'Outsider' returns to take the pulse of a people: Afif Safieh, left, found cause for 'immense joy and immense sadness' in his old homeland, writes Sarah Helm from Jerusalem

IN the elegant East Jerusalem salon it was not hard to tell the exile apart from the rest. He was the one in the smart suit, talking eloquently in several languages of 'political pluralism' and 'conflict resolution' while local well-wishers passed through offering simple expressions of welcome.

Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organisation representative in London, and a Catholic, barred from his homeland for 27 years, has been given permission by Israel to come back to his home in occupied East Jerusalem to celebrate his daughter's first communion at the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarchate, and to 'take the pulse of the people'.

His arrival in Jerusalem, however, is more than just a homecoming. It is a significant sign that positive developments are taking place on the uncertain road towards peace, despite the new gloom which surrounds the negotiations to implement withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. Mr Safieh's visit to Jerusalem would have been unthinkable a year ago, but has been made possible by Israel's new recognition of the PLO, and the acknowledgement by Israel that experienced men such as this will be needed to help set up the new Palestinian authority.

Mr Safieh would like his next return home to be permanent. The Safieh homecoming may yet be noted as the moment when the 'outside' started to come 'inside' - when the Palestinian diaspora, most banished from their homes since their lands were occupied in 1967, began to return.

The return of the 'outsiders' is awaited with some uncertainty by Palestinians living in the occupied territories, who wonder how the 'merger' will work as the new Palestinian authority is established. The diaspora Palestinians may have lost touch with their roots, some say. But Mr Safieh rejects such fears, and attacks what he calls 'media stereotypes'.

'You see how well we get on,' he says, accepting a welcoming hug from Faisal Husseini, the PLO leader in Jerusalem. Mr Safieh says his own experience contradicts such stereotypes. Half his family are in the diaspora and half live in Jerusalem. And he points out that he has only become an 'international nomad' because of Israel. His family has lived in Jerusalem for generations.

'There will be a harmonious osmosis of inside and out,' he says. Furthermore, once the outside leadership returns, Palestinian life in the occupied territories will be revitalised. He predicts that Yasser Arafat, the PLO Chairman, will be back 'within hours' of signing the agreement for withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. 'Then it will be a beehive of activity here. There is so much talent here. It will be triggered into action by his arrival,' he says.

Afif Safieh's story of exile is typical of thousands of Palestinians. His family lost their house in West Jerusalem when Israel seized the west half of the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. They moved over to the east side of the city, then under Jordanian control. Then in 1967, when Israel seized and annexed East Jerusalem, 17-year-old Afif was studying in Brussels. Like other Palestinians outside the territories in 1967 he was refused the right to return. As he became active in PLO politics in subsequent years he lost all hope of coming back.

Always an advocate of a negotiated solution to the conflict, Mr Safieh says his return to Jerusalem has brought 'immense joy and immense sadness'. At the communion on Sunday hundreds of leading Palestinians and some Israelis came to celebrate in an atmosphere of joyful reunion rarely seen in the occupied territories.

The sadness has come from listening to the growing doubts about whether the peace agreement can be implemented. Mr Safieh says the overwhelming majority he has talked to want the agreement to work. 'But nobody has seen a single example of improvement since the signing. They are sceptical about whether the breakthrough can be achieved to bring their salvation from captivity and bondage.'

Mr Safieh denies that he is in Jerusalem on a reconnaissance mission for Mr Arafat, although he says he will report back on his findings. One of his messages will be that speed is of the essence if the agreement is not to fall apart.

(Photograph omitted)

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