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."
Most PLO families worry that with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already tightly packed into the rundown housing of the Gaza Strip, there will be nowhere for them to live when they start arriving in the weeks ahead.
"I haven't any family to live with there, and of course I'm worried," said Mohammed Abdullah, a teacher at the Al-Quds school who will move to Gaza with his wife and four children. "But we have to wait to achieve some of our hopes. Everything is still unknown, but we hope there will be some financial aid and we can build new homes and more facilities and improve our lives. Life is good here in Tunis, but suppose each one he lives in paradise, he will not feel happy because he is attached to his homeland."
At a high-rise apartment complex near the outskirts of Tunis, Bizyada abu Youssef, exiled from the Gaza Strip, runs out to her balcony and hauls in a folded tent, her most important preparation for the move to Gaza with her husband, an administrator in the PLO education department.
As she sits in her elegantly furnished apartment, she begins to cry as she recounts the family's journey in 1948 from their home in Beersheba to a refugee camp in Gaza with the creation of the state of Israel. From there, they moved to the Arabian Gulf state of Qatar and lived comfortably until the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, when all Palestinians were expelled. They washed up in Tunis and began furnishing this apartment. Bizyada says she began growing the philodendron that has now stretched across the ceiling and walls of the living room.
"In Qatar we were expelled; we left three cars without selling them. They ordered us to leave within 72 hours. We left half our clothes there and all our belongings," she says, her voice shaking as she points to the vine. "I grew this tree as you would grow a child. And now I'm forced to leave it. In every country, I am forced to grow, to buy and finally to leave. . . . We hope, God willing, this is the last time."
Diplomatic sources say only about 500 to 600 names are on the tentative list of PLO employees to go to Gaza and Jericho, out of about 1,000 PLO employees in Tunis. PLO officials say up to 85% of those in Tunis will go and that jobs will be provided in the autonomy zones for anyone who doesn't want to stay behind or who isn't attached to a department remaining in Tunis.
That remains to be seen. "Everybody is worried about the future. The future of the people, and the future of the PLO. From Tunis to where? From outside to inside, but where? Nothing is clear," PLO envoy Hih said..
"In a few days, the Palestinian police will find themselves face to face with the people who led the uprising for seven years," he said. "It will not be easy. I think the matter of implementing this agreement, it is different than signing the agreement. To sign it was almost impossible. And to implement it, it will be unbelievable!"
The Long Way Home
About 500 to 600 people are scheduled to go to Gaza and Jericho, out of about 1,000 PLO employees in Tunis. Some Palestinians, such as Bizyada abu Youssef, have moved from country to country. Her family moved from Beersheba to Gaza to Qatar to Tunis and is packing for Gaza again.