After decades in exile, Arafat and others in the Palestine Liberation Organization are on the verge of returning to their homeland to begin partial self-rule. But, many worry, are they taking the first steps toward liberation or acquiescing in a `colonial' status under continued occupation?

ONCE again Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat is preparing to leave another sanctuary in his long exile.

Yet for the first time, Mr. Arafat and several thousand of his comrades are going back to Palestine - the dream that they have fought to realize for decades.

But as PLO offices in Tunis gradually close down and families pack their belongings, the long-awaited historic moment has a bittersweet taste for many Palestinians, including Arafat. It is not exactly the return of the victorious liberators that thousands sacrificed their lives for.

As the moment of departure approaches - it could be days or weeks - the implications of going back to confined autonomous zones are dawning on officials and former fighters.

Behind the closed doors of PLO offices and homes, Palestinians engage in endless discussions that reflect their internal conflicts.

PLO officials are haunted by the posters of late leaders killed by Israel that splash the walls of all PLO offices. ``We are still faithful to them. We are going back to be among our people,'' says Ahmed Qurie, an official who conducted the secret negotiations with Israel.

Yet statements like these often repeated by PLO officials do not solve the Palestinian dilemma posed by the acceptance of an agreement that realizes only part of the Palestinian dream of independence. ``Are we going back as liberators or jailers of our people? Are we ourselves liberated or accepting willingly to live in the confines of a big detention camp in part of our homeland,'' asks a senior PLO official who has been appointed to the new Palestinian Authority that will run the autonomous zones.

But for him and others, it still means going home; and for many, an end of years of wandering endlessly from one exile to another.

``It is definitely not the dream I have carried the gun for, but it is a new beginning,'' says Jalal, a veteran fighter, hours before leaving Tunis for Gaza as part of the Palestinian police force.

Another young Gazan, looks on sadly as Jalal finishes packing and prepares to don his military fatigues. Like hundreds of deportees, fighters, and political cadres, his name has not been approved yet by the Israelis. ``We are still awaiting approval of lists of names we have submitted,'' says Abu Ali Shahin, who once led clandestine Fatah commandos from his Israeli cell until he was deported in the mid-1980s. If the names are rejected, hundreds of PLO cadres and deportees will have nowhere to go.

Arafat has conceded publicly and privately that his return is dangerous. ``Much is being said about its dangers,'' he told Palestinians. ``But we are pioneers, and as pioneers we are ready to pay the price and make the sacrifice.''

The idea of self-sacrifice that Arafat alluded to lies at the heart of the revolutionary subculture of the Palestinian liberation movement. A fighter is referred to as fidai, one who sacrifices himself for others. In Arafat's view, agreeing to be part of a Palestinian Authority that in the short term risks being condemned as a lackey for the Israeli occupation is part of the sacrifice to establish a foothold for liberation in part of Palestine.

Many accuse Arafat of sacrificing Palestinian aspirations to save the PLO, which has been disintegrating under financial and political pressures.

Although the recent agreement with Israel has shaken Arafat's image, for Palestinian fighters, he has earned a legitimacy none of his living peers can claim. ``He was there with us right on the front lines,'' recalls Ahmed Jamil. ``He has never abandoned his fighters - taking the same risks, daring Isreali bombers and fire.''

Arafat's loyalists and opponents alike admit the agreement provides a turning point that moves the struggle for independence, for the first time, from the commando bases and first-class hotels of exile to the land of Palestine.

To many officials and Palestinian intellectuals, limited self-rule places the Palestinians near the status of being a colony - an interpretation that, while sad and ironic, reflects the shift from an identity totally denied to one of partial Israeli and international recognition of the claim to land. Such partial recognition is seen by Arafat and others as perhaps the foremost achievement of the self-rule deal.

Arafat likes to make comparisons between the historic end of apartheid in South Africa and what he views as the beginning of the termination of Israeli occupation.

