamas because they are terrorists and murderers, and today we bring back not some kids who just joined the organization, but its leaders.”