'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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power