AMONG the jagged rocks 200 yards above the camp housing 396 Palestinians deported by Israel last December, a mechanical digger is busy excavating a deep pit to provide some much-needed sanitation.
With the failure of the Middle East peace talks to produce agreement on an early return to their homes, the deportees have begun acting on the assumption that they may have to remain in their tented encampment on this remote and rugged hillside until the end of the year - longer than they had hoped.
But they feel politically strengthened by the deadlock in the Washington talks, which they believe has vindicated their warning that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was wasting its time entering the negotiations.
For the first few months after their summary deportation on Dec. 17, the ousted Palestinians resisted acquiring the kind of home comforts that might reduce the drama of their plight. Also in the early weeks, hopes were alive that United Nations Security Council Resolution 799, calling for their immediate return, might be implemented.
But after seven months in the wilderness, the Palestinians - accused by Israel of being members of the radical Muslim movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad - are now unashamedly trying to reduce the hardships of life out in the open in the barren no man's land between the Israeli-imposed "security zone" in south Lebanon and positions held by the Lebanese Army.
"We hope to go home tomorrow, and we're not sure about staying till the end of the year, but we have to plan on that basis," says the camp doctor, Omar Ferwanah from Gaza, one of a dozen or so medics deported by the Israelis.
"At first, we thought we would be going home soon, after two weeks, three weeks, and we were waiting, waiting, waiting," he adds. "But now, everything in the camp is being planned on the assumption that we may be here till the end of the year, as the Israelis say. [All these] months without services, in frustrating and harsh conditions, was enough. We want our brothers here to live in some sort of satisfaction."
So life has improved somewhat. The camp has added more tents, easing the cramped conditions in which the deportees spent the hard winter months. A big assembly tent has been constructed so they can gather for prayers in the shade rather than lining up on the potholed road.
To help spend time constructively, the vestigial "Ibn Taymieh University," established on a makeshift basis in January, has been expanded and reorganized. It now offers 22 courses, ranging from scientific research to Hebrew, to the 88 full-time students who were among the deported Palestinians. General lectures are open to all. Universities in the occupied territories have agreed to recognize the courses, which are taught by professors and lecturers also sent into exile.
"It is serious academic work," says Aziz Doueik, professor of geography at the Al-Najah University on the West Bank and now dean of public affairs at the tented college. "We're trying to keep everybody busy doing something useful, not just waiting and waiting. This way, the students won't feel that they're losing their time." Help from neighbors
A mile up the road, the Lebanese Army, arguing that the deportees are Israel's problem, continues to block access to the camp for all but journalists carrying a special pass.
But local villagers, traders, and sympathizers have no difficulty reaching the camp by mule, bringing in food supplies, fuel, and other necessities. The deportees - a few of whom are millionaires, among the richest traders and businessmen in the occupied territories - seem to have no problem finding the money to pay for the goods.
They have acquired several small generators, television sets, and video machines to help while away the long evenings. Some even have telephones, incongruous in such a remote and barren setting, allowing the deportees to keep in direct contact with their families in the West Bank and Gaza.
Periodically, a Lebanese dentist also comes in by mule to provide dental care for the exiles. Otherwise, their own medical expertise is sufficient for most of the camp's needs, and even for those of some of the local Lebanese, who come in for treatment at the camp clinic because they have no such facility in their own nearby villages.
"By refugee-camp standards, we have to admit that we have become bourgeois," laughs Mahmoud al-Zuhar, a surgeon from Gaza. "Our living conditions have improved in many aspects, but we still have plenty of problems."
Foremost among those is the difficulty of finding clean water. The stream that provided supplies during the winter has dried up. Water from another spring, piped to the camp, has turned out to be heavily laden with insect larvae.
The warmer weather has ended the miseries endured during months of freezing rain and snow, but it has also brought out the snakes and scorpions for which the area is notorious.
Dr. Ferwanah says his main worry is the lack of access to a properly equipped hospital for emergency cases and the absence of sophisticated equipment. Political boost
Politically, the deportees say they believe that their position, and that of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad inside the occupied territories, has been boosted by the failure of the Washington talks.
"From the start, we told the PLO that this was not the proper way to achieve our goals," Dr. Zuhar says. "[The talks] have failed to achieve any basic demands of our people, and the situation in the territories is worse than ever."
Like the PLO, the exiles themselves rejected Israel's offer this spring to allow 25 more deportees to return, which was extended as a gesture to encourage the PLO to stay with the talks. Earlier, the deportees had also turned down an Israeli offer to permit 101 others to go home.
"We will not accept any compromises: Israel must announce the cancellation of its expulsion policy and allow us all to return together," says Zuhar, a prominent figure in Hamas during its early days.
But others are less categorical. "Our goal is to keep our people inside Palestine and protect them from deportation," says the camp spokesman, Abdulaziz Rantisi of Hamas. "Either Israel must let us all return together, or [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin must pledge not to carry out any more expulsions."