On the 17th of December 1992, under the cover of darkness, the Israeli occupation forces raided the houses of hundreds of Palestinian leaders and activists from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Academics, doctors and social figures were among 415 Palestinians whom the Israelis kidnapped, handcuffed, blindfolded and placed in trucks and buses that headed to a destination unknown to them or their families.
The raids, which mainly targeted members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, followed failed Israeli attempts to rescue Nissim Toledano, an Israeli Sergeant who was captured earlier by al-Qassam Brigades in a bid to release Hamas leader and founder Shiekh Ahmed Yassin.
Contrary to the expectations of the detainees, the 60-hour-long trip did not end up at one of Israel’s notorious prisons. They were instead being exiled to south Lebanon in an unprecedented mass deportation that was executed without a hearing or even prior notification.
As Israeli soldiers abandoned the detainees in Marj al-Zuhour (Meadow of Flowers), which is a hilltop in a no-man’s land in Southern Lebanon, the strategic and decisive decision was taken by the deportees to defy the Israeli exile sentence.
A makeshift tent camp was erected which later was given the name “al-Awda (return) Camp”, and the deportees spent their first night out in the open, on rocky ground, weathering the hard wintery conditions and temperatures that dropped to near zero.
The detainees braced for a long confrontation, and hence they formed committees to run the camp which soon began to take the shape of an organized little community.
A clinic was set up which opened round the clock and served deportees as well as local Lebanese villagers.
Hamas leader Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi was chosen the spokesman for the deportees, while Dr. Aziz Duwaik became the English-speaking spokesman.
The deportees also ran higher studies classes which they called the “Ibn Taymiyyah University”, where 88 students enrolled and 15 academics lectured, all of them members of the small community of deportees. Classes ran in parallel with Palestinian universities in occupied Palestine, and 15 students graduated from the open-air University. Their graduation was acknowledged by their respective universities.
The mass deportation of 415 Palestinians sparked wide international condemnation as a form of collective punishment, and the United Nations Security Council condemned the deportations in its Resolution 799.
The deportees organized several demonstrations and protests near the border to demand their return to their homes and families, attracting wide media coverage and shedding the light on Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians under its military rule.
The steadfast and united position taken by all the deportees forced Israel to reverse the deportation sentence in September 1993, and the exiled activists returned to Palestine by the end of that year.
The exile failed to deter or weaken Hamas and, to the contrary, the Movement emerged stronger and more determined to fend off the Israeli occupation and the failed mass deportation contributed to its increasing popularity and momentum.