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For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality (Washington , Post)

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    Assalamu alaikum, For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality By Howard Schneider Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, January 12, 2001 ; Page A01
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 12, 2001
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      For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality

      By Howard Schneider
      Washington Post Foreign Service
      Friday, January 12, 2001 ; Page A01

      RASHIDIEH REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon -- The stamp of militancy is impressed
      hard on this beachside refugee settlement. Banners back the Palestinian
      uprising against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Armed
      guards protect the local leadership. And the 17,000 Palestinians who live
      here wait impatiently to reclaim homes that they, their parents or
      grandparents abandoned when Israel was created in 1948.

      Along with Palestinian officials from Yasser Arafat on down, and kings and
      presidents throughout the Arab world, they insist that day will come or
      Israel will never see peace -- language that has elevated the "right of
      return" to a sacred cause. The long quest for that right was cited as one
      of Arafat's main objections to proposals put forward by President Clinton
      last month in a last-ditch effort to shepherd Israel and the Palestinians
      into a final peace settlement.

      Probe a little, however, and the cause loses its clarity. Even here at the
      Rashidieh camp just south of Tyre, where displaced and dispossessed
      families have languished for half a century, some of the most strident
      leaders of the Palestinian diaspora concede that many of the refugees
      scattered in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and beyond will likely never set foot
      across the nearby border with Israel, much less move there.

      More likely, they say, the bulk of the refugees will immigrate to Europe
      and North America, get permanent residence from their Arab host
      governments or move to a new Palestinian state when it is created on Gaza
      and West Bank land. This painful reality is widely acknowledged by
      diplomats, analysts and Palestinians themselves, even though rhetoric
      surrounding the issue remains as absolutist as ever.

      "Two-thirds of the Palestinians live outside their lands and homes. What
      sensible person would reach a peace agreement that deprives two-thirds of
      your people of their identity?" said a local Palestinian leader, Sultan
      Abu Alaynen, reflecting the official negotiating position. However, he
      acknowledged, "You can't really read people's minds" about where they will
      eventually live after creation of a Palestinian state.

      The fate of an estimated 8.6 million displaced Palestinians and their
      descendants, including more than 3 million registered for humanitarian aid
      in Gaza, the West Bank and nearby Arab countries, is among the central
      issues to be resolved in any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. On its
      face, it seems immune to compromise. The prospect of millions of
      Palestinians flooding back to Israel has been portrayed as a threat to the
      identity of the Jewish state, while anything short of that has been
      characterized by the Palestinians as a sellout.

      However, diplomats and analysts familiar with the issue say the outlines
      of expected compromise are clear. In addition to resettlement in an
      eventual Palestinian state or third countries, it would include financial
      compensation. Moreover, they say, any deal will have to be phrased in
      language that at least appears to redeem the rights of all refugees and
      complies with U.N. resolutions supporting them.

      "The expectation of many Palestinians and most Arabs is not that 3 million
      refugees will go back," said Farid Khazen, a political science professor
      at the American University of Beirut who has studied the politics and
      history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. "But no one will say that. . .
      . Arafat can't come out of the room saying 'no right of return.' "

      The refugee problem has lain at the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict
      since it began. When forces of the nascent Jewish state began seizing
      control of what is now Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of
      Palestinians who then lived on the land fled to neighboring countries.
      Some remained, those now called Israeli Arabs. Those who left established
      refugee settlements in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that 52 years later have
      grown into semi-permanent villages and neighborhoods.

      While refugee families held on to property deeds and farmhouse keys, and
      Palestinian leaders rallied around them in the nationalist movement, the
      process of resettlement has in some ways already begun, in an ad hoc
      fashion and without any international coordination. About 40 percent of
      the refugees and their descendants, for example, live in Jordan, the
      country that has been most liberal with them, granting citizenship and
      full economic rights. Palestinians form an important economic and cultural
      force in Jordan -- the queen is Palestinian -- and it is not expected they
      would leave in large numbers.

      Approximately 1.4 million U.N.-registered refugees live in the West Bank
      and Gaza Strip, land that would form the core of a new Palestinian state
      and where, unlike here in Lebanon, there would be no local imperative for
      them to move back to the towns they left in what is now Israel. An
      undetermined number of other refugees have already acquired immigration
      status -- or at least long-term residence status -- in Persian Gulf
      countries, Europe, Canada and the United States.

      One Western diplomat here estimated that of the 3.6 million refugees
      officially registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, as few as
      500,000 and as many as 1 million will actually need to be resettled from
      where they currently live. That is a sizable number, but far more
      manageable than the mass movement envisioned in Palestinian rhetoric.

      Aside from Israel, the issue is perhaps felt most acutely in Lebanon,
      whose 3.2 million inhabitants are divided into rival and sometimes hostile
      Christian and Muslim communities. Adding several hundred thousand
      predominantly Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees to the mix could prove

      In addition, Lebanese remember well that Arafat's Palestine Liberation
      Organization, particularly his Fatah faction, played a key role in the
      civil war that broke out here in 1975 between Christians and Muslims.
      Aside from their role within Lebanon, Palestinians' armed presence here
      helped prompt countless Israeli raids, and in 1982 a full-scale invasion.
      Israeli forces occupied Lebanon's southern border region for more than two
      decades, pulling out only last spring.

      Officially, 376,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon,
      although up to another 100,000 Palestinians are estimated to live in the
      country alongside Lebanese. Alaynen said the actual figure of refugee camp
      residents is as low as 275,000. Others say it could be as low as 200,000,
      because many people have made new lives for themselves here or in other

      About 383,000 registered refugees are in Syria, where the main Palestinian
      "camp" has grown into an extended suburb of Damascus. The refugees are
      more tightly controlled than in Lebanon, however, and in a country of 16
      million that is only 13 percent Christian, they do not constitute the same
      political threat.

      Given its past and its delicate demographics, Lebanon is the most adamant
      that all Palestinian refugees must leave. Most live in a dozen camps like
      this one, warrenlike collections of concrete shacks surrounded by the
      Lebanese army. They are barred from a long list of jobs and professions.
      In 1990, the Lebanese constitution was even amended to make resettlement
      of Palestinian refugees against the law.

      Between concern that armed militants from the camps might again try to
      launch raids against Israel from Lebanese territory and opposition from
      Christians and Shiite Muslims about absorbing more Sunni Muslims, Lebanese
      politicians are united on one score: The refugees must go elsewhere.

      "It's related to our national security and internal peace," said Prime
      Minister Rafiq Hariri. "They can't stay."

      This is a position that has hardened over time. It is an open secret in
      Lebanon that after refugees began arriving in 1948, the state gave
      citizenship to thousands of the Christians among them, a policy that
      suited the Christian-dominated government by offsetting a decline in the
      Lebanese Christian population.

      There are few, if any, Christians left among the refugees now. But that
      does not mean some Palestinians will not remain in Lebanon for the long
      term. As in Jordan, some have built businesses and lives outside the
      limited horizons of the refugee camps.

      "It will be studied case by case," Hariri said, acknowledging that,
      evaluated under the same rules applied to other foreigners, some
      Palestinians will be permitted to live, work and raise their families in

      "Including," he added, "my wife."

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