EIN EL-HILWEH CAMP, S. LEBANON — An old woman gingerly opens a plastic sack and pulls out a bundle of yellow and dog-eared scraps of paper. The musty smell of history seeps out too, overpowering for a moment the usual waft of too many chickens in too little space that comes from the cramped square of muddy earth out back.
Najeiah Abed al-Ghani is a Palestinian woman who has lived in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, southern Lebanon, for 50 years, since her family was forced to flee their farm in 1948 when Israel was created.
Today she is disappointed because she can't find the one document that, to her mind, matters.
Her fingers unfold one scrap of paper after another, each tax receipt proof that her family members were once law-abiding citizens under the British-mandate Government of Palestine. The little parchments from a long-disappeared past are written in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.
As she works through the pile, the television across the room flickers onto news images that explain much about why the 11 Palestinian camps in Lebanon - and many others throughout the region - have become permanent fixtures of the Mideast landscape.
There is US mediator Dennis Ross shaking hands and "holding talks" with a frail Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Then there is a shot of Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, very strong-looking by comparison, striding purposefully toward a podium and making a speech. News of the collapsing peace process, the rhetorical blasts of lost peace and threatened war, has hardly changed in the past year.
But Mrs. Ghani is not impressed. She can't find the title deed to her father's property, to prove that her family once had a legal right to land in their village. South across border in Israel, she says, her old village has been demolished.
The title deed is somewhere, she insists, preserved carefully since she was a girl.
Her village resisted takeover first by Zionist forces, and then by the soldiers of the new Jewish state. When Israelis finally took control of the village, she says - her father was among its defenders, using a bolt-action rifle - dozens of men were killed.
"Since then, everybody promised that we would go back," says Ghani. "But even if they gave us Lebanon or Syria to live, we would not accept it as our homeland."
Dreaming of a utopia
Voices rarely emerge from this refugee camp. The Lebanese government is mindful of the important role that Palestinian guerrillas under Mr. Arafat's command played in Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, and all 17 or 18 Palestinian factions are today forced to live within the confines of the camps.
The camps are still well-armed, and most inside reject Arafat's embrace of the 1993 Oslo peace process. They still talk of violence and armed struggle, of "liberating all of Palestine," though even in Lebanon the 130,000 or so refugees long ago wore out their welcome.
So they wait, as they have for five decades, living in squalor in the tightly packed camps. Except for this one - the largest and most crowded in Lebanon, with 40,000 people - building materials to expand are forbidden.
Despite daily reminders of dispossession, the reasons for hope are nearly institutionalized. "From what I heard, Palestine is very beautiful, like heaven," says Salima Salim Mohamed, a secretary who has spent her entire life in this camp.
"It's a paradise," she says, adding another layer to an illusory utopia. "It's always green, with orchards. Everyone lives together, neighbors are like brothers, and it is very peaceful." This image bears a striking resemblance to the Paradise promised to Palestinian and Islamist "martyrs" when they agree to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers.
But is dreaming of such a promised land still of value, half a century later? "Of course," answers Ms. Mohamed's aunt, Wadha Issa Mohamed. She was 13 when her farming family left their village after hearing rumors of "Zionist massacres" in 1948.
"There is no place other than Palestine," she says. "When we see Israelis celebrating now, we really start crying. Those are bad memories, because someone celebrates having land, when someone else has been thrown out of their land."
She swallows hard at the thought, while separating seed from husks in a wide bowl. "If everyone goes back," she adds, "we can live as before."
That view is expressed by more than a few of the most elderly refugees in the camp, who remember that they lived at peace for years with Jews in Palestine, before the "Zionists came from outside," they say, and stirred up trouble by fighting for their own state.
"If people said I could go back, I would drop everything and go," says Mohammed Ibrahim al-Kouti, with square eyeglasses and white skull cap setting off the gray of his short beard. "But Arafat only made a deal for Gaza and the West Bank. What about the rest of Palestine, where I come from?"
His father had 120 acres of orchards, Mr. Kouti says. The land, rich with olive, orange, and lime trees, and grapevines was passed from grandfather to grandson.
"When I was growing up, these orchards were ours," he recalls. There is not much left of that wealth.
"We still believe we will go back," he says, though he knows from others who have visited that his village is rubble. Israel now appears invincible, he says, so he draws solace from the example of once-invincible Ottoman Empire that dominated the greater Mideast for 400 years, then disintegrated.
'To forget is impossible'
The all-important proof of ownership of his father's farm burned along with much of his house during Lebanon's civil war. But Kouti disappears for a few moments to find some identity documents from the period of the British mandate in Palestine.
He returns with palms up, and says he can't find them now.
"To forget Palestine is impossible," he says, to make up for lack of such tangible evidence. "For my grandchildren, they will remember that in Palestine there is a house for them."