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Of war and peace and a family

The future of separated refugee families will be a major question for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2000


One room is tiny, with cots for couches; the other spacious, with stuffed sofas.

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The first is buried in the drab concrete of south Beirut's largest Palestinian refugee camp; the second tucked in a pleasant green village in northern Israel.

Though just a two-hour drive from one another, the homes of the Shihadi siblings are worlds apart.

Separated during the 1948 war that followed Israel's founding, the Shihadis are one of many Palestinian families living separate lives on opposite sides of a hostile border. Five decades ago, part of the family fled to Lebanon, eventually winding up in the Borj el-Barajneh Refugee Camp. Others found a haven in villages like Masraa, whose residents yielded to a wary peace with their conquerors and soon became reluctant citizens of the state of Israel.

Now the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is emerging as a major question facing Israeli and Palestinian leaders as they attempt to reach a peace deal.

Palestinians count 3 to 4 million refugees and their descendants and want them all to have the "right of return" to their homes. Israel says the figure is between 300,000 and 1 million, and maintains that it could never agree to such an influx of refugees, which would tip the country's precarious Arab-Jewish demographic balance in the Palestinians' favor. Israel has instead floated the idea of financial compensation, with help, it hopes, from donor nations.

But beyond the level of geopolitical considerations - such as questions of whether Lebanon, Jordan and Syria would agree to absorb refugees they've largely kept as a people apart - lie complex social quandaries.

Assisted by relatives in Denmark, the Shihadi siblings have managed to stay in touch over decades of separation. But can families separated for nearly two generations ever really reunite?

The question is complicated by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's negotiating on behalf of refugees who say they have no interest in living in his state-in-the-making in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rather, they insist on returning to villages they left in 1948, which in many cases no longer exist, and are often on land now part of Israel proper.

While it's unlikely Israel will open the floodgate to Palestinian repatriation, it is within Israel's own borders that the relatives of many camp-dwelling refugees reside. And it is those relatives - people who now enjoy Israeli social benefits, vote in Israeli elections, and even consider their identities to be as Israeli as they are Palestinian - whose lives have grown in such a different direction from their kin in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

As with the Shihadi family, brothers and sisters, parents and children split all those years ago as they hastily chose escape routes to safety - north into Lebanon; or south, risking a return to a country that, in their eyes, was now enemy territory. Some relatives fled back to villages that had made a truce with Israel; others sought refuge in Arab countries.

"We were terrified that the Israelis would come, so everyone was leaving the villages," says Saddem Shihadi's wife, Alia. "We took a few pieces of clothing some mattresses, but we left our homes, our property, everything."

Saddem's brother Feisel, the eldest surviving sibling of what were nine children, appears and shuffles in, cane first, to tell his part of the story. "We didn't have any weapons, and they [local leaders] told us that the Arab armies want us to leave, that they're coming to defend us, and we could go back to our homes in two weeks," he says.

Most never came back. Quikat, their native village, was destroyed and later became an Israeli kibbutz. Two of the sisters followed their husbands turning back and seeking a haven in places like Masraa, then a primarily Druse village whose mukhtar - something like a mayor - made peace with the Israelis.