BIR NABALA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The last of 415 Palestinians deported to a barren hillside in southern Lebanon last year were bused to Israeli jails yesterday, ending an episode that brought world censure to Israel.
Authorities said they will now decide who of the men will be freed in a few days and who will be kept in prison for longer terms. The deportees, alleged to be involved in Muslim resistance groups, were expelled in retaliation for a series of attacks on Israeli soldiers.
At her unheated home in this village near Ramallah, Madeha Abu-Saleem waited yesterday with her eight children for the return of her husband, hoping he would not be among those to be kept in prison.
"It has been a very difficult year. But these last days are the longest," she said.
Buses with white-painted windows whisked 197 of the deportees past Israeli protesters who tried to block their return yesterday morning. Israel had previously accepted back 200 of the deportees. Eighteen others chose to slip away from the camp in Lebanon in recent weeks rather than return to Israeli prisons.
Moral victory claimed
Before walking across the Israeli border, the leader of the deportees proclaimed a moral and political victory. "The Islamic movement in Palestine gained a lot from the expulsions. It was transformed overnight from a local movement to an international organization," Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi told a reporter.
There was worldwide sympathy for the deportees after Israel whisked them from their homes without charges or trial and dumped them with only blankets on a freezing Lebanese hillside on Dec. 17, 1992.
While the men exploited the publicity about their plight, their living conditions gradually improved. The camp they dismantled this week had generators, fax machines, cellular telephones, televisions and cooking stoves.
The international uproar over the deportation stalled Mideast peace negotiations for four months and threatened to renew Israel's international isolation. Only U.S. intervention prevented the United Nations from imposing sanctions.
Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni, a liberal who had rallied behind the deportation with the rest of the country, said yesterday her support for the action had been wrong.
"I think it was a mistake," she told Army radio. "This deportation was part of a chain of errors that we've made since the Six-Day War. Since 1967 we have been acting on a narrow view of Israel's needs, while denying and ignoring the fact that a nation under foreign rule . . . is a nation whose civil, human and political rights do not exist."
But other Israelis said the mistake is in taking the deportees back now. Muslim fundamentalist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are waging a battle against the proposed peace plan between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"These 200 Hamas activists went through a sabotage and terrorism course in Lebanon. They are coming back to Israel in order to implement what they learned," said opposition parliament member Moshe Katsav.
"Each and every one of them constitutes a direct threat against the security of Israel," added Likud Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi.
Last December, Israeli authorities acknowledged that they had no evidence linking the men to the slaying of five soldiers that preceded the deportation. The authorities said that since then they have found evidence that will permit some of them to be tried on other charges.
Some others will be held in what Israel calls "administrative detention," imprisonment usually for six months or less without specific charges or a trial.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin insisted yesterday that his government will watch the returned deportees closely. "We will not hesitate to take tough measures against them, even if we have the slightest suspicion that they intend or are involved" in terrorism, he said.
Mr. Rabin defended himself from heckling in the Knesset by those who contend his efforts to make an agreement with the Palestinians are endangering Israel's security. "We will continue on our path. You can shout, disturb, protest, call me all kinds of names," he said.
Arafat praises Rabin
He won praise from an unexpected quarter yesterday when Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, told an interviewer that Mr. Rabin is "a man who respects his word of honor, his promises."
But later in London, Mr. Arafat warned Israel not to turn the autonomous areas planned for Palestinians into entities like the segregated "homelands" of South Africa. "I will not live in a Bantustan," he said.
The peace process produced changing alliances, teaming Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin in pursuit of an agreement, and had been one cause of the deportation last year.
Mr. Rabin acknowledged that he had hoped to strike B BTC debilitating blow to the rejectionist Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups by exiling many of their members.
The group sent to southern Lebanon did include leaders of those organizations. But the attacks by Hamas did not stop. And Palestinians complained that the deportation also swept up dozens or even hundreds of men whose only crime was to be fervently religious.
"If they consider being Islamic the same as being Hamas, then my husband was Hamas," said Mrs. Abu-Saleem. Ibrahim Abu-Saleem, 45, a lecturer at an Islamic College near Jerusalem, was handcuffed and blindfolded in front of his children on Dec. 16, 1992, and led away.
Her bitterness at the yearlong separation was lightened this week when her husband called to say he had just gained a doctoral degree in Islamic philosophy. There were so many university professors stranded in the camp in Lebanon that they began courses to permit others to continue their education.