Few of the exiles had posed any danger to Israeli lives. Those with blood on their hands tended to be tried by Israeli military courts and jailed. The returnees were men who had, at various times during Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip since 1967, been identified by Israeli security forces as potent political activists. They might have committed no serious offence. But they were the organisers and trade union convenors who formed the local leadership of the Palestinians under occupation who co-ordinated with the PLO outside. By banishing them, and the new leaders who replaced them, Israel hoped to stifle Palestinian resistance to the occupation, and to cut off links with the PLO. The policy kept the Palestinians under control until the eruption of the intifada.
It is a measure of how much Israeli attitudes have changed that these men, once considered so dangerous to Israeli interests, are being allowed home. For the process that Israel began is irreversible: Israel talks directly to the PLO; it is pulling out of Jericho and much of the Gaza strip - not because the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has any liberal sentiments about Palestinian self- determination but because he is intent on divesting himself of the burdens of an occupying power.
These men are to provide the vanguard of the new Palestinian political leadership and administration in the occupied territories, and act as liaison between Palestinians there and the PLO headquarters in Tunis.
Israel may not meet the original target date of 13 April for the withdrawal of its forces from Jericho and the Gaza strip. In Cairo yesterday, PLO negotiators were complaining about Israeli procrastination and reluctance to set a date for the completion of that withdrawal. Yet trucks have been busy removing military equipment from the army bases.
This initial, partial withdrawal of Israeli troops is only the first step in a long and tortuous process. Many of the shortcomings of the accords were brutally exposed on 25 February by the Hebron mosque killings. The presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories will continue to create frictions. Yet critics of the accords have no real alternative to offer.
One of the most wary observers of the fate of the PLO-Israel accords, the Syrian leader, Hafez al- Assad, left Cairo yesterday after talks with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. Syria has never been happy about the accords. It was upset about the secrecy surrounding their conclusion. And it is concerned at any deal which might weaken the wider Arab negotiating position with Israel.
In January, when the euphoria surrounding the PLO-Israel accords had evaporated, President Assad returned centre stage with his apparently successful summit meeting with President Clinton in Geneva. He argued forcefully to the Americans that Syria could not be left out of any Middle East settlement. Since then, the PLO- Israel accords have inched closer to implementation.
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