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Profile : Exiled Palestinian Comes In From the Cold : 'This is where I belong,' says university President Hanna Nasir, home after 18 years.

May 25, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIRZEIT, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Hanna Nasir rubbed his foot gently along the threshold of the family home and marveled at how such tough, hard stone had become so smooth and polished.

"It's wonderful for me to see how many people have crossed this step," he said. "It says a lot about our presence--our family's presence, our Palestinian people's presence--in Birzeit. I just put my foot on it, and I feel I am in touch with everyone who crossed over it through all the years."

At 57, Nasir--nuclear physicist, university president, political leader--had finally come home. "This is where I belong. This is my place," he said. "It is very good to be back. I was away a very long time."

He caressed the heavy wooden door of the 82-year-old house, ran his hands over a bit of carved stone, felt the rough bark of a venerable pine tree in the garden and, in an upstairs sitting room, pointed out the pictures of his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman, of his grandmother, of his parents.

Nasir, president of Birzeit University, was exiled by Israeli military authorities in November, 1974, after student demonstrations on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He returned last month, one of 30 longtime political exiles allowed back by Israel as a conciliatory gesture in the negotiations with the Palestinians on self-government.

"Israel would like me to say I am grateful to be back. In fact, I am still angry," Nasir said, sitting with his wife, Tanya. "I am angry over my deportation--the way I was bundled into a jeep, driven through the night in handcuffs and a blindfold, dropped across the border in Lebanon and never charged with a crime or even given an explanation.

"And I am angry that, almost two decades later, the Israelis' occupation continues, that they still deport people in the same way and that they are not called to account for their actions. If I had a hope, it was that I would return to a free and independent Palestine. Alas, we are still occupied and we are still oppressed. . . .

"But I am proud of what we Palestinians have done despite the 26 years of occupation," Nasir continued. "Birzeit University, for example, has grown in spite of a 4 1/2-year closure and other Israeli harassment. It is a wonderful institution with a quality of professors, a quality of students, a quality of education we can be proud of. Birzeit is both an achievement and a symbol of our potential as a nation."

Nasir, a Palestinian Rip Van Winkle back home after 19 years in exile, measuring "then" against "now," sees many changes as he looks around the West Bank--some that please, others that discourage him.

A day or so after his return, a Jerusalem lawyer telephoned and said that a faxed message had arrived from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat congratulating Nasir.

"A message from Arafat? For me? By fax?" Nasir said, still incredulous. "I thought it was, at best, a prank, but perhaps it was a provocation. Just before I left, one of our students was jailed, maybe for three years, for drawing a little Palestinian flag with crayons and putting it in the window. We wouldn't even mention the PLO by its initials.

"Now, we get faxes from Arafat in Tunis, and he gives interviews to Israeli journalists. Amazing, truly amazing!"

What has happened, Nasir argued, is that the steadfast loyalty to the PLO of most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip effectively "unbanned" the organization and made it an essential element in the peace negotiations.

"I am a former member of the PLO's executive committee, as are two other returnees, and the Israelis know and accept this," Nasir said. "Many more returnees are present or former members of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile) and of its central committee. With us here and in other ways, Israel has moved to de facto recognition of the PLO.

"The Israelis may have finally come to understand that the PLO is not in Tunis (Arafat's headquarters) but here on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The PLO has to be dealt with if the Palestinian problem is to be resolved and if there is to be peace."

Nasir was shocked, however, by what he describes as the increased brutality of the Israeli occupation. "They are dehumanizing themselves as well as us," he commented.

Coming from Jericho, Nasir said, where the returnees had crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, he saw Israeli troops halt a car, pull four Palestinian youths from it and start to beat them.

"I had never witnessed something like that here before--an unprovoked beating on the street," he said.

"What has happened here? What has happened? This everyday, commonplace brutality, degradation and dehumanization. I am struggling to understand this."

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