A matter of choice

Palestinians say they wouldn't necessarily exercise the 'right of return.'

lebanon refugees 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon refugees 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
'Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] can't do anything. He has nothing to offer the Israelis. Annapolis doesn't address our rights, so he can't either," said Yusuf Ibrahim Ali, 52, the owner of a bottle recycling shop in the Shatilla refugee camp in southern Beirut. Though most of the other shops on his street were closed on a windy evening, his remained open on November 27, the day US President George W. Bush hosted Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. A small group of Palestinians gathered around a television suspended over dozens of crates of empty soda bottles. A loud generator supplied power while the refugee camp suffered from one of its usual power outages. Blackouts are a common occurrence in the shanty town that the Lebanese government refuses to recognize, and most inhabitants made do with moonlight, indicative of their lack of even the most basic government services. Though Yusuf and his friends had mixed feelings about the Annapolis peace conference, they still tuned in, quixotically hoping that their 60-year-old dream of returning home might be realized. Despite their faint optimism, nothing the leaders said boosted their spirits. "Whoever thinks he can get the Israelis to agree to allow us to come back has watched too many Hollywood movies," Yusuf snickered as his comrades nodded in agreement. In Amman, Palestinians were not as fixated on events in Maryland as were their Lebanese counterparts. "I am not sure if I will even watch the conference," said hotel manager Shafik Mustaklim two days before the three leaders met. Though he was raised in a refugee camp in Zarka, 32 kilometers east of Amman, today he lives in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in the capital. Though both he and Yusuf share the trauma of being Palestinian refugees, it is the only characteristic that binds them. Yusuf struggles to provide the bare necessities for his family and his tattered clothes with their numerous holes betray his difficult plight. In contrast Mustaklim, 57, wears crisp suits and tells of his travels in Europe. Seven years after the refugee issue helped scuttle the Taba peace talks and the Oslo process with it, the thorny question is once again on the agenda. But despite the widely held belief that the Palestinians have a monolithic view of the right of return and are wholeheartedly clamoring to realize it, conversations with refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria reveal they hold mixed opinions. Cries for a return resonate with Palestinians in Lebanon, where they are pariahs with no rights. But in Jordan, where they are citizens fully integrated into society, support is more a gesture of national solidarity than a desire to abandon a secure life for an unknown future. All, however, believe that the Palestinians themselves should decide their fate without outside parties imposing solutions on them. KHALID HADADA was 12 years old when his family fled Beit Natif, 20 km. north of Hebron. According to Walid Khalidi's All That Remains, a compendium of destroyed Palestinian villages based on Israeli and Palestinian sources, Beit Natif was destroyed following the killing of 35 Palmah troops in the area in January 1948. The Hagana struck back by razing a number of Palestinian communities. Hadada remembers the killings and the ensuing exodus. When the Hagana took over the village, his older brother Ahmed was shot. Later, during the long march to Lebanon, he could not continue and his family was compelled to abandon him. His account is corroborated by Benny Morris in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited: "As Jewish losses mounted, the policy-makers' and, in some localities, local Haganah commanders' hearts grew steadily harder. Two senior military advisors to Ben-Gurion, Yohanan Retner and Fritz Eisenstadt (Shalom Eshet), on 19 December argued that, with regard to 'each [Arab] attack[,] [we should] be prepared to reply with a decisive blow, destruction of the place or chasing out the inhabitants and taking their place.' "In late January, 1948, the Haganah's Jerusalem District HQ apparently produced a document entitled, 'Lines of Planning for Area Campaigns for the Month of February 1948.' It proposed a series of steps to assure security along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Road and in Jerusalem itself. The measures included disrupting Arab traffic, 'destruction of individual objects (of economic value)... The destruction of villages or objects dominating our settlements or threatening our lines of transportation.' Among the proposed operations were: the destruction of the small southern bloc [of houses?] of Islin... the destruction of the southern bloc of Beit Nattif... These proposals were not acted upon before April 1948..." Today Hadada, 71, lives in the Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus. Though it has been almost six decades since the retired electrician last saw Beit Natif's olive trees, time has not dulled his desire to return to his birthplace. "I want to return to my house, my village," he