15 longtime Arab exiles return to occupied lands


JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Fifteen Palestinian leaders expelled for resisting occupation many years ago were allowed to return home yesterday by an Israel vexed by its continued rule of the disputed lands.

The Palestinians were greeted with wild welcomes. Friends and family members swarmed over the bus that brought them across the Jordan River from Amman late yesterday afternoon, and thousands of cheering supporters awaited them in Jericho, a sultry oasis near the river.

The thirteen men and two women who returned had spent between seven and 25 years in exile. They are the first of 30 deported leaders permitted back by Israel in a "goodwill gesture" to keep alive the peace talks, stalled when Israel deported 415 other Palestinians in December. The 15 others, all expelled before 1987, will return tomorrow or Monday.

"I am happy to be back in my homeland after 18 years, but sad that others still must stay outside," said Mahmoud Shukeir, 43, an author and teacher expelled by Israeli authorities in 1975.

The returned deportees were ecstatic at their arrival. Many were carried on the shoulders of supporters, as they waved, cried and chanted political slogans.

"I can't believe I am back," said Abdul Jawad Salah, 61, who missed watching his five sons grow into manhood during his 20 years of exile. He had been summarily dispatched to Jordan in 1973, without trial, because of his popularity as mayor of Al-Bireh, a Palestinian town just north of Jerusalem.

Those who returned yesterday included a university president, two dentists, several teachers, a former mayor and other members of the intellectual elite deemed dangerous by Israel after it captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war.

Israeli critics branded them "terrorists" and assailed the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin this week for allowing their return.

Mr. Rabin responded Wednesday that "investigation revealed that they had not been involved in the execution of terrorist attacks, and they had not been involved in hostile terror activity during the deportation period."

Between 1,200 and 2,000 Palestinians were sent to their exile between 1967 and 1987. Israel's practice of deportation and exile has been regularly condemned by other nations, including the United States, as a violation of the Geneva Convention.

Israel had curbed its use of deportations because of international criticism until Mr. Rabin's surprise decision in December to send to Lebanon the 415 alleged Muslim fundamentalists, following a spate of killings by Muslim radicals.

The outcry that followed froze the peace talks and intensified violence, prompting Israel's March 30 closure of the West Bank and Gaza. The announcement to return the 30 deportees, and to relax some restrictions on family reunifications in the territories, helped bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in Washington this week.

"This gives hope to our people, saying that through the peace process positive things will appear," said Nazmi al-Jubeh, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, as he waited for the deportees in the dusty terminal near the Allenby Bridge.

"This is the first fruit," he said.

The Israeli government also may hope the return of these Palestinians will strengthen the Palestinian leadership supporting the peace talks, in the face of dwindling public support for the negotiations.

But only two of the 30 selected by Israel to return are affiliated with the mainstream Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Most are communists, independents or leftists.

Nevertheless, the arrivals yesterday chanted pro-PLO slogans with the Fatah activists who greeted them, and pictures of Yasser Arafat, the chairman of Fatah, abounded.

"Until today, I thought the headquarters of the PLO was in Tunis," Hanna Nasser, exiled president of Bir Zeit University, told the crowd in Jericho after his return. "But now it's very clear the headquarters are in Palestine."

Many of the deportees returned yesterday to a homeland much changed from the one they left. As they traveled from Jericho toward Jerusalem, they saw the familiar brown Judean hills now crowned with Jewish settlements, all built since 1967.

They could see the modern, red-roofed developments, with names like Ma'ale Adummim and protective rings of bristling fences. The sprawl of Jewish homes leapfrogs from hilltop to hilltop over the Bedouin camps in the valleys below.

Deportees who may have stopped in Arab East Jerusalem found it a ghostly shadow of the bustling commercial center they recalled. Israel's monthlong closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deprived East Jerusalem of about three-fourths of its customers.

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