BAQAA CAMP, JORDAN - The aroma of toasted coffee mixes with sounds of vendors shouting from behind shabby stalls in the market of the Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees.
Young students chase each other as they run to catch the morning school assembly, as hundreds of residents hurriedly pass stalls laden with fruits, vegetables, sweets and shoes.
It's another day in this congested camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the Middle East and one of 13 camps in the kingdom. But for Salman Sweirki, 68, it’s a sad day.
The Palestinian refugee from Beir Saba, now an Israeli city called Beersheba, feels frustrated and shell-shocked since Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ interview with Israeli television about Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Abbas said in the interview earlier this month that he would not want to return to his home town of Safed permanently, and rather visit the city as a tourist.
Sweirki said he was left "speechless" when he learnt of Abbas’ remarks. Sitting in front of a perfume shop, Sweirki rolled a tobacco cigarette and gazed in the air.
"Nothing will make me give up my right to return," he said, insisting this right is what kept him going throughout his life.
Sweirki left his town at the age of four with his parents, who have since passed away. Now he has 10 children, most of them are married and have children of their own.
In another corner of the busy market, Mohammad Salem runs a barber shop, which turns to a political saloon in the evening. Salem says the topic of Abbas’s statement was hot in the agenda in recent days, mostly among supporters of Fatah and Hamas. He admits that Fatah supporters tried to distance themselves from Abbas.
"The words of Abbas were his death certificate. He is no longer considered the leader of the Palestinians," said Salem.
In this kingdom of 7.5 million people, where the majority are of Palestinian origin, the issue of right of return is highly sensitive. Parents or grandparents of the camp’s residents arrived in Jordan after the 1948 war, which lead to the creation of Israel and mass exodus of Palestinians.
The issue of return is also sensitive for East Bank Jordanians, who worry that Palestinians would want more civil rights if they are permanently settled in the kingdom.
Describing Abbas’s comments as a direct threat to Jordan national interests, Islamist leader Mohammad Salem from the Wehdat camp said Abbas only represents himself, and Jordan should ban him from entering its territory.
"Once again Abbas appears before us to provoke emotions of millions of Palestinians around the world. Nobody elected him and he only represents Israeli interests," said Salem, adding that Jordan must take action against Abbas’s comments as they represent a direct threat to its national interests.
"The kingdom has at least two million officially registered refugees, and another three million who want to return to their homeland. Abbas has risked angering not only the Palestinians, but also the Jordanians who could retaliate against Palestinians," he told The Media Line.
Meanwhile, analysts in Jordan believe Abbas blundered in his interview, despite his intention to influence the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election.
Oreib al Ranwatwee, a researcher and communist in the al Dustour daily, believes Abbas’s verbal concessions were meant to influence Israeli voters, expressing doubt that the move would change the direction of Israeli voters.
"Regrettably, such a statement, which was meant to create friction in the Israeli leadership, only helped increase the gap among Palestinian groups and within Fatah itself," he told The Media Line.
Rentawee believes the statement would only weaken the position of Palestinian negotiators in future talks and help the right wing in Israel hold on to its agenda of denying Palestinians’ right of return, even at a limited scale.
Abbas’s statement provoked fury among activists lobbying for right of return to be included in peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israel. During a protest in Amman, demonstrators threw shoes at a picture of Abbas, describing him as an agent of the Mossad secret service and vowing to never let go of the right of return.
The protest, held in front of the Palestinian embassy in Amman, was organized by a Palestinian group called the Committee for Defending the Right of Return.
In his busy barber shop, Salem referred to the Islamist khalifa Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem 90 years after its capture by the Crusaders.
"We do not want compensation, we don’t want a tourist visit to so-called Israel, we want to return to our homeland. If not today, tomorrow, if not in 100 years," he said.
For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org
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