Thu, Nov 11, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Refugees fearful of loss of `right of return'

ARAFAT'S PROMISE Refugees worry that the Palestinian president's successor will strike a deal with Israel preventing them from returning to properties lost in 1948

AP , BEIRUT, LEBANON

Abu Ahmad al-Sukari, 70, a Palestinian who lives in the al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria shows deeds proving his possession of lands in Israel on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Yasser Arafat promised Palestinians he would return them to the homes they lost when Israel was founded in 1948. He never delivered, and now many refugees wonder whether anyone can.

Arafat, whose name became synonymous with the Palestinian cause in the four decades he led his people, "was the only one with the stature to wrest that right," said Ashraf Majzoub, a refugee from the Israeli seaside town of Acre.

"We fear that whoever will succeed him will strike a deal with Israel for a Palestinian state to which we won't even be allowed to go," he added. "Then the whole world will forget about us."

From their squalid camps, the refugees have anxiously followed radio and TV bulletins on Arafat's health in the 12 days since the Palestinian leader was taken to France for medical treatment. Fresh pictures of Arafat have gone up on walls. A few refugees marched in small, spontaneous demonstrations in support of the man they affectionately called Abu Ammar, his nom de guerre. His opponents refrained from criticizing him.

"Despite our differences with him, we consider him a great, historic figure," said Ziad Nakhaleh, a Damascus-based member of the Islamic Jihad group, which had been at odds with Arafat.

"Abu Ammar was a man who was adored by his people because he was always close to the people and cared to solve their problems," said Awni Shatarat, 41, owner of a boutique in Jordan's Baqaa Camp, 27.2km northwest of the Jordanian capital, Amman.

"He did not take advantage of the Palestinian cause," he added. "He had no farms and no palaces like other Arab leaders."

The return of the refugees has been one of the thorniest issues facing Palestinian and Israeli negotiators since the 1993 peace agreement that created the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and Arafat's return to Palestinian territories in 1994.

The last offer of statehood, in a peace plan put forward by former US president Clinton in December 2000 would have allowed the refugees to settle in a state in the West Bank and Gaza if they gave up the demand to return to Israel proper. But negotiations died in the Palestinian-Israeli fighting that had broken out the previous September.

Still, the refugees have clung to the "right of return" to the places where they, their parents or grandparents were born. Those born in refugee camps call Palestine home even though their villages may no longer exist or are now populated by Israelis.

There are more than 4 million refugees in the West bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. They all face an uncertain future, but life is especially tough for the 350,000 living in Lebanon's 12 camps. Lebanon denies them citizenship and most jobs are off-limits to them.

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