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Exile Ends as Arafat Leaves Tunisia for Gaza

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who has wandered in exile across Arab shores for almost three decades, made an emotional departure from his headquarters here Monday and flew toward a new, permanent home.

Recalling how the Palestine Liberation Organization was ejected from Jordan, booted out of Lebanon and left to simmer on the shores of North Africa for more than 12 years, Arafat bade farewell to Tunisian President Zine Abidine ben Ali and boarded a plane for Cairo. He was stopping there before leaving for home--in the Gaza Strip.

“For the first time, there is a return without going to another exile, a return from beloved Tunis to the sacred land of Palestine,” Arafat said at his last news conference in the Tunisian capital.

Ben Ali, who draped a medal of honor on the beaming PLO leader during an elaborate farewell ceremony at the presidential palace, recalled the desperate days of 1982 when the PLO arrived here, fleeing the war in Lebanon. The Tunisian leader congratulated Arafat on the long diplomatic drive toward Palestinian self-rule.

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“Go home in peace,” he said. “All our congratulations to Palestine on the occasion of your triumphant return. And all our congratulations too to her valiant people upon the return of her combatants. Now, by the grace of God, there will be no more wandering, no more exile. Goodby, until we meet again in Palestine.”

Arafat, dressed in characteristic green fatigues and black-and-white kaffiyeh, saluted solemnly as the Palestinian anthem, “Baladi,” or “My Country,” was played on a tinny sound system in the chandelier-laden reception hall.

Later, at the airport, Tunisian jets screamed in salute overhead as Arafat’s stylish young wife, Suha, who waved at her husband’s side at the top of the boarding ramp, wiped back tears.

Though the PLO will maintain its political, international relations and refugee departments in Tunisia, Arafat’s departure and the shift in focus toward autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza means the end of an era for Palestinian politics--and in many ways an end to the PLO as it has existed as a revolutionary movement.

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Arafat’s fighters have already trailed in from the far corners of the Arab world to take on the new mantle of police in Gaza and Jericho; the PLO staff left behind in Tunis and at embassies around the world is largely unfunded and embittered.

“It is the end of the PLO, but the PLO is not the Bible, and it is not God-given. If it doesn’t change according to circumstances, it will die anyway,” one of Arafat’s most senior aides said. “The PLO has to adapt and lead the new situation if it wants to continue to be viable.”

The PLO Executive Committee, shrunk by nearly half because of opposition to the peace plan it signed with Israel, is largely being absorbed into the new Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho, though it will keep operating as the PLO government.

Arafat has pledged to convene the Palestine National Council, the PLO parliament in exile, to rewrite the Palestinian charter on armed struggle. But PLO leaders admit there is no consensus for convening the council now and little hope of gaining admittance for all its members to Arafat’s new headquarters in Gaza and Jericho.

In many respects, the PLO hierarchy left behind when Arafat departed with most of his remaining top aides Monday--those who left included information chief Yasser Abed-Rabbo and Labor Minister Samir Ghosheh--is skeptical about the prospects for success of the traveling road show that left.

“The next two months for Arafat are going to be very, very difficult--going to Gaza, empty-handed and with a big smile,” a PLO official who will stay in Tunis said. “Arafat gave promises to the Israelis and the Palestinians while he was outside. Now he’s inside, and both sides will be asking him to fulfill his promises.”

Arafat was mindful of the financial problems ahead, even as he looked ahead with bravado. “The Palestinian struggle will continue until the Palestinian flag is raised in all the Palestinian lands,” he said. “We are facing a major struggle that is no less important than the last one--the battle for reconstruction, to rebuild our country, which needs a lot of resources that are not available now.”

He pledged repeatedly that he and Ben Ali will “pray together in Jerusalem.”

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The promise echoed Arafat’s words as he launched his last trip into exile in 1982. Besieged by Israeli troops and finally his own rebel forces--backed by the Syrians in northern Lebanon--Arafat boarded a ship at Tripoli, Lebanon, to the volley of Palestinian machine-gun fire and vowed: “The struggle is not over. We will continue until we reach Jerusalem, the capital of our Palestinian state.”

The sunny North African nation of Tunisia, 1,200 miles from the Gaza Strip, was little recognized on the Arab map then. It since has welcomed thousands of PLO fighters-turned-bureaucrats and offered Arafat a base from which to launch his global travels seeking support and backing.

Like other Arab nations before it that had hosted the troublesome guerrilla group, Tunisia paid for its hospitality. Barely three years after the PLO settled in at its initial headquarters at Hammam Shatt outside the capital, Israeli F-15 fighter-bombers launched an attack that demolished much of the administrative facilities and left more than 70 people dead, 25 of them Tunisian civilians.

Tunisia was subject to other violence in subsequent years: an Israeli commando raid in 1988 that killed Arafat’s deputy, Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad), and a 1991 attack, probably launched by the militant Abu Nidal organization, that killed two other senior PLO leaders.

Many Tunisians breathed a sigh of relief when Arafat’s plane left. They have often complained that the PLO brought hitherto unknown violence to Tunisia and drove up rents by paying top dollar for spacious villas in some of this city’s best neighborhoods.

A senior Arafat aide tried to explain why so many PLO officials have been wrenched by this happy departure: “It has been part of the psyche, part of our existence, part of the good treatment we never witnessed in most of the Arab countries before. People found self-respect in Tunis instead of persecution.

“At the same time,” he added, “people are full of pain and bitterness about the uncertainty in the new situation.”


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