THE 44 Palestinian refugees wait next to bundles of clothing and furniture at this bleak crossing on the edge of the Sinai desert, trapped between the growing impatience of the Arab world and a Palestinian entity unable to help them.
When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat crossed from the Gaza Strip Tuesday, he shook hands with the refugees, some of hundreds expelled from Libya this week. But he was barred by Israel from letting them into the supposedly self-ruled Gaza Strip.
Mr. Arafat was on his way to Cairo to plead with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to intervene with Libya's President Muammar Qaddafi, who has begun expelling about 30,000 Palestinians living in Libya.
The expulsions have exposed the fragility of the Middle East peace and the potential humanitarian disaster that could follow if Arab countries that oppose Arafat's accord with Israel - like Syria and Lebanon - begin expelling some 630,000 Palestinians living in their countries.
Qaddafi, angry at Arafat's peace deal with Israel, is expelling 30,000 Palestinians from Libya. Israel won't let them in.
Although the Gaza Strip and the West Bank enclave of Jericho were granted self-rule a year ago under the Israel-Palestinian peace accord, Israel still retains control of entry into the autonomous areas.
Under the Declaration of Principles signed in Washington in September 1993, the status of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the 1967 and 1948 wars between Israel and the Arab world is to be negotiated by a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee.
The committee has met three times, most recently this week in Amman, Jordan. But the parties have yet to agree on the definition of a refugee.
''By expelling Palestinians who have nowhere to go, Qaddafi is supporting our argument that the Palestinians should have a state of their own,'' says Marwan Kanafani, Arafat's spokesman in Gaza City. ''But it is unfair and immoral to hurt people for political reasons. If he is trying to embarrass us, we are not embarrassed.''
Qaddafi looks inward
Qaddafi's action has shown that the Arab world, growing impatient with the Palestinian quest for self determination and consumed with its own problems, has closed the gates to a further influx of Palestinians.
''The tragedy is that no one wants them, and they cannot even return to the autonomous areas created for them in the Palestinian autonomous areas,'' says an exasperated United Nations official in Gaza.
During the past week, hundreds of Palestinians have been bused to Libya's border with Egypt, and hundreds more have been sent by ship to Lebanon.
Egypt is refusing to allow the refugees to enter its territory. It is busing those with Jordanian passports to Jordan and those with visiting permits for Gaza to the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip. The first group to arrive here was swiftly processed on the Egyptian side of the border, but was denied entry into Israel despite having visitors' permits for Gaza, an official of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says.
Israel argues that it cannot allow the refugees entry on visiting permits because they have nowhere else to go and will end up staying in Gaza.
''We are watching the situation, and we will do what we can to help the people at the Rafah crossing,'' says UNRWA spokesman Ron Wilkinson in Gaza City. He adds that UNRWA, which is responsible for administering aid to 3.2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, has no official standing in relation to the expelled Palestinians.
In a statement issued from UNRWA headquarters in Vienna yesterday, the organization said it would extend humanitarian aid to the refugees even though they were outside UNRWA's area of operation.
Israel, which fears nothing more than an uncontrolled influx of Palestinian refugees, argues that it is both morally and historically unjust to expect it to accommodate thousands of Palestinian refugees.
Lebanon, after initially receiving about 400 of the refugees, has taken steps to block the entry of more boats. The fate of the remaining Palestinians headed for Lebanon is unknown.
Qaddafi, who opposes the peace process and is increasingly isolated as a result of a crippling American embargo, this week began repatriating foreign workers from Egypt and the Sudan and expelling a Palestinian community unwelcome in the Arab world.
Egypt and the Sudan, which both have more to lose than to gain from alienating Libya, have offered no protest at the expulsion of their nationals and have shown little sympathy for the Palestinians. An estimated 7,000 Egyptians have already been repatriated and several hundred workers from the Sudan are on their way to Khartoum.
Western diplomats say that Qaddafi, who announced the repatriation moves Sept. 2, has three motives:
* Because of the impact of economic sanctions, he wants to cut back on foreign currency payments to more than 1 million foreign workers from Egypt and the Sudan.
* He is eager to remove Islamic political activists opposed to his regime.
* He wants to undermine Israel's peace efforts and show the Arab world that the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is a fiction that will not work.
Qaddafi's impulsive action has been universally condemned. The Arab League, the group of Arab states, has appealed to him to reverse the decision.
''Whatever one thinks of Qaddafi or his actions, the fact is that the expulsions have exposed the autonomy as a fiasco,'' says Zakaria al-Qaq, codirector of the Jerusalem-based Center for Research and Information. ''The Palestinian leadership should have resolved the position of their people throughout the whole Arab world before resolving their own problems.''
There are an estimated 2 million Palestinians in the autonomous areas and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. More than 3 million living in the Arab world. The UN estimates there are some 700,000 refugees from the 1967 war. Israel puts the number at 200,000. The UN estimates the number of refugees from the 1948 war at 726,000. Today their numbers have swelled dramatically through natural population increase.