A heavy Palestinian woman, wearing a soiled black galibiya and missing a front tooth, sat in front of her cement-block shelter on a dusty road in the Rafa refugee camp. Of the Gaza Strip camps, which are among the worst, Rafa is particularly bad.
The woman was asked whether she would like to move out of the camp to a pleasant house in a nearby town. She said no. She was asked whether the camp should be rebuilt into nice neighborhoods with parks and underground sewers. She said no again.
When asked why, she explained that she would leave her shelter, cold in winter and insufferably hot in summer, only to go back to her home in Israel a few miles away. Until then she would remain in Rafa, she said, where her plight is a reminder to the world of the injustices done to her and her people.
It is 35 years since the first Palestinian refugees fled from their lands and took up residence in camps. The conventional wisdom in 1948, after the war following the creation of Israel, was that the refugees were a passing phenomenon.
In the meantime, it was agreed, the United Nations would take charge of the problem. The UN created the Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to provide food, shelter, schools, and health services. Its tenure was for three years.
Thirty-five years later, a treaty that addresses the question of the refugees has still not been signed. Their official number has doubled to nearly 2 million. The camps have grown into cities, with lives of their own. Two generations of Palestinians have been born in the camps, have gone to school, married, and settled into homes of their own in them.
UNRWA's work goes on, a mission of conservation with an annual budget exceeding $200 million. Every three years, the UN goes through the routine of extending its mandate.
Among the big powers, there is no vision for ending the problem. In fact, they seem relieved that UNRWA keeps the refugee issue from exploding. The Arabs and Israelis manipulate UNRWA as best suits their national interests.
''Either dissolving UNRWA or making it permanent would be an admission by the United Nations that there is no solution to the Middle East struggle,'' Commissioner-General Olof Rydbeck said at UNRWA headquarters in Vienna. ''So the UN maintains the fiction that we are temporary, leaving us with a permanently jerry-built structure.''
Perhaps more than any other group, the Palestinians themselves have little vision of their future. For them, the Arab-Israeli conflict is the only reality. Most remain its willing hostage, and consent to be its victims in the hope that they can thereby influence its outcome.
''As long as UNRWA exists, it is a sign the UN supports the Palestinian people,'' said Hanna Siniora, editor of the Arabic-language Al Fajr in east Jerusalem. ''UNRWA's work will be over when the Palestinian state is created, and not before.''
A few years ago, the Israelis built some apartment buildings in Gaza and invited the refugees to move in, at a modest rental. For months the apartments remained vacant, while the refugees debated whether the offer was a trick to deprive them of their grievances. Only gradually were the apartments occupied.
Now the Israelis are talking of a long-term plan to dismantle the camps entirely, in favor of new housing for refugees in the cities and towns. The plan's Israeli proponents contend that by dealing with the ''refugee problem,'' the government will be under less pressure to deal with the ''Palestinian problem.''
The plan, which is extremely costly, will probably die for lack of support among Israelis. But it evokes even more hostility from the refugees. For them it is a sign not of benevolence but, in tempting them away from hardship, of deceit.
The refugees are just as suspicious of gestures from the Arabs. Jordan's King Hussein, for example, stopped visiting the refugee camps in Jordan after Palestinians criticized his visits as efforts to ''integrate'' them and crush their national identity. Similarly, Palestinians in Jordan have resisted camp improvements.
A few Palestinians do suggest that the camps be abolished to allow their people to live decently. The Palestine Liberation Organization even had a small experiment under way. Until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it planned to build some modern housing for refugees living in the camps around Tripoli, northern Lebanon.
Jordan and Syria, home of more than a million refugees, constantly remind the world of its debt to the refugees. But, like Israel, they have national interests that shape their posture.
The two governments fought bitterly when UNRWA, under severe budgetary pressures, decided last year to stop giving free food to every refugee. Now it feeds only ''hardship cases.'' Jordan and Syria argued that every refugee was a ''hardship case,'' meriting full UN support.
Both dismissed the UN observation that Palestinian communities in Jordan and Syria are rather prosperous, and that UNRWA's funds might be better spent to improve schools and clinics. What neither said was that they regard any reduction in the UN's commitment to the Palestinians as a blow to prospects for satisfying their own national grievances against Israel.
''We prefer UNRWA to stay around for political reasons,'' said Jordan's minister of refugee affairs, Hasan Ibrahim. ''We have no policy for integrating the refugees in Jordanian life. In fact, we are against it. UNRWA helps relieve us of the financial burden of the refugees. But it also keeps the issue of Israel's injustices alive in international forums."