A Son of Palestine Looks Homeward

SALAH TAMARI has not seen his hometown in almost three decades. A Palestinian from Bethlehem, he left in 1965 to study in Cairo. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War of 1967, his family - mother and nine siblings - fled across the river to Jordan.

The Tamari home in Bethlehem remains sealed by Israeli authorities. Mr. Tamari himself has lived in perpetual exile - in Jordan, Lebanon, and now in Washington. While hopeful that the peace accord signed Monday by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will bring salvation to the Palestinians, Tamari will not forget 30 years of suffering.

``The Israelis owe us an apology at the least,'' he said in the first interview he has given in his six years in the United States. He adds: ``386 Palestinian villages have been demolished between 1948 and now, wiped off the map. If Jewishness is a value and can be acquired or lost, it starts with admitting that they wronged us. No one in Israel has approached it from that point of view.''

Salah Tamari is not the average Palestinian. In 1965, he was among the founding members of Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction led by Chairman Yasser Arafat. Tamari attended the first session of the Palestine National Council along with Mr. Arafat.

His presence in the US has been a well-known secret among Middle East watchers. Once a high-ranking military leader, he may be the only senior PLO official to have lived here. The US State Department has tolerated him, an indication of Tamari's commitment to peace and Washington's tacit acceptance of the PLO in recent years.

He has spent his adult life in the struggle for a Palestinian homeland. In 1970, he fought against Jordan's King Hussein in the bloody campaign called Black September. Exiled to Lebanon, he headed the Fatah youth organization there, and during Israel's invasion in 1982, he headed several PLO units in Sidon. The Israelis took Tamari as their prize catch, jailing him at Israel's Ansar prison in southern Lebanon.

Shortly before the invasion, Tamari hosted British novelist John Le Carre at his command post in Sidon. The author modeled the swashbuckling but valiant Palestinian fighter in ``The Little Drummer Girl'' after Tamari, and dedicated the novel to the Palestinian colonel who showed him the ``Palestinian heart.''

Since 1987, Tamari has lived in Washington. Once seen as Arafat's man here and an unofficial liaison between the US and PLO headquarters in Tunis, Tamari of late has become more involved in teaching Palestinian American youths about their culture.

Whether he will return to the West Bank and play a role in future Palestinian self-government is unclear. Under the peace agreement, Israel will withdraw from the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho first, and the PLO leadership will be allowed to come to those areas.

Arab sources in Washington say that Tamari, a highly respected intellectual and political maverick, may eventually play an influential role in the new Palestinian entity. But they note that he and Arafat have grown apart.

``Tamari has fought when needed and has talked peace when needed,'' said one Arab-American close to the peace process. ``Chances are that as the PLO takes over and realizes the limitation on its resources, he is likely to be recruited. He has a role to play and a certain stature.''

In the garden of a Washington restaurant, Tamari smells the honeysuckles and muses that they resemble the orange blossoms in Jaffa, an Arab town that was incorporated into Israel in 1948. Because he is so open and emotional, Tamari affords a rare view on what many PLO leaders are, in their hearts, feeling. He is in phone contact with them almost daily. He lives and breathes Palestine. He says his Washington apartment has no furniture, because he hasn't furnished a place since leaving Bethlehem.

Although the PLO has renounced its claim to parts of Palestine that became Israel in 1948, he says the Palestinians need to reclaim their history and identity. ``One thing that must be done after the agreement is signed is to set the record straight on the Arab culture,'' he says. ``The Arab culture, the Arab contribution to history - these have been distorted because of this ugly conflict.''

But like the PLO leadership, he embraces the accord, regardless of whatever flaws he sees in it. In the past week, he has spent much of his time on the phone, persuading dissenting PLO colleagues.

``The enormity of this event makes it irrelevant to be for or against it. It's one of those events that breaks a taboo,'' he says, speaking of the separate agreement between Israel and the PLO on mutual recognition. ``Once a taboo is broken, it's impossible to make it again. To argue for or against it is a waste of time.''

Tamari was not always so conciliatory. He says several experiences - an encounter with a French Jew in the 1960s, a friendship with an anti-Zionist rabbi, and his ordeal as a prisoner of Israel - sparked sea changes in his views along the way.

One of several thousand Palestinian prisoners at the Ansar camp in 1982, he quickly became their leader, arguing for better conditions and a smattering of humanity. He led the prisoners in a revolt in which they burned down the entire camp. By the end of his incarceration, he had cemented relationships of respect with Israeli prison commanders.

In the past year, as the Palestinians threatened to walk out of what seemed to be futile negotiations in Washington, Tamari says he argued for remaining at the table.

Now, while awed by the moment, Tamari is sanguine about the future. What must happen on the ground to make interim self-government work? ``My mother should be able to go back, my brothers. Our sealed home should be unsealed. Palestinian homes that were demolished should be rebuilt.

``If immediate steps are not taken by Israel to withdraw from the other areas'' of the West Bank, he continues, ``the agreement won't work, because we see this as the first step toward political independence.''

The accord is vague about which refugees will be allowed back to the West Bank and when. Some Palestinians who fled during the 1967 war are reportedly being favored in the short term. How, Tamari asks, can the Israelis allow Arafat and PLO leaders to come to Jericho and Gaza and prevent other refugees who left prior to 1967 from returning?

If he is adamant, he is also patient. ``We have the moral high ground. We have a just cause, and there will be a Palestinian state.''

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