Deportees given heroes' welcome: Supporters greet first group of long-term Palestinian exiles to return to occupied territories

'This is our home. We are back to our homeland. And this is due to the struggle of all the Palestinian people, and they should continue the struggle until the liberation of their country,' said a confident silver-haired figure, smiling yesterday amid the swarming crowds at the Allenby Bridge terminal on the Israeli- occupied West Bank.

Hanna Nasir, once president of the West Bank's Bir Zeit university, (in recent years president-in exile in Amman) had just crossed the bridge from Jordan, stepping on to West Bank soil for the first time in 18 years. He, along with 30 other veteran deportees, exiled by Israel up to 25 years ago, have been allowed home as a gesture of goodwill to the Middle East peace talks and to compensate in some way for the more recent deportations of 400 Palestinians in December.

In exile in Amman Dr Nasir, revealed recently that he was having nightmares about this moment of return: nightmares in which he saw himself pressed into thanking the Israelis for their generosity in allowing him back, and nightmares about refusing to offer such thanks only to be turned back to Jordan by Israeli soldiers.

But on the day he did not let himself down. He offered thanks only to his own people and the Israeli soldiers let him pass.

The homecoming passed off well. It was the first time Israel has ever allowed more than one or two deportees back, and as such it was highly symbolic. Nothing is more central to Palestinian hopes and aspirations than the prospect of return to the land for all deportees, refugees and exiles. If the current round of peace talks can achieve a solution, yesterday will be seen as a moment when the tide turned, when concession by one side spread hope on the other.

Yet this was a curious event: highly emotional but also subdued. While families openly celebrated, no one could be sure of the political consequences. While 30 deportees may be back today, Israel continues to bar nearly 2,000 deportees exiled since 1967. Those who were allowed back yesterday appeared to have been chosen by Mr Rabin for one main reason: because they were old, and the pictures of their arrival could not cause fear in Israeli living rooms. Most of these early deportees were in the Palestinian leadership of the early 1970s, and are now in their 60s and 70s. Since they were exiled most have lost mothers, fathers and friends and most yesterday first visited cemeteries to pay their respects to their dead.

There was uncertainty about what the returnees would now do and what influence they may now have. They will find the occupation has only strengthened its hold since they left. Jewish settlements have burgeoned in their absence. And will the new Palestinian leadership - which also grew in their absence - accept their experienced guidance?

After several hours waiting behind Israeli barbed wire, relatives and friends saw 15 men emerging out of the Jordan Valley dust, carried shoulder high by a noisy crowd. Here was Abdul Jawad Salah, former mayor of al-Bireh, a town on the West Bank, exiled in 1974 and suddenly back. What will he do now? And here was Hassan Abdul Jawad, a journalist from Dheisheh refugee camp and a supporter of the hardline Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He will find little change in Dheisheh.

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