Palestinian exiles start long trek home

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The Independent Online


In 1972 Bassam Abu Sharif, a member of a militant Palestinian party, opened a booby-trapped copy of the Diary of Che Guevara, sent unexpectedly to him in the post. It exploded, tearing off three of his fingers, blinding him in one eye and destroying his hearing in one ear.

This week he was one of the first of what is expected to be a large number of members of the Palestinian resistance who will return to the West Bank and Gaza in the next few weeks.

Their return follows Israel's announcement on Saturday that all members of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council, can return to the autonomous areas.

Israel wants the council to remove from its covenant the clause that calls for the destruction of Israel.

However, Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), said in Damascus that he was against returning under Israeli conditions. He called the Israeli offer a ''studied plan to dismantle the PLO establishment".

"We are ready, leadership and members, to return home,'' said Mr Hawatmeh. "But that should not be under the conditions set by [Shimon] Peres," the Israeli Prime Minister. Speaking of the covenant Mr Hawatmeh added: "We refuse to recognise an Israel which does not recognise the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination."

Israeli officials said any return of Mr Hawatmeh, whose organisation launched repeated guerrilla raids on Israel, would speed up the disintegration of those Palestinian organisations opposed to the Oslo accords.

The return of long-exiled Palestinian leaders to the West Bank and Gaza is transforming Palestinian politics.

Mr Hawatmeh and his party were based primarily in the diaspora of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan who lost their homes in what is now Israel in 1948. But it is the 2.2 million Palestinians who have gained autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, not the 3 million who live in the rest of the Arab world, who are benefiting from Oslo.

"The West Bank and Gaza will be the centre of Palestinian political life in future," said a Palestinian observer who has just returned from exile. Mr Hawatmeh never had much support in the occupied territories and the DFLP split five years ago. Along with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) of George Habash, Mr Hawatmeh's organisation did not take part in Saturday's election.

Yasser Arafat, now elected President of the new Palestinian authority, once depended on the refugee communities of the diaspora. In 1970 they fought for him in Jordan, after which he transferred to Lebanon. Thousands were killed in the Lebanese civil war and during the Israeli invasion. Many of them feel betrayed today.

Defeat in Lebanon and the start of the intifada in the occupied territories in 1987 began to make the West Bank and Gaza the decisive arena in Palestinian politics. In private Palestinian officials now acknowledge that Israel will not take back refugees from 1948.

Final election results show Palestinian voters liked articulate candidates likely to stand up to Mr Arafat. There weremany votes for Hanan Ashrawi in Jerusalem, Saleh al-Tamari in Bethlehem and Haidar Abdel-Shafi in Gaza, who have criticised Mr Arafat. Powerful local families in Hebron, Nablus and Gaza whom Mr Arafat has cultivated all did badly. This shows voters might have supported the DFLP and PFLP had they not boycotted the election.