groaned, his freckled, wrinkled skin obscured by his keffiyeh. "I feel Syria is my home, but I hope to go back to my real home. I would stay here if I couldn't return to my village. We left because we thought it would be for a few months." Unlike Hadada, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees have never seen their ancestral villages. Instead, they were reared on stories which transformed mundane rural life into a paradise. Born into what were initially slated to be temporary camps until a political solution could be found, they have exchanged the flimsy tents of their parents and grandparents for more sturdy concrete buildings. Yet though they have established firmer roots in their adopted countries, many still pine to "return." At the entrance to the market near Beirut's Sabra Co-op, women purchase groceries to the vibrant Shi'ite tunes that resonate between the stalls. Young men sift through piles of the latest Hollywood movies on DVDs. But several hundred meters down the road, the atmosphere quickly changes for the worse at the entrance to the Shatilla refugee camp. The music gives way to quiet murmurs. Rotten vegetables and their accompanying foul odors waft through the air. Posters of the late Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat, deceased Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki and other martyrs for the cause plaster the walls. Overhead exposed electric cables slither between the buildings. Its dispirited residents bear the profound scars of their historical tribulations. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Christian Phalange militia massacred up to 3,500 Palestinians. According to the latest United Nations figures, there were 8,370 refugees in Shatilla in 2006. They endure days with limited potable water and a decrepit sewage system that regurgitates greenish liquids into the streets during the winter. The area does not have a continuous flow of electricity and blackouts are frequent. The structures are so close together that they prevent sunlight from entering many of the residences. The provisional camp - initially created to house temporary refugees in 1949 - was never designed to accommodate these thousands of residents. Nestled between puddles of putrid sewage lies a concrete block cemented to the ground which prevents the overflowing sludge from creeping into Hafiz Ali Uthman's residence. Inside seeping rays of sunlight illuminate a faded painting of the Ka'aba in Mecca. Uthman has been living in the same one-room apartment for more than 50 years. Originally from Saffuriya six km. north of Nazareth, he fled during Arab-Israeli fighting there. "We left everything in our homes. It was a seven-hour walk through the valleys to the border," the 86-year-old recalled. "On the trip there was a woman who gave birth. When we moved on, she took a covered pillow and only later realized she left her child behind during the panicked confusion." Lebanon has never been kind to Uthman. When he entered during the long march, villagers refused to give him and those fleeing with him water, fearing Israeli reprisals. In the mid-1980s when Palestinian guerrillas clashed with Shi'ite militias, his son was killed in the crossfire, though he had no part in the fighting. The Shi'ite forces destroyed almost 80% of Shatilla during the skirmishes. Experiences such as these have left Uthman bitter with the Lebanese and have only reinforced his desire to return home. "I want to return to a strong Palestine. I always have hope for this. If I give up, it's over. Palestine will never return without paying blood."As he finished he whispered Allahu Akbar or God is Great. DRIVEN FROM their homes during the 1948 fighting that gave birth to the Jewish state - expelled according to the Palestinian account or a panicked flight according to the Zionist narrative - an estimated 720,000 found sanctuary in 58 refugee camps scattered throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories. The areas are administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), an international body charged with providing aid to them. As of June 30, 2007, there were 4,504,169 refugees of whom 1,337,388 lived in UNRWA camps. The organization estimates that there are another 2.5 million Palestinians who have not registered with them. "Most Palestinians look at the right of return as a holy right," says Usama al-Shunar, director-general of the PLO's Refugee Department. He pauses to take a series of rapid puffs on his Gauloises cigarette. The smoke fills his vast Ramallah office. "It must be solved by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. They must have the choice to return. No one can make this decision for them." The non-binding resolution calls for refugees displaced in 1948 to choose between return to their homes or compensation and has been PLO policy since its creation in 1964. Others are more blunt. "We were here before and we must go back because it is our right," says Muhammad Jaradat, the refugee camp unit coordinator for BADIL, a Palestinian refugee advocacy group. Standing in his center's library in Bethlehem with dozens of volumes on international refugee law and case studies lining the shelves behind him, he explains the logic of the return. "We can't sit until the oppressor says, 'Come take