Paunchy Palestinian terrorists hold a 'high school reunion' Achille Lauro hijackers rub shoulders with mass killers


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- In one corner stood the woman who tried to hijack an El Al plane in 1970. In another corner, the man whose forces killed 27 Israeli schoolchildren in 1974. And in the center of the room was the mastermind of the Achille Lauro cruise-ship hijacking in 1985.

The who's who of Palestinian fighters were back in their homeland -- with Israel's permission.

It was a sight that shocked the warriors themselves.

After all, many Israelis will never forget or forgive these longtime enemies for their bloody deeds. But Israel, under the terms of the peace agreement, agreed to allow several dozen veteran fighters into Gaza this week along with the rest of the 480-member Palestinian National Council. At stake: a vote to change the Palestinian Covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

Yasser Arafat, head of the council, will need their support for a new covenant -- a vote is expected later in the week -- although most analysts believe that Mr. Arafat would not have convened the conference unless he was sure of winning.

At the Shawa Auditorium, the veteran fighters didn't look like guerrillas. They seemed more like paunchy middle-aged politicians, dressed in suits or long skirts, wearing black leather shoes or black pumps. They posed for pictures, they traded tales, they chain-smoked.

"We were pals," said Mohammed Abbas, who ordered the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which led to the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, an American tourist who used a wheelchair. "We were like members of a football team."

Indeed, it could have been mistaken for a high school reunion of 50-somethings -- until they began talking about their shared violent past.

Some expressed regrets. Some had no regrets at all.

Leila Khalid, the El Al hijacker, tough as ever, said the armed struggle against Israel was only one of many around the world against occupying forces.

"Vietnam got their liberty and independence through armed struggle. Angola. South Africa, too. Why in our area isn't this accepted? They want us to forget the value of the struggle," she said.

As a protest, she decided not to enter the hall where the delegates listened to speeches. She also refused to talk to Israeli journalists, pointedly telling Haaretz reporter Amira Hess, an Israeli, that doing so "is the beginning of reconciling with the state that occupied my country."

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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