The right of return of Palestinians from their 60 year exile following the Nakba, an Arabic term meaning the “catastrophe,” the ethnic cleaning that occurred in 1948 in what is today Israel, is sometimes treated as a secondary  issue in negotiations for peace with Israel. Yet, for the roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees living in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and various Arab countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, it is the only issue. Israel, on the other hand, has rejected offhand any possibility for the return of the refugees, even though studies indicate that only about 10% would elect a destination of Israel. The issue has come to take on disasterous proportions for some right wing Israel supporters, who view any return as destructive of Israel, meaning that Israel would lose its Jewish majority. The belief is that it would destroy the “Jewish state” concept even though the numbers in question would not elevate the percentage of nonJews in Israel to more than 25%.

No Palestinian negotiator, however, could conceivably take the position that the refugees are expendable. There is furthermore the human rights issue and the expiation of the war crime that the Nakba was. Many Palestinians died during the ethnic cleansing. Those killed in 24 massacres that occurred during Israel’s herding of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs out of Israel (Benny Morris), and the 3-500 Palestinians who were murdered after they attempted to return to their villages after 1948 (Jeff Halper’s The Problem With Israel), constitute only a small portion of the total Palestinians killed.

To get some understanding of the meaning of right of return for the forgotten refugees themselves, I came across this article on a website situated in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, the Baqa’a Refugee Camp located near Amman. As it provides a missing voice in these discussions, it seemed an appropriate time to present it since it appeared in some respects conciliatory and compromising.

It was written by Benjamin Sand at the Baqa’a Refugee Camp in February 2005 (reprinted by permission).

Palestinian and Israeli leaders are due to hold a summit on Tuesday and efforts to revive peace talks between them has brought renewed attention to the nature of any possible future settlement. In order for any negotiations to succeed, both sides will have to make compromises on some key issues.

VOA’s Benjamin Sand visited the Baqaa camp, outside the Jordanian capital Amman, where Palestinian refugees fear their rights could be jeopardized in the process.

Grocers sell fresh fruit and vegetables at the central market. Customers haggle for a better price and then move on to the next stall. The streets are clogged with traffic and scores of young children walking home from school. This may look like any other teeming Jordanian town but it is actually a refugee camp, home to roughly 100,000 Palestinians. The Baqaa camp is one of ten such sites the United Nations administers in Jordan.

Mohammad Khalak, 53, says his parents were forced off their land west of Jerusalem in the 1940s. He was born in exile and raised his own family in Baqaa since it was first set up in 1968. He says he now has 23 children and 28 grandchildren. And he says he has promised them that one day they will all be able to return home.

It is a rather common sentiment here and has taken on renewed importance since the election of new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in early January and increasing signs that he may restart peace talks with Israel.

Political analyst, Oraib Al-Rantawi chairs the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. He says Palestinian refugees hope Mr. Abbas, who is also widely known as Abu Mazen, can produce tangible results after years of disappointment. “Abu Mazen’s popularity and support is getting much bigger than before and it will get much better in the future if things go well in the Israeli-Palestinian peace track,” he said. Mr. Rantawi says people