Pragmatic exiles return to win over wary comrades: The intifada generation is helping to mould the new Palestinian nation, writes Sarah Helm in Kufur Dik

ON A veranda in a small West Bank village an elegant young woman sips tea from a crude glass mug. Her husband looks less out of place as he greets well wishers, but he too has the air of an outsider.

The woman is Hanan al-Wazir, 22, the daughter of Khalil al-Wazir, or 'Abu Jihad', the late godfather of Palestinian resistance. Born in Damascus, Ms Wazir has been brought to the occupied territories for the first time by her husband, Ahmed al-Dik, 34, who was deported from the West Bank in 1988, and was one of the first group of returnees allowed back last week.

The exiles are starting to return, as the leadership of the PLO prepares to set up base for the first time on home soil. The number of returnees is still small but the long- awaited merging of the two halves of the 'Palestinian nation' - the inside and the outside whose experiences have been quite different - has begun.

The couple lived in Tunis and Geneva, where Mr Dik was an official in the PLO mission. Now they are residents of Kufur Dik, blocked in by an Israeli checkpoint, where many Arab women are veiled and where there is no telephone and no running water.

'It has always been them and us - as if we were a people divided in two. But it does not have to be,' says Ms Wazir, who plans to return to Geneva soon to complete her university studies.

Yasser Arafat, the PLO Chairman, has been careful in the choice of Palestinians he has sent ahead of him. The majority are not the seasoned exiles, used only to Tunis villa life. They are the intifada generation, removed by Israel from the occupied territories immediately before or during the 1987 uprising. Some are members of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction that supports the peace process. These men, who left as street revolutionaries, have returned to try to build peace.

As young activists in the occupied territories during the early 1980s they answered to Abu Jihad, and were instructed by 'remote control'. Their mission was always to have the voice of the inside taken more account of by the leadership outside.

Revolutionary though these men may have seemed, many were more pragmatic about the solution than the leaders. They realised that the existence of Israel could no longer be denied and a two-state solution was the only way forward.

'I realised even before the intifada that Israel must be recognised as a state, not just a picture on a map, as it was to many Palestinians outside,' says Marwan Bargoutti, a senior Fatah official and a returnee. 'I knew the Israelis not just from the TV but from the killing. This made me more realistic.'

When they were deported these activists met their controllers, and believe they were able to influence the PLO leadership into compromise, ultimately changing the course of the peace process.

Though shocked by the lives the leadership in Tunis led - the bureaucracy, the luxury, the travel - they inevitably became more sophisticated than their contemporaries back home.

The returnees know their presence in the occupied territories could create resentment. Just before they returned the Fatah offices in the West Bank and Gaza were closed down - a message from Mr Arafat that the new arrivals would now take control.

Aware of the friction, the returnees talk of imminent democratic change within Fatah. 'All the world has changed, so we must change,' say Mr Dik.

And they have brought with them a confidence about the future rarely found inside. Mr Arafat, they predict, will come back in June - when he has money to spend. And he will hold elections. 'He will have elections because he knows he will win,' says Mr Bargoutti.

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