Palestinians Sign Up To Return to Territories

MOHAMMED Abdul Hamid goes to his run-down office every day. But like most people affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, he is waiting for the day when the PLO's rank and file move to the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

After missing two deadlines, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are nearing a final agreement on the transfer of authority in these two areas, as stipulated in the peace pact signed in Washington last fall.

Mr. Abdul Hamid, an editor of a PLO-affiliated magazine, and the eight-man staff have registered their names as part of the PLO cadre hoping to accompany PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to Jericho and Gaza.

``We are prepared to move anytime. We have been wandering from one country to another,'' says Abdul Hamid, who has been on the move since 1968. ``We hope now we are finally going to settle.''

The writer is part of at least 2,500 PLO cadres, mostly from groups that support the agreement, who don't want to be left behind when the leadership moves to Jericho and Gaza.

But according to senior Tunis-based PLO officials, the Israelis have agreed to allow only 1,000 PLO members to return. ``The number of the agreed-upon personnel is 1,000 [plus their families], in addition to the police force, and Arafat's own entourage,'' says a PLO official involved in the negotiations with Israel.

PLO offices in Amman and elsewhere are distributing applications to the various departments. Those who register are asked to identify their political group as well as their department affiliations. ``The only condition to qualify is to be part of the PLO rank and file,'' says an official.

But in practice, many PLO members say that the main criteria remains political loyalty.

Abdul Hamid does not think he has a problem. He belongs to the Palestinian Democratic Union (PDU), the only remaining partner of Mr. Arafat in the ongoing negotiations with Israel.

But members of the opposition groups are also applying, with the encouragement of senior PLO officials who hope that once self-rule is established, these ``rejectionists'' will change their minds.

More members of the opposition Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have applied. ``I am interested in joining the future authority, says a DFLP member who left the West Bank in 1970 and was prevented from returning. ``I just want to go back.''

Arafat is aware of this trend and is said to be using it to break up the opposition. PLO officials say that a prominent leader of the PFLP has already signed up dozens of PFLP members to go back with Arafat.

PLO officials in Tunis say that exceptions are being made for humanitarian reasons for those who are from Gazan origin and have lost their right to return either by joining the PLO or working abroad for a long time.

Abdul Hamid himself comes from the West Bank village of Ramallah. He left in 1986 to go to college in Cairo. He later joined the PFLP and then the DFLP. In 1990 he joined the PDU, a more centrist party. The writer says that he does not want to end up working for a press controlled by the Palestinian authority. ``I want to go back, but I hope that once we get there, we will able to set up a free press,'' he says. ``There is no way that I will work for a controlled official press.''

But others maintain that once the Palestinians go back to Gaza and Jericho, many will find themselves forced to toe the line if only to survive.

``We have no idea about what will happen. Will all the PLO department move to Jericho and Gaza? Will we still have jobs when and if are allowed to go back?'' asks Waleed Mustafa, a senior official from the PLO refugees department. ``But the biggest question is, will there be a democratic authority to absorb new ideas?''

So far those guaranteed to move with Arafat are the 9,000-man police force, their families, and Arafat's own team. ``Arafat has left it open. He might take at least 200 people with him, his own loyalists and bureaucrats,'' says a PLO official who has been close to Arafat.

But the registration remains open. At the magazine office, a famous literary critic came with the names of two relatives who have never worked for the PLO, but had been blocked by Israel from going back to the West Bank. ``Many people are coming, and we send their names to Tunis because we understand that it could be the only way for people to go back,'' Abdul Hamid explains.

He and his colleagues discuss their dreams about going back, they realize that their hopes could be crushed if the Israelis decide to veto or determine the names of those allowed back. ``It is very possible. But maybe it will work,'' Abdul Hamid says.

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