Still dreaming of his homeland: Robert Fisk in Damascus hears George Habash, orator, fighter and refugee, spell out his terms for a settlement with Israel

HE SAT in the corner of the room, the old rejectionist, plumper than he used to be, his stroke crippling his right hand, still seeking political perfection. The Eamon de Valera of 1922 would have understood him. Alija Izetbegovic can surely comprehend this man today. Betrayed. That was the word George Habash used as his supporters in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and their allies were a few blocks away, cooking up a boycott of the forthcoming elections in the occupied territories. Yasser Arafat had betrayed his people. 'We throw him upon the garbage,' said George Habash with an uneasy laugh.

When Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), returns to Palestine in a few weeks' time - when 'Abu Ammar', as Mr Habash still calls his old PLO comrade, steps into his putative Palestinian state - the old man will no doubt still be sitting here in this faded Damascus drawing-room, dwelling upon what might have been.

Ask him, however, if he would not rather be alongside Mr Arafat when he crosses the Jordan river, and the reply comes back as quick as rifle fire. 'No, because I know what is behind this plot. I am not ready to sell the major part of my country for a very small part of it, to bargain for my birthright in this way.'

There are three Habashes: the public orator, the betrayed fighter and the refugee. First the orator, no less passionate than the other two, but mathematical in his arguments. 'Our Palestinian programme, that of the PLO, includes the right of return (of refugees outside the occupied territories), self-determination and an independent state. The agreement makes no rule on these subjects. On the contrary, it doesn't include Israeli withdrawal, Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements, which will remain where they are.'

There seems, if Mr Habash is to be believed, always to have been a smell of treachery around, all the more painful because of the trust that apparently preceded it. He last met Mr Arafat just before the Madrid conference in 1991. 'It was a very brotherly meeting,' Mr Habash says, 'and I was very conscious of emphasising our friendship and that it was based on the condition that we should work according to our national (PLO) programme - the right of return, self-determination for the Palestinians and the right to an independent state.' Then, earlier this year, Mr Arafat sent a message to Mr Habash.

'Abu Amar said he was ready to meet me in any place I wanted. He said he wanted to discuss 'certain basic and important issues' with me. I knew that some newspapers were talking about secret talks (between the PLO and Israel) and I concluded that this was what the invitation was about . . . About a month ago, when he arrived in Damascus, Abu Amar sent me a message that he wished to meet me. But on what basis could we meet? His political framework (for a settlement) was already obvious to us so there was no common denominator for such a meeting. It made no sense. The last message I received from him was just a week or so ago. It came through our comrades and via Dr Haidar Abdel- Shafi (the PLO negotiator). The message was that all of us should meet in Sanaa. But I asked, what benefit can be gained from a meeting in Yemen? I received an invitation from the President of Yemen as well, asking why we would not meet. So we and the (Marxist) Democratic Front drafted him a letter, thanking him for his invitation, telling him that we were ready to be a united Palestinian front - but pointing out that after the Jericho and Gaza option, such talks would be useless.'

To understand the depth of this rejection, you have to remember the third Habash, the refugee. He lost his home in 1948 and is thus not covered - or even recognised - by the Arafat-Rabin accord. Those of Mr Arafat's advisers who fled in the 1967 war - some of whom may be able to return under the agreement - largely supported Mr Arafat. Mr Habash came from Lydda (now Lod in Israel) and remembers his home.

'I will never rest until I can go back. The house is still there and a Jewish family lives in it now. Some of my friends tried to find it and some relatives actually went there and sent me a message that the trees are still standing in the garden, just as they were in 1948. The Jewish family asked my relatives why they were interested in the house and I think they told them.

'It's my right to go directly to my house and live there,' he says, voice suddenly raised. But would he drive the family out? 'This is another subject. The people responsible for them are the Zionist leadership who brought them to Palestine to live in my house. It is my right permanently and the right of my family to live in this house.'

Long ago, George Habash abandoned the immediate demand for a Palestinian state in all of mandate Palestine, Jew and Arab supposedly living together in harmony. Now he accepts the so-called 'transitional programme', a state in the West Bank and Gaza to be followed by a state in all 'Palestine' later. It is Mr Arafat, he says, who after the PLO withdrawal from Beirut in 1982, was ready to accept any deal. 'He went to Cairo and then he ratified the Amman agreement and he began to decline. The intifada in the occupied territories gave him fresh hope and he began to return to the national aspirations. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc and the outcome of the Gulf war, he declined more and more. Now his agreement will lead to the complete liquidation of our cause.'

But what was Mr Habash's struggle worth now? And what about the hijackings back in the 1970s, the civilian targets, the planes taken to Dawson's Field in Jordan, what about - the old T-word that journalists love to use - what about 'terrorism'?

'I believe that certain operations and hijackings were useful to our cause at that time,' Mr Habash said. 'In that era, the Palestinian national cause was not well-known internationally. We tried to conduct ourselves properly and not to abuse people (in these operations). Then we stopped them. Maybe you will conclude from my answer that we are not ready to recognise or confess our mistakes. We write reports about all that we did. We have written and stated that we stopped such operations. But in these reports we did not criticise this policy. We don't need to judge that era now.'

(Photograph omitted)