DAMASCUS, Syria Looking back to the U.N. partition plan of 1947, which envisaged Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side in peace, Nayef Hawatmeh comes to the painful acknowledgment of an opportunity missed.
"After 60 years, we are struggling for what we could have had in 1947," laments the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "We have missed many historic opportunities."
In a year when Israel is celebrating its 60th birthday, Hawatmeh and his generation of leaders are still in exile and fading from the scene.
Visited by The Associated Press in Damascus, the Syrian capital, these graying grandfathers radiate nostalgia and bitterness. They speak of wasted opportunities, perceived successes, failures and divisions. In monologues that can last 90 minutes and brook no interruption, they voice anger at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for negotiating with Israel, but also at Hamas for taking their struggle down the path of radical Islam.
Hawatmeh and others of his generation Ahmed Jibril, George Habash, the shadowy Black September movement, woman hijacker Leila Khaled exploded onto the world stage in the 1960s and 1970s with deadly raids into Israel, the attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics and a string of airline hijackings and assaults on passenger lines at foreign airports.
Branded as terrorists in Israel and the West, they saw themselves more in the Che Guevara mold, inspired by Cuba and Algeria and the Viet Cong. They say their goal, steeped in Marxist and Arab nationalist ideology, was to liberate Palestine from an "imperialist" Israel and draw attention to the Palestinians' plight.
"The whole world now says the Palestinians must have their state," says Ahmed Jibril, whose part of the alphabet soup of factions is the PFLP-General Command. He rejects any suggestion that his years of struggle came to nothing. "I am sure that if I don't see it in my lifetime, my son will. If not, then my grandchildren will."
But today the face of the Palestinian struggle is the suicide bomber, acting in the name of Islam, not nationalism.
The borders envisaged in the U.N. plan have been thoroughly scrambled. The war that followed the Arab rejection of partition left Israel ruling even more land, and the territory left to the Palestinians is split, in conditions close to civil war, between the West Bank where Abbas is headquartered, and the Gaza Strip under Hamas.
Some of the old-timers have paid a personal price. Jibril lost one of his sons, 38-year-old Jihad, in a car-bombing in Lebanon in 2002. Jibril, 70, tells a visitor whose voice is soft, "I realize you are being polite, but you must raise your voice because all the bombings and gunfire I have been through made me hard of hearing."
Time is thinning their ranks too. George Habash, whose Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine specialized in hijackings, died in a Damascus hospital in January at 81. According to close aide Maher al-Taher, his dying words, upon hearing of renewed unrest in the Gaza Strip, were: "There's still hope."
While the leaders interviewed say they have no regrets and insist they will ultimately prevail over Israel, some of them wonder aloud whether things might have been different.
"Would you believe me if I tell you that if I had to do it all over, I would?" said Mohammed Oudeh, architect of Black September's 1972 Olympics attack that left 11 Israeli athletes dead.
"But maybe, just maybe, we should have shown some flexibility. Back in our days, it was 'the whole of Palestine or nothing,' but we should have accepted a Palestinian state next to Israel."
However, Oudeh is quick to add that conditions were different then, and the two-state solution might not have ended the conflict.
Though some sympathize with Hamas' continuation of the fight, they dislike its ideology.
"Muslim extremism can fascinate people for some time, but it will lead to nothing," said Oudeh, 71. "Resorting to religion is born out of the frustration that comes after a series of defeats."
And as for Abbas, "I am disgusted every time I see him hug and kiss Ehud Olmert," the Israeli prime minister.
Leila Khaled, the Palestinians' best known female hijacker, says the Palestinian leadership has "committed a lot of blunders, which delayed Palestinian statehood."
They jumped too quickly into negotiations with Israel, thus "defused" the Palestinian uprising and "blocked the golden path that I and other comrades paved for the Palestinians," she said at her home in Amman, in neighboring Jordan.
But Hamas is not an option, she said, denouncing its takeover of the Gaza Strip last year as an "act of treason that divided the land and people."
Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas, counters that the old guard's methods were autocratic and produced repeated failures. "It is clear that the prestige of these organizations in the eyes of the Palestinian people has regressed," he said.
They were once locked in mortal combat with Israeli undercover agencies, and neither side would talk to the other. Even now, the veterans in Damascus keep a low profile, ever fearful of assassination, under armed guard, their addresses known only to a trusted few.
But Israel apparently no longer regards them as an imminent threat. Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss policy with the media, said none of them is a target for Israel. Indeed, Hawatmeh's case is a measure of how much the contours of the conflict have changed.
Hawatmeh's group was especially hated in Israel after a 1974 raid in which 24 Israelis, most of them teenage schoolkids, were killed.
Yet last year, Israel agreed to let him enter the West Bank for two weeks and take part in a top-level Palestinian meeting as a way of broadening Abbas' political base. In his 70s and ever defiant, Hawatmeh refused the offer, even though it would have meant setting foot in his homeland for the first time in 49 years.
"He rejected that because he cannot accept conditions on his return to Palestine," aide Rashid Quweider told the AP.Comment on this story
Among Israelis too there is a recognition that the Palestinian leadership they cold-shouldered in the 1970s has been supplanted by a much more formidable foe, Islamic militancy.
"Of course it's better to deal with secular nationalists than religious extremists," Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli intelligence analyst, said in an interview. "It was better back then because along with the violence there was hope for talks, and negotiations did happen and agreements were made."But with Hamas there is nobody to talk to. After Hamas, Israel will face al-Qaida."
Contributing: Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan.