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Israel Approves Return of Palestinian Guerrilla Leaders

April 18, 1996

JERICHO, West Bank (AP) _ Dozens of cheering supporters greeted Leila Khaled, the former Palestinian commando who hijacked two jetliners, when she returned from exile Thursday for a vote on revoking the PLO charter’s call for the destruction of Israel.

Israel also approved entry permits Thursday for other Palestinian guerrilla leaders, including George Habash and Mohammed Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking in which an American passenger was thrown overboard.

The three are among 445 exiled Palestinians whom Israel has permitted to return so they can participate in a Palestine National Council vote, said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Gen. Oren Shahor, the government’s top adviser on Palestinian affairs.

The council, with nearly 700 members, is to decide this month whether to revoke sections of the PLO charter calling for Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has promised Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that the PNC, the Palestinians’ parliament-in-exile, would amend the charter by May 7.

Khaled, 52, kissed the ground as she crossed into the West Bank and declared: ``I’m not a terrorist, I’m a freedom fighter.″

She said she would vote against revising the PLO charter because Palestinians are still stateless. ``I will vote against the changing of the Palestinian covenant because my people still need to get their rights,″ she said.

Khaled was greeted by dozens of cheering supporters after she crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank. Two dozen Israelis also waited near the crossing to protest her return, and Palestinian police fired shots in the air to disperse them. No one was injured.

Khaled, who was trained as a commando by Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, plans to settle in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya where some relatives live.

Her first hijacking was of a TWA plane in 1969. The Rome-Tel Aviv flight was diverted to Damascus and all 113 passengers were released unharmed. Khaled was arrested in 1970 when she and an accomplice commandeered an Israeli El Al jetliner but was overpowered after security men killed her partner. She was released in a swap a month later and settled in Jordan.

Peres, who met with Arafat on Thursday for the first time in three months, has said Israel would withdraw its troops from the West Bank town of Hebron and begin talks on a final peace agreement in early May only if Arafat keeps his promise.

Dror, the Israeli government spokesman on Palestinian affairs, said Abbas _ known by his nom de guerre, Abul Abbas _ would not be Israel’s responsibility. ``Arafat will have to explain to the Americans or the Italians why he is not handing him over,″ Dror said.

Peres spokeswoman Aliza Goren said the United States was aware of Israel’s commitment to let all PNC members return.

Abbas was convicted in absentia by an Italian court in 1986 for the hijacking and sentenced to life in prison. He is believed to be in Iraq, and has said he is ready to participate in the PNC meeting.

The exiled PNC members will be given permission to settle in the Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank and Gaza, but will not be allowed to enter Israel.

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