A long wait to point of no return

r No haggling over refugees' right to return, Arab leaders said yesterday.

Israelis have been impressively industrious since their war of independence in 1948 - when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes - building the Middle East's most advanced economy, its most powerful military, and its most vibrant democracy.

Moussa Mohammed Mansour has been working hard, too, selling everything from peanuts to diapers at his dry-goods shop in a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp outside the Jordanian capital. But mainly he has been waiting to go home, to a village outside what is now the Israeli city of Ramle.

For Mr. Mansour, white-stubbled and round-faced, the idea of a return to this village is the leading article of a deeply held faith. Yesterday, as a winter sun broke through an overcast sky and lit the muddy streets and cement architecture of the Baqaa camp, his eyes reddened with tears as he pondered what a settlement with the Israelis might mean. "There is no point in negotiations or a peace deal if I can't go home," he said.

But Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's con-

ditional acceptance of President Clinton's plan for a peace deal with Israel brings the sides another step closer to a negotiated settlement - one that in all likelihood will not include a Mansour homecoming. The key feature of the Clinton proposal is that Palestinians renounce their long-held insistence on their "right of return" in exchange for Israel's agreement that Palestinians should have sovereignty over some parts of Jerusalem.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials say they are skeptical that a peace deal can be reached during the final two weeks of the Clinton administration. But the outgoing US president seems willing to try to bring the two sides together for a final round of negotiations on his watch.

At the same time, most Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree that a negotiated peace is their only option. The Palestinians have already recognized Israel's right to exist on the borders it maintained before the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, in which it seized the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Today, Israeli leaders appear willing to cede most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, but they are adamantly opposed to any wholesale return of Palestinians to homelands inside those 1967 borders. Most Israelis fear the influx will tip the demographic balance away from Israeli Jews and alter the character of the Jewish state.

So someday, Mansour and those like him will have to be told that they can't go home again. They might well become citizens in a state called Palestine and receive financial compensation for their loss, but few if any will return to lands inside Israel proper.

These refugees will be a very tough audience for the Palestinian leadership. And the success of any negotiated settlement will depend in large part on how Palestinians with ancestral lands inside Israel react to the news that something for which they have waited more than 50 years is not going to happen. It's hard to say exactly how many Palestinians share Mansour's view. But in places like Baqaa and other refugee camps, the charged atmosphere compounded by three months of Israeli-Palestinian violence discourages refugees from saying they would be willing to cede their claims.

Compounding the difficulty is that these refugees have been nurtured in their waiting by their leaders, who have insisted that their rights would be fulfilled and that the hardships of the present would pay off in the end.

Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo with Mr. Arafat yesterday adamantly supported that position. They claimed the Palestinian refugees have a "sacred" right to return to Israel, notwithstanding the fact that most Palestinians say Arab support for their cause has been half-hearted and ineffective.

The population of the Baqaa camp is approximately 120,000, meaning it holds nearly a tenth of 1.5 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The UN says there are nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees - people displaced in 1948 and 1967, and their offspring - mainly here, in Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.

For many of these people, conditions have been grim. "Is this a living?" asks one woman at Baqaa who won't give her name, asking that she be called "daughter of Palestine." The camp is a colorless combination of concrete dwellings and mostly unpaved roads.

Some Palestinian leaders and intellectuals argue that the "right of return" can be satisfied with a more honest accounting of what happened in 1948. In recent decades, some Israeli historians have begun to say that the Arab exodus was not a voluntary exit but the result of deliberate efforts to rid the land of its inhabitants.

Certainly that is the sort of tale that Mansour tells, saying that his village was first deprived of water and then emptied of its residents by Israeli soldiers, who killed some fleeing villagers. Since then he has lived with memories of the new house his family built but never had a chance to live in. He has raised 14 children on the stories of the village and their land.

In 1998, he took one son, Mahmoud, with him to see what had become of what was once their new home. The house was gone and the landscape barely recognizable - the Israelis had flattened hills and filled in valleys, Mansour says.

He recognized a fig tree from the stones arrayed around its base and marvelled at how its spindly trunk had grown so thick.

But a rendition of what a peace deal might yield - an independent state with a capital in Jerusalem, compensation for refugees, an end to violence - holds nothing for Mansour.

"If they gave me the choice of living in a palace someplace or a burlap bag in my village, I'd live in my village," Mansour says.

"Only an idiot would accept such a deal," he adds, fingering a walking cane and sitting on a tattered armchair in front of his store. "I am a human being - that much is recognized by the whole world - not some cargo to be sold. [The Israelis] kicked me out of my land, took away my home - how is anyone going to compensate me for that?"

That such a deal might be signed by Arafat is also unconvincing. "He may be our leader but he has no right to sign away our rights."

Mahmoud, Mansour's son, nods in agreement with his father's words, adding that he feels the attachment to the land even more strongly.

A few blocks away, the "daughter of Palestine" indicates what the options are if Palestinians refuse a negotiated settlement. "I'm raising my children to liberate Palestine," she says, tousling the hair of a four-year-old boy clinging to her waist. His pants are camouflage.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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