IT could hardly be a more desolate scene: an anonymous stretch of barren hillside in the remotest corner of southeastern Lebanon. It is the middle of nowhere. But not, it seems, a Godforsaken spot.
There, on the twisting mountain road, more than 400 men are lined up in ranks, a block of humanity kneeling, prostrating themselves and rising in unison, sending the cry of "Allahu Akbar!" - "God is greatest" - echoing through the hills.
It is Friday, and the expelled Palestinian Muslims are going through their weekly prayer ceremonies for the third time since they were driven out of the nearby Israeli-controlled south Lebanon "security zone" during a freezing rain in open trucks on the night of Dec. 17-18.
After prayers are finished, angry communiques are read to worshipers over a bullhorn. One such, signed by two exiled preachers from the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, calls on the world's Muslims to meet the threat they say the Israelis are mounting against Islam. Another denounces the fact that many of those expelled are university professors, teachers, or students.
Later, on this day of rest, the Palestinians disperse through their improvised encampment on the bleak hillside and relax in the winter sunshine. With a drummer beating out an Arabic rhythm on an empty water container, one large group sings satirical songs mocking the Israeli leadership.
But as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature falls well below freezing. The Palestinians shiver the night away under blankets in their unheated tents. They have already had a taste of the snow and torrential rain that are normal for a Lebanese winter, and know there is worse to come.
With both Israel and Lebanon blocking food and medical supplies to the no man's land camp, their diet is mainly potatoes and pasta. Some extra food is smuggled in at night on donkeys by local sympathizers, but the Lebanese Army is mounting patrols to try to stop even that.
[On Saturday night, an Israeli Army unit fired shells that landed only 500 to 1,000 yards from the camp, causing many to flee. An Army spokesman said the unit was firing at "suspicious" persons moving about in the security zone, not at the encampment.]
"Of course I feel sad to be cut off from my family," says Ali Dado, a storekeeper from Tulkarem in the West Bank who is married with four children. "But I always have high spirits, even when I was in jail, because I have faith in Allah. What has happened is the will of Allah."
Unlike many of the others, Dado - who has an electrical engineering degree from Swansea University in Wales - was actually charged and sentenced by an Israeli court in 1990 to 10 months' imprisonment for belonging to the banned Islamic Hamas movement.
Most of the expelled have spent months in "administrative detention" without charge or trial. But 49 of the exiles say they never had any trouble with Israeli authorities until they were picked up and expelled last month. Sympathizers, not activists
Ali Dado insists that after serving his sentence, he stopped being an activist in order to concentrate on his rug and apparel business. Many of the others say too that they are sympathizers and supporters, but not active members, of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad organization.
"The Israelis claim we represent the first and second ranks of the Hamas leadership, but that is simply not true," says Abdullah al-Zogg from Gaza. "Their goal was to expel the educated Muslim classes, to behead our community. Look how many imams and ulema [prayer leaders and religious scholars] are among us."
According to the camp's statistics committee, one of many bodies set up by the exiles to organize their own affairs, 100 of the 415 expelled are Islamic clerics of one sort of another. About 170 have university degrees or similar diplomas. Teacher denies violence
One of the men of religion is Ahmad al-Hajj Ali Ahmad, a gray-bearded head teacher at a West Bank school run by the United Nations. "I preach in a big mosque in Nablus, and thousands follow me in prayer - that is my crime," he says. "I have been put in administrative detention seven times without any charge. Once, they put me in jail for three months, just for saying that the situation was very bad, for them and for us."
"They usurp our country, beat us, kill us, expel us, and then expect us to remain silent," he adds. "To speak out is forbidden. I don't tell people to go out and kill Israelis. But I do teach them about the history of what is happening."
As well as drawing comfort from their conviction that God is behind all that happens, the exiles believe their sacrifice has served the Islamic and Palestinian causes in several ways.
"I think Israel made a big mistake against itself by expelling such important and educated people in such a bad atmosphere while talking about peace," says Mahmoud Zuhar, a Gaza doctor and one of the few known to have played a Hamas leadership role.
"We have won a huge wave of sympathy among the people and even among governments, both in the Arab world and abroad," he adds. The group believes also that by remaining where they are, and refusing to go anywhere but back to their homes, they are preventing further expulsions.
"We think that our stand here is an achievement in itself, that no more Palestinians will be deported from our homeland to live in these wild mountains in Lebanon or anywhere else," says Aziz Doueik, a geography professor at al-Najah University in the West Bank, who had to leave his wife and six children behind.
"There is no hope. We will be a here a long time. We must be patient. It is our duty to prevent other expulsions," adds Mamoun Amer, who runs a garment workshop in Gaza and whose wife is due to have a baby this week.
There is little resentment among the exiles at the tough stand taken by the Lebanese authorities.
"There is no problem at all between us and Lebanon," says the camp's spokesman, Dr. Abdulaziz Rantisi, another of the few known prominent Hamas figures. "From the beginning, we asked them not to open the gate to us. Our goals are the same: for us to return to our homes."