TUNIS, Tunisia — Left behind to operate with little money and no power, the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters here has become a revolutionary relic, largely forgotten in the rush of events unfolding 1,400 miles away.
Though an occasional ambassador or journalist still climbs to the second floor of a modest villa to seek consultation with Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO's "foreign minister," urgent business and ringing phones ended last year with the departure of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to the Palestinian-administered Gaza Strip.
Nothing much of importance happens anymore in what was once the nerve center of the world's richest and best-known liberation movement.
Kaddoumi, cigar in hand, worry beads on his desk, says he talks often with--and still supports--Arafat, but he doubts the PLO chairman has achieved anything in his negotiations with Israel and questions whether Israel really wants peace. "If they want peace, why do they renege on the agreement for self-rule?" he asks.
Most of the PLO bureaucracy followed Arafat to the Gaza Strip or to Jericho in the West Bank.
But Kaddoumi's 13-member ministry and bits of other departments remained behind, partly because of Israel's refusal to deal with the PLO's unofficial foreign ministry. Israel also retains the right to deny access to any Palestinian wanting to enter Gaza or Jericho and has ignored the requests of some PLO members here seeking Israeli permission.
"I receive no replies," said Ahmed Abdul Karim Elhih, information director for Kaddoumi's department. "I would like to visit my mother, whom I've seen only three times in 35 years. I have brothers and sisters who've been born, got married, had children, died, and I don't know them, have never seen them. Can you imagine that?"
So the rear guard of the PLO waits, on the uneventful shores of the Mediterranean, its staff, resources and workload dwindling. Paychecks are late and sometimes do not arrive at all. Health insurance has been canceled. There is a shortage of cars for getting around. Some bills and rent payments go unpaid for months at a time.
"We call Arafat," said one PLO official, "and he says: 'Look, when I had money, I gave you money. Now I don't have any.' "
The financial shortfall is a result of Arafat's inexplicable decision to support Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His benefactors in the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, who had lavished countless millions of dollars on the PLO, responded by cutting Arafat off entirely. The Saudis have renewed support for the Palestinians, giving an estimated $100 million a year. But the money no longer goes directly to the PLO and instead is funneled through organizations such as the World Bank.
With money tight, the PLO has closed its "embassy" in Tokyo and taken space in the Arab League's office there. Some European countries are subsidizing the continued presence of a PLO office, Kaddoumi said, and here in Tunis, Elhih has moved his information agency into his home to save money.
The PLO set up its headquarters in 1982 in Tunis--then also the home of the Arab League--after being driven out of Beirut by an Israeli siege. They took over the Salwa Hotel in Boldj Cedria, an hour's drive from Tunis, and top officials moved into a community of nearby seaside villas (which Israel attacked in 1985, killing 73 Palestinians and Tunisians; the air raid came 10 minutes after Arafat had left the area).
Today, the Salwa has reverted to its original use as a hotel for working-class Tunisians and European visitors on low-cost package tours. The villas have been rebuilt and reoccupied by their owners.
"These times are not easy," Elhih said. "But whatever happens, the Palestinian community in Tunis is finished, and I can tell you honestly, I miss all the ones who have left."