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Regional Outlook : Out of Exile, Palestinians Pack in Tunisia : The sound of closure here is the click of suitcases as PLO officials prepare to return to Gaza and Jericho.

May 24, 1994|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMMAM-SHAT, Tunisia — A blustery wind pushed through the broken arches that were the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization's elite Force 17 security unit before it blew apart one October morning in a booming ballet of flying stones and bodies afire, propelled into history and the blinding turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea.

Not far away an amiable sheep poked its nose among the graves of some of the 70 men who died that day in 1985 when a fleet of Israeli warplanes, dispatched by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, hit the PLO's headquarters-in-exile in Tunisia.

"We knew what was happening," recalled Ahmed Abdul Karim Hih, a senior diplomat in the PLO foreign ministry who helped Chairman Yasser Arafat pull bodies from the rubble. "We can recognize the sound of Israeli aircraft like music."

The attack at Hammam-Shat came barely three years into the PLO's 12-year exile in this remote North African outpost, a period that has seen the assassination of Arafat's two top lieutenants and, on the stage of history, the journey of a straggling band of defeated commandos in Lebanon on the road to peace with Israel.

Now, Israeli journalists broadcast interviews with PLO leaders from the Tunis Hilton and drive out to see the place where Israeli commandos gunned down Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad), Arafat's second-in-command, in his bedroom in a whitewash-and-cobblestone suburb of Tunis in the middle of the night in 1988.

And the PLO, the nomadic revolutionary movement that has carried its guns and angry posters in exile from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia, is preparing to make the most important journey of all: the voyage home. The first elements, PLO police, are already in place.

As all but a few of the PLO's departments anticipate moving to Jericho and the Gaza Strip in coming weeks with the beginning of Palestinian self-rule, Palestinian officials and employees all over Tunis are packing, drawing up lists of who stays and who goes, and preparing for another uncertain future.

"The whole operation is like a huge jump in the air," one senior PLO official said. "And for that, there are many things people are not sure of. Will they live well when they go to Gaza? Will they have jobs? Some of them are hesitating."

The Al-Quds school near the Tunis airport, which has educated a generation of young Palestinian exiles in mathematics, Arabic and the geography of a nonexistent country called Palestine, moved up its year-end exam schedule and plans to close its doors forever.

The Palestinian news agency WAFA is negotiating with Italy to build a $3-million news-gathering facility in Jericho in coming weeks. The social affairs, information, education, cultural affairs and economics departments are all moving within a month.

Staying behind in Tunis will be the political department, the equivalent of the PLO's foreign ministry, to oversee the Palestinians' more than 90 embassies and offices around the world; the international relations department, whose operations inside the territories are barred by the autonomy accords, and the office overseeing Palestinian refugees around the world.

The upcoming exodus has generated a whole new jockeying for position within the politically tumultuous organization and a re-evaluation of commitment to a revolution that is entering a new phase.

"It will be a different life," one longtime Arafat adviser said. "For those who were fighters or militants, they move to a question, a very hard question, for the first time in 30 years. And don't forget some of them began at 20 years old, and now they are near 55. They are ready to retire. You want to be sure that if they are going inside that they will be effective. If so, they go. If not, they will be in a very hard place."

One young former fighter--who wandered with the Palestine Liberation Army from Lebanon to Iraq, Libya, Yemen and finally Tunis, where he signed on as a bodyguard and office manager for a top PLO official--has married a Tunisian woman and decided he will stay behind.

"I was a child and I didn't see Palestine, but when my father and grandfather would speak about Palestine, I loved Palestine. When I came to the revolution, I loved Palestine more and more, so we kept fighting, and it got in my blood, and I became used to the PLO," he said, talking quietly in a deserted Tunis villa.

"Over the years I tried to leave the revolution, but I couldn't. But you know, when I woke up, I found my age going on 31 years. I'm thinking, my father was 31, he had 10 children."

*

That's when he decided not to join the Palestinian police force moving into Gaza and Jericho. "Now the time is a time of peace. . . . There are no fights. You have to look for yourself," he said. "I gave enough. I will leave it to the other children."

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