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Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
27 December 2000

Palestinian refugees pose dilemma

DHEISHEH REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK - The Associated Press via NewsEdge Corporation : Some have heavy old iron keys to homes destroyed long ago. Some have crumbling yellow land deeds. Some have faded sepia photographs. And all have memories -- their own, or those handed down to them like a family keepsake.

Now, the nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees -- whose families fled or were driven from their homes during Israel's 1948 war of independence and subsequent fighting -- may prove the single biggest obstacle to a U.S.-proposed peace accord being weighed by leaders on both sides.

Alarmed and angry over word that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could agree to give up the "right of return'' -- ending their decades-old dream of returning to homes inside Israel -- many refugees say they would fight rather than accept such terms.

In the Dheisheh refugee camp on the edge of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a garbage-strewn shantytown where 11,000 refugees are crammed into half a square mile of concrete-block hovels, there is talk of a "refugee intifada'' -- an uprising -- if Arafat concedes what many Palestinians consider a sacred tenet of their national struggle.

Since President Clinton outlined the main points of a proposed treaty to Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Washington last week, news reports and sources on both sides have indicated the proposed accord calls on Palestinians to effectively trade away the "right of return'' in order to win a coveted prize: sovereignty over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City, Islam's third-holiest shrine.

But many refugees say no one -- not even Arafat -- has the authority to relinquish what they consider their birthright. "The right of return is holy to us,'' says graffiti splashed across grey walls in Dheisheh's hillside alleyways.

The explosive question of the refugees' fate stretches well beyond the boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where a three-month outbreak of fighting has killed nearly 350 people, the vast majority Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands live in refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where their presence is tolerated but largely unwelcome.

In the Dheisheh camp, 45-year-old Palestinian labourer Aziz Hamash said he has taught his five children they would some day reclaim the family farm near the Israeli town of Ramle -- even though their Arab village, Beit Adatb, has lain in ruins for half a century.

On the wall of the family's chilly living room is a black-and-white photo of a crumbling stone wall in a grassy meadow -- all that remains of what Hamash says was a comfortable house surrounded by vegetable gardens and a lemon grove.

He himself never saw the house when it looked like that; of his eight siblings, only two sisters were born in Beit Adatb, and the rest in Dheisheh. But like nearly all refugees, Hamash speaks of the family home with fluent familiarity -- what kind of roses grew outside the door, the curving shape of the grape arbour out back.

To cultivate his children's sense of attachment to the plot of land, Hamash takes them to visit it. They do not have permission to cross into Israel, so they travel the 30 miles by back roads, sometimes driven by a sympathetic friend who has a car with yellow Israeli license plates.

"I tell them to keep loving their land forever,'' said Hamash. "I tell them, 'Look at it. This is ours.' ''

The children give every sign of believing it. When asked if she'd live there someday, 9-year-old Fairouz, in a pink sweater and glittery hairband, replied with perfect assurance, "Of course I will. It's mine.''

On one clandestine visit, Hamash said, the family was caught and detained for hours by Israeli police. Pointing to his 10-year-old son Ziad, Hamash said: "He told me, 'Dad, don't worry. Someday we won't have to sneak around to come to our home.'''

The refugee dilemma has grown greater over time -- from about 1 million, according to the United Nations, in 1950, to nearly four times that today.

The Hamash family is a case in point. Mother and father and two little girls fled in 1948; now they are a 40-member clan in Dheisheh.

Israel has always flatly refused to discuss repatriation, saying that absorbing any significant number of Palestinian refugees would threaten its national character, swamping the country's 5 million Jews. Current peace proposals are said to call for Israel accepting a very small number of refugees for reunions with direct blood relatives.

Yossi Sarid, a dovish confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said he sympathized with the refugees' plight -- "Their situation has been horrible for decades'' -- but insisted Palestinians know returning to former homes in Israel is unrealistic.

"We have no obligation to fulfil their dreams,'' he told Israel radio Tuesday. "Dreams are hard to fulfil -- you wake up at some point. ... The Palestinians know it can't happen inside Israeli borders.''

Perhaps reflecting that, camps like Dheisheh are striking for their air of permanence. Rather than being encampments, as their name implies, they are more like cities -- rundown, ramshackle ones -- with schools and clinics, shops and mosques.

For many refugees, though, all that keeps them going is a sense that their stay, as long as it has already been, is temporary.

"My flowers are plastic, not like the real ones I would grow in my own garden,'' said Hamash's wife, Miasr, 38, gesturing at a vase. "When we are home, I'll make the house nice, much nicer than this, because it will be ours forever.''

Reports suggest a Palestinian repudiation of "right of return'' would be sweetened by a massive infusion of international aid to pay compensation to families or even relocate them in countries willing to take them in. But most spurn that idea.

"We want our own land. We don't want money for it, and we don't want other land in Palestine or anywhere else,'' said Hamash, his voice rising with agitation. "Even if it's heaven, it's not enough. I don't want heaven. I want my land.''

Anger among the refugees poses a festering long-term threat to any accord. It is no coincidence that camp children are disproportionately represented in the ranks of young stone-throwers who challenge Israeli troops almost daily. Many wind up dead or injured.

Hamash advised his son Zeiyd, 15, to take a different path.

"I tell him not to get himself killed throwing stones, not to throw his life away,'' he said calmly. "He should wait until he is a little older, get a weapon and get trained to fight. Arafat is weak now, and might have to agree to what the Americans say. But my sons will be strong and fight to get our land back.''

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