Deportations Shake Israeli Government

Israelis sense a public-relations disaster, as Palestinians close ranks and extremists gain

ISRAELIS are beginning to realize that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's attempt to take a tough stand against the swelling ranks of Palestinian Muslim fundamentalists has backfired.

The world media coverage of the Palestinian deportees marching amid gunfire back toward the Israeli border has turned the issue into a public relations fiasco for the Jewish state - and for Rabin's new center-left government, which has tried to project a moderate image to the world.

"The Muslim fundamentalists want to throw us into the sea. I think we should throw the ... government into the sea," says a new Jewish immigrant from South Africa.

"We took into account that there would be Lebanese opposition, but we didn't think the problem would become so permanent," Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal admitted Monday. "The Palestinians have turned this into a propaganda victory."

Yesterday, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat called on Arab states to do their utmost to ensure the return of the deportees.

Meanwhile, crack Israeli troops equipped with riot-control gear took over positions just yards from the deportees' campsite in southern Lebanon to prevent them from moving south toward the Israeli border.

The Israeli troops took over positions from Israel's allies in Lebanon, the South Lebanese Army, after SLA militiamen injured three Palestinian with gunfire Monday when the deportees approached SLA positions.

As Israel's Supreme Court heard another appeal from the deportees yesterday to reverse the expulsion order, Mr. Rabin denounced supporters of the deportees, who are alleged to be connected with the extremist Palestinian group Hamas.

"I have no sympathy for them. I see the media outcry, the hypocritical speeches, and I think about the orphans of Nissim Toledano," Rabin said, referring to the policeman slain by Hamas activists last week.

"We have walked into a trap and now all of the world is against us. No one remembers that Hamas opposes the peace talks, that whether there is war or peace they will be our enemies," says Rinat Nevo, a Hebrew University dance student and supporter of the left-wing Israeli Meretz Party.

"But the Israeli street demanded a response to the Hamas attacks, and Rabin had to respond," she says sadly.

Rabin ordered the expulsions after a string of fatal attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israelis inside the occupied territories and within Israel. Both fundamentalist groups oppose compromise with Israel and have sought to foil peace talks in Washington by escalating attacks.

Five years of curfews and bloody confrontations during the intifadah (uprising) have swelled the ranks of the fundamentalists. In a recent chamber of commerce, trade union, and professional guild elections in the territories, Hamas won 30 to 50 percent of the vote.

The recent deportations have enhanced the image of the fundamentalists. Palestinians of all parties have closed ranks behind the deportees - regardless of what they think of Hamas's philosophy. The PLO's Mr. Arafat, who bitterly criticized Hamas only a few weeks ago, is due to hold an unprecedented meeting with the movement's exiled leaders in Tunis this week.

That marks a dramatic shift from the summer months when bitter rivalries between the religious Hamas and the largely secular PLO led to bloody street battles in Gaza.

"Everyone here, the PLO's Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine - they all agree with what the Hamas is doing," says a Palestinian student in Bethlehem, who says he once supported the peace process but now is disillusioned.

"Today it is Hamas, tomorrow they could deport Greek Orthodox. We're against deportations for our sake - and for the Israelis' sake," said Issa Soudah, a Christian Palestinian businessman from East Jerusalem, who counts friends among previous deportees.

Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid estimates that more than 1,600 men and women have been deported by Israel since the 1967 war, although the 415 deportees now in Lebanon constitute the largest single group to be expelled at one time.

"I cannot see at this time any possibility of a continuation in the peace talks," says Sari Nusseibeh, a leader of the Palestinian negotiating team. "People feel that they have been stabbed in the back. And this puts a great deal of pressure on the PLO leadership."

Other Palestinians, however, say that Arafat will turn recent events to his advantage and return to the negotiating table, strengthened by world sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

"Rabin has given Yasser Arafat a Christmas present," says one Gaza Palestinian identified with the mainstream PLO.

Inside the occupied territories, the deportations have already sparked a resurgence of mass protests and violent clashes with the Israeli Army, in which eight Palestinian protestors from the Gazan town of Khan Yunis, including two children, have died since Sunday.

Some Israeli observers say the Rabin government may eventually be forced to make a dramatic gesture - like agreeing to direct talks with the PLO - in order to get the peace talks back on track. The government's left-wing coalition partner, Meretz, which supported the deportation move, has now intensified its calls for direct Israeli-PLO talks.

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