Of war and peace and a family

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

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

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.

For those who saw no choice but to flee to Lebanon, the road was rough. Alia and Saddem lived in tents with their first two children and moved to other shanty camps until the Lebanese government, disinclined to do anything to make the refugees' presence permanent, succumbed to pressure to build them homes in 1975. With Palestinians barred from most professions in Lebanon, they struggled to raise 11 children on day wages from construction jobs and other menial labor.

Now, deep inside the overcrowded, concrete maze of Borj el-Barajneh, where alleys are too narrow for cars and the sun is often blocked out by the density of bodies and buildings, Saddem dreams of going back to the land he farmed as a young man.

"I'd rather be there, even if I had to live under a tree or in a tent," says Saddem. He would not settle, he adds, for a home near Ramallah or Nablus - West Bank cities now under Palestinian control - nor for financial compensation. "The West Bank is for people who live in the West Bank. I want to go back to Quikat," he says, an area that now lies between the cities of Haifa and Nahariya.

Unlike most refugees, Saddem found a way to go home again - albeit for a short visit, and not to the home he remembered. He received permission from Israel to visit his sisters in 1993. What he found in his 40-day stay was not just the strange joy of embracing grown nieces and nephews he had never met. There was also a certain awkwardness with how comfortable they were among their Israeli neighbors he has spent a lifetime cursing.

"I felt so happy, it was like going to a wedding," says Saddem."But the country is completely destroyed. I want to go back to Palestine."

His relatives, however, are living in Israel. In an interview with his sister Mariam and her family, that is evident in the Hebrew on the T-shirt her son wears, in the Hebrew slang that peppers their Arabic, in the cars that sit outside a pretty, white-washed home on a street that is typical Israeli suburbia.

It is apparent, most of all, in the fact that his sister's children see working and getting along with the Israelis as a natural part of life.

"My relatives in Lebanon don't believe that Jews and Arabs here can actually talk to each other and be friends," says Mahmoud Hasarmi, Mariam's son. "When he visited, my uncle was really shocked. He thought he was in danger all the time. Our relatives think the Israelis are shooting at us all the time, and they have no idea what it's like."

On the contrary, life for them and other Israeli Arabs - who make up about 18 percent of the Israeli populace - is generally quiet, if full of contradictions. They enjoy most of the national benefits other Israelis do - virtually free education, health-care, social security, and child allowances. But while Israel has offered them a better standard of living than they would find in most surrounding Arab countries, Palestinians with Israeli identity cards - as some prefer to call themselves - say that they will always be treated as second-class citizens in a state that defines itself as Jewish.

While the word "Israel" never passes her siblings' lips - such mention would convey recognition - Mariam voted in the Israeli elections last year. She gave her vote to Ehud Barak in the hope he would agree to a deal on the refugee problem and bring her family back together again.

"I am an Israeli citizen," says Mariam. But she adds: "All these people should go back to where they're from. The Yemenites, the Russians, they should all go back to their countries or find another country to live in. I don't love them. The Jews are responsible for separating me and my family."

Her children, now in their 30s, shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Many in their generation, aware of what their parents suffered, have moved on to a new coexistence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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