Palestinians prepare to end a restless presence in Tunisia: Charles Richards reports from Tunis, where an uprooted community faces the uncertainties of returning home

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The Independent Online
ON DISPLAY at the Tunisian national museum, the Bardo, is a remarkable set of amulets depicting faces of those archetypal Mediterranean people, the Phoenicians. They were wide-eyed men, with heavy-set and bearded physiognomies.

A former British ambassador to Tunisia has drawn analogies between the Phoenicians, who came from the Levant to settle at Carthage near modern-day Tunis, and the Palestinians, who since their eviction from their base in Lebanon more than 10 years ago, have had their exile headquarters in Tunis.

Theirs is a restless presence. For as exiles they have never felt at home, despite the hospitality offered by the Tunisian government. And they have endeavoured not to abuse that hospitality. They have sought not to create frictions with their cheerful hosts. The 7,000 Palestinians have not established businesses and where possible they have employed Tunisians as drivers or secretaries, although the top officials use Palestinians. And they have kept apart from Tunisian society. Even the children go to their own schools.

In the past Palestinian officials lived comfortable lives in villas in a Tunis suburb. For years, they did their best for Britain's balance of trade with their consumption of Dunhill and Rothmans luxury cigarettes and Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky. But times are harder now. Many would not offer me the ritual cup of coffee because of the Ramadan fast. But Ramadan was not the only reason. On a previous visit a year ago, one Palestinian was only partly tongue in cheek when he said he could no longer afford coffee since the Saudis had cut off their subvention to the Palestine Liberation Organisation as punishment for its pro-Iraqi stance during the Gulf war.

There are many levels of exile. In Tunis, social anthropologists can find different categories of Palestinian deracination. There are those uprooted in the upheaval of 1948, during the fighting after the proclamation of the state of Israel in Palestine. Many fled or were forced to flee to the West Bank, and fled again after Israel's conquests there in 1967. Some were expelled by the Israelis from the West Bank in the past six or seven years, and now act as an invaluable link between the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories. Many have followed Mr Arafat as he has been forced out of Amman and Beirut. Others were made homeless again by the Kuwaitis after the Gulf war.

For years it seemed that Palestine would remain a state of mind, a metaphor for timeless exile, rather than a country in the making. Exile and longing were the lament of Palestinian poets. Those in Tunis tried to keep contact with their compatriots through phone, fax and constant air travel. Tunis was the hub of a vast worldwide network.

Since Israel has permitted direct telephone links with Tunisia (and vice versa), and allowed official contact between Palestinians under their control and the PLO, the exchange of information has increased. Where once contacts were in some secret location in Europe, now they are open, and in Tunis. The Tunis Hilton now hosts journalists and Palestinian and Western businessmen exploring investment opportunities in the putative Palestinian entity.

With the end of exile transformed from a dream to a hastening reality, Palestinians in Tunis are preparing for their return. One couple who for years have dreamt about going back are now considering whether the new Palestinian authority would have enough schools ready for all the returning exiles.

Exile was heartrending - but it could at least provide the certainties of daily life.

(Photograph omitted)