your rights.' We must struggle and fight for them." Not all Palestinians subscribe to this view though. Khalil Shikaki, a well respected Ramallah pollster, conducted a survey of 4,506 refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories between January and June 2003. His data show that refugees are split about their desire to implement the return clause in Resolution 194, with the difference based largely on country of residence. In Jordan, only 5% of those polled chose to live in Israel, while 37% said they wanted to return to a Palestinian state. An additional 33% opted to receive compensation and remain in Jordan. In contrast 23% of those surveyed in Lebanon chose to go back to Israel, against 40% who preferred to reside in a future Palestine. Only 11% of them selected compensation and a life in Lebanon. Shikaki's conclusions created an uproar among Palestinians and its methodology was criticized by Middle East pundits. Today his findings still remain controversial. "The poll is not credible, because you can't build a theory on one poll," says Hani al-Masri, a columnist for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam in a phone interview. "But you can't ignore it completely. Many more polls need to be taken to reflect the change in moods and the situation on the ground. Of course those in Lebanon have a stronger desire to return." Indeed, many refugees in the squalid camps in Lebanon lament their fate. "Those who came to Lebanon are the unlucky ones," says Kassem Aine, an official with the National Institute for Social and Vocational Training, a group that aids Palestinian children from depressed social backgrounds in Lebanon. Sitting in his office in Sabra, he explains their problem. "Palestinians in Syria and Jordan have full rights, but here they are nobodies. They can't even own property." Aine's odyssey is reflective of Palestinians' dismal plight in Lebanon. Originally from Alma, nine km. north of Safed, he said he and his fellow villagers were expelled in 1948. His family made its way to Tal al-Zatar in northern Beirut, where they lived until 1976 when the refugee camp was attacked and destroyed by the Phalange. UNRWA statistics bear out Aine's comments. One of the services it provides is assistance to families termed special hardship cases (SHC). These are people in dire financial circumstances who cannot provide their families with the most basic services. As of June 30, 2007, Lebanon had the greatest proportion of SHC cases, with 12% (48,625) of registered refugees benefitting from UNRWA aid. Syria followed with 7% (32,264) and Jordan was last with 3% (50,199). Of the three countries in which UNRWA administers facilities, Lebanon also has the highest percentage of registered refugees residing in the camps - 53% or 217,441 as of June 30, 2007. In contrast, 27% or 120,383 Palestinians in Syria live in refugee camps. Jordan is last with only 18% or 330,468. Such socio-economic discrepancies have had a profound effect on Palestinian identity with their host countries. According to Shikaki's 2003 poll, 31.8% of refugees surveyed in Jordan described themselves as "Jordanian of Palestinian origin." In Lebanon though, only 1.6% depicted themselves as "Lebanese of Palestinian origin." "I consider myself more Jordanian than Palestinian," says Shafik Mustaklim, the hotel manager, "and I don't think I would go back because I've spent all of my life here. I'm old. I wouldn't know what to do. I don't know a lot of people over there. It is more convenient for me to stay. My imagination can't comprehend what it would be like." In Syria - where the totalitarian regime forbade Shikaki from conducting his survey - the Palestinians feel much like their compatriots in Jordan. "I'm so comfortable fitting in here that sometimes I feel I am losing my Palestinian identity," says Rawa al-Bash, a management coordinator for A'idun, a right-of-return non-governmental organization based in Damascus. In Lebanon, however, the government does everything it can to convince Palestinians to believe otherwise. In 1964 it passed a law, ostensibly attempting to protect Lebanese jobs from encroaching foreigners, which essentially limited Palestinians' ability to work. It prohibited non-Lebanese nationals from working in a number of professions ranging from engineering to menial occupations such as doorman and hairdresser. In all, Palestinians are barred from more than 70 occupations. Shikaki's findings illustrate the restraints the Lebanese government imposes on Palestinians - less than 1% of refugees there own land outside their camps. In contrast, 11% have property beyond the confines of the camps in Jordan. Yet despite their comfortable lifestyle and their seeming apathy regarding returning, even Jordanian refugees demand that the decision concerning their destiny be a strictly Palestinian affair. "George Bush and Ehud Olmert shouldn't have the right to decide our future," declares Sadar Hajj, 60, an unemployed chef in the Jabal al-Hussein refugee camp in Amman. "It's our life and it should be our right." Masri, the Al-Ayyam columnist, echoes these sentiments. "It's not about their conditions. It's about their rights. It's not a matter of he's good or bad, rich or poor. They have this right, whether they want to return or not. It must be their choice."