Exchanging 3 for 1,150: PLO celebrates

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EVERYTHING that is ludicrous and raw, painful and contradictory, about the Middle East was played out again May 20 in the overheated cabin of an Austrian airlines jet in Geneva. Special flight 1704 sat 12 hours on the Swiss runway while officials on board from the Palestine Liberation Organization worked through the final and tedious details of their prisoner exchange with Israel. This was the Palestinians' show, and they were having a celebration that I, as a journalist on the plane, was able to witness.

On board with them when the day began were two of the three Israeli soldiers they were giving up in exchange for 1,150 prisoners held inside Israeli jails. The ratio was absurd and they knew it, and that was where they saw themselves as triumphant.

The Israeli captives and their Palestinian guards in white suits kept up an amiable chatter. The two Israelis were boys; they were scared and trying not to show it with the Red Cross officials and journalists milling about in the aisle.

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The guards knew their bosses had struck a good bargain and chose to be magnanimous. They seemed pleased that the Israelis were happy to be going home; they chucked the Israelis on the chin, ruffled their hair good-naturedly, and kept the Austrian stewardesses busy bringing juice, milk, or whatever else might put the Israelis at ease at the close of their three years with the PLO.

But the Palestinians' faces stiffened when the time came for the Israelis to walk off the plane. The two young Israelis paused in the doorway to say goodbye. Only the journalists waved back.

A tense hour passed, and then another. Elsewhere, in Israel and on the Syrian border, the prisoner exchange was in its middle phases and Palestinians were walking out of Israeli jails.

Inside the Austrian airliner a friendly-eyed PLO official named Abu Firas made it clear he wouldn't be made a fool of, the way he felt the PLO's Yasser Arafat had been in an earlier bargaining effort with Israel.

Abu Firas and his colleagues detested Arafat. They had joined the rebellion against him during the PLO's 1983 civil war in northern Lebanon. And now here, on this airplane, they were determined to show they drove a harder bargain than Arafat.

The list of prisoners they were freeing from Israel included men whom Israel always refused to give up when Arafat had been negotiating. Thus was Abu Firas -- perched on the armrest and getting walkie-talkie updates on the exchange -- celebrating victory-over-Arafat as much as anything else.

But Abu Firas was nervous.

During the last big swap in 1983, the Israelis had tricked Arafat by holding back Palestinians whose release had been promised. Abu Firas stared out the plane window toward the distant piece of runway where the Israelis had flown in 400 of the 1,150 men they were letting go. If those men did not fly that night to Libya with Abu Firas, which was the agreed-upon final phase of the exchange, the triumph would be lost.

Then the mood broke brightly again.

From across the tarmac came an airport bus ferrying the just-released prisoners assigned to fly to Libya.

Abu Firas was first to the plane's doorway, and first to kiss each man as he came on board. Behind him stood a PLO security man to frisk each man as he came aboard.

Pockets were emptied of Israeli-made cigarettes, because they were ``contaminated.'' Israeli cash went in the rubbish, too. In this fashion 131 men boarded the plane. Then the newly arrived ex-prisoners were told to strip out of their Israeli-made clothes, likewise considered contaminated. As all those red and blue and yellow safari shirts piled up in a heap in the aisle, everyone was issued an army-green uniform.

A present was made of the leftover uniforms to each of the four Austrian stewardesses, but all this made the women a little nervous.

The women did not know when they first came on board that they would be buckling in some notorious security cases back there in first class, men belonging to an organization that had practically perfected the techniques of controlling airplanes at gunpoint in the early 1970s.

The irony would have been lost on the Palestinians themselves. They came aboard tired men. Some had languished inside Israeli prisons for years. Others hobbled -- some of these were young men -- and they moved down the cramped airplane aisle on crutches.

One man, not an Arab, appeared to be deranged: Kozo Okamoto, a Japanese terrorist who helped murder 26 civilians in the PLO's behalf 13 years ago at Tel Aviv's airport. Now Okamoto couldn't buckle his own seat belt.

Through those many hours the mood on that airplane swung sharply. But the exchange worked out according to plan, and Abu Firas took his consignment into Libya, where the released men chanted triumph and unfurled bed-sheet banners that had been made up a few days earlier.

It was a triumph that let three Israelis return home to a country where they face official censure for letting themselves get caught in the first place.

It was a triumph that probably did embarrass Arafat at the very moment he was cementing his relationship with the moderate Arab leaders in the Middle East willing to talk peace with Israel.

It was a triumph that delivered 1,150 men from overcrowded Israeli jail cells into countries like Syria and Libya, where they are likely to get back into a war certain to make more prisoners of men convinced that their fight is right.

John Donvan, ABC News bureau chief in Amman, Jordan, accompanied Palestinian and Israeli prisoners during their recent exchange.

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