But, ironically, many Palestinians view the current process as acceptance of a Bantustan system like that being abolished in South Africa. Prominent Palestinian-American Edward Said says that while Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail to liberate his people, Arafat accepted a deal that will prolong the occupation of his own people in order to salvage his leadership.

Regardless of the fairness of Dr. Said's analogy, it strikes one of the most sensitive aspects of the Palestinian dilemma: The deal that they have accepted is shaking their image of themselves.

Palestinians shuddered when leading Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish declared last week that the Palestinian dream has been reduced to a humiliating situation. ``We are no longer extraordinary. We have become less than ordinary,'' he later told the Monitor in an interview. ``We are being reduced from freedom fighters to potential brokers for our occupiers.''

Whatever happened to the Palestinian dream, Palestinians now ask. The dream started originally with a specific goal, the liberation of all of Palestine, including the land where Israel was created in 1948.

In 1971, after clandestine guerrilla groups took over the PLO, originally set up by Arab states, the goal was modified to create a democratic secular state for Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Palestine. Israel interperted the clause in the Palestinian Political Program as seeking the destruction of Israel, and Israel now expects the PLO to annul this part of the charter.

According to Mahmoud Abbas, a cofounder of Fatah and the prime architect of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Palestinian political throught has gone through three major stages: idealistic nationalism between 1948 and 1974, when Palestinians were bent on liberating all Palestine and rejected the Jewishness of a Palestinian state that excluded them; the intense debate that resulted in the final official endorsement of a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel in 1988; and the stage of political realism, from 1988 onward, that led to the historic compromise with Israel.

``The political and historical responsibility toward our people has dictated us to develop a nationalist but realistic reading of our situation and a daring vision of our future,'' Abbas says in an interview. ``We realized that we can no longer continue ignoring our people's suffering by pursuing our quest for absolute justice. Those who do not understand the deep meaning and significance of the deprivation of identity and homeland for the Palestinians will never understand why we have accepted such a historic compromise.''

Although many agree with the broad outlines of Mr. Abbas's thinking, what he views as political realism is seen by some as political defeatism, brought on partly by collapse of the Soviet bloc (PLO's backers), financial shortages, and rampant corruption in the PLO. In fact, it is that fine line between realism and defeatism that has contributed to splintering the PLO.

Abbas is deeply perturbed by the implied accusation of a sellout by the Palestinian opposition. The soft-spoken official, who himself underwent a dramatic transformation in the 1980s from hawkish opponent of the existence of Israel to a pioneer of dialogue with Israelis, believes the establishment of Palestinian self-rule will trigger radical changes within Israeli society in favor of popular acceptance of Palestinian sovereignty.

Abbas's thinking was one side of conflicting trends of the 1980s after the PLO lost its sanctuary in Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion there.

The second major school of thought, which contradicted but also partly complemented Abbas's, was that led by late Palestinian military leader Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad). It was Abu Jihad, mastermind of many guerrilla attacks against Israel, who shifted the focus of PLO activities after 1982 from trying to establish a military sanctuary in front-line states into building up all forms of resistance in the Israeli occupied territories.

``Making the occupation as costly as possible to Israel and building national institutions on the ground that will irreversibly assert the Palestinian identity are crucial to the attainment of Palestinian independence,'' Abu Jihad said in interviews in the mid-1980s.

It was his work that contributed to the creation of an organized, highly efficient network that provided leadership for the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987. Less than a year later, Israeli squads killed him in his Tunis home, dealing a serious blow to the Palestinian leadership.

Later that year, the PLO adopted a two-state solution involving political recognition of Israel.

But since then, PLO diplomacy has taken a course that led to a limited self-rule - which some see as the ultimate perpetuation of Israeli occupation and others see as the birth of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian officials privately concede the battle has not ended. Some even predict a showdown between Palestinians and the Israeli Army and settlers, and a possible upheaval against the Palestinian Authority. ``The future is very dramatic, it will lead either to an extremely peaceful transformation into coexistence, or a direct showdown similar to the war of national liberation fought by the former colonies in the beginning of this century,'' says a senior PLO official.

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