Israeli foes' return brings back horrific images

January 25, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Peace is bringing long-gone Palestinians -- and horrifying memories -- back to Israel's doorstep.

Bloody attacks that fused the terms "terrorist" and "Palestinian" in the minds of Israelis and much of the world are being recalled by the possible return from exile of many of Israel's old foes.

Israel has invited members of the old Palestinian parliament-in-exile to return to the West Bank and Gaza to ratify the peace process, a calculated move that is bringing scenes that many Israelis never imagined. Scenes such as:

* Naif Hawatmeh, whose organization was responsible for the deaths of 20 hostage schoolchildren in northern Israel, calling Israeli reporters to say that he wants to come to the West Bank.

* Sheik Abdel Hamid Sayagh, a stern preacher who favored the Nazis and rallied East Jerusalem Arabs against the Israelis, planning to return to Jerusalem soon after 29 years in exile.

* Bassam Abu Sharif, his face disfigured by a bomb likely sent to him in Beirut, Lebanon, by Israeli agents, striding across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan and shaking the hand of an Israeli soldier.

"All of the sores that were in the process of healing have been reopened when we hear these terrorists want to come in," complained Shimon Maimon, who as a teen-ager survived the hostage-taking ordered by Mr. Hawatmeh in 1974 at a school in the northern Galilee town of Ma'alot.

"They talk about peace. They talk about love. But what is happening is, they are talking about bringing murderers and erasing crimes of bloodletting when we were the ones that suffered."

The Israeli opposition has expressed outrage at the decision.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, announced after the Palestinians' first election Saturday that all members of the old Palestine National Council could return to the West Bank or Gaza. He said the offer was necessary so that the Palestinians can fulfill their pledge to repeal portions of the PNC's 1968 charter that call for the destruction of Israel.

The secretive PNC, said to have about 480 members, includes hundreds who had been deported, banned or fled from the West Bank and Gaza for opposing Israeli occupation. They are scattered across the Middle East, with more-radical members in Syria.

The offer is a calculated gamble that moderate members of the PNC would gratefully return, join the political process, and give the newly elected president, Yasser Arafat, the majority he needs to change the charter.

"From Israel's point of view, it's better if they're here and not in Syria," Mr. Peres told a parliament committee this week.

The most extreme members are not expected to come. But Mr. Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), suggested that he might surprise the Israelis.

"We are ready, leadership and members, to return home," he said in Damascus yesterday. But, he added, "that should not be under conditions set by Peres."

In April 1974, three DFLP guerrillas took over a school in Ma'alot, an incident that ended in a bloody siege by the Israeli army in which 20 students and four adults were killed. Later that year, DFLP infiltrators burst into a house near the Jordan border and killed four Israelis. In 1973, a cart booby-trapped by the group exploded, killing seven people in Zion Square in Jerusalem.

The Ma'alot massacre became a symbol for Israelis of the worst of terrorism and fed the spiral of violence. Israel responded by shelling refugee camps in Lebanon, killing at least 48.

In Ma'alot, the pink school and adjacent buildings wear plaster patches, still unpainted after 22 years, as a reminder.

"It was a terrible sight to wake up and find people with weapons, with fire in their eyes," recalled Mr. Maimon, who, at 14, was with about 100 pupils who were sleeping in the school on a weekend outing and were taken hostage.

"I still feel a sick feeling in my stomach when I think about it," said Mr. Maimon, now a teacher. "If they really wanted to do something good, they should bring [Mr. Hawatmeh] back and hang him."

Mr. Abu-Sharif's return Tuesday was a reminder that violence came from both sides. In 1972 -- a year of horrific terrorism and retaliation between the Palestinians and Israel -- Mr. Abu-Sharif was an editor of a newspaper for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) -- a group responsible for some of the most violent acts. A package bomb was sent to the PFLP office in Beirut. As he opened it, a blast disfigured his face and cost him an eye and three fingers. Responsibility for the act was widely attributed to Israeli agents, and never was denied by Israel.

But Mr. Abu-Sharif also is evidence of change. In 1986, he joined the more moderate wing of Fatah, and was spokesman for Mr. Arafat. On his re-entry to the West Bank this week, he praised Mr. Peres and said he supported the change in the PNC charter.

"We want to live in peace, side by side with Israel," he said.

Not all who return support such change. Sheik Sayagh, 93, is titular head of the PNC and an opponent of the peace process. Mr. Peres approved his return this week to Jerusalem from Amman, Jordan, as a humanitarian gesture, as he is elderly and infirm.

Mr. Sayagh was virtually an embodiment of Palestinian struggles. He was imprisoned by the British for resisting their rule, headed the opposition against Israel and was the first Palestinian expelled by Israel from the territories in 1967.

"It's not good to let these people in. But if it brings real peace, we will accept it," said David Aberjal, 62, a grocer in Ma'alot and one of the soldiers who stormed the Ma'alot school in 1974. "If there is real peace, everybody will forget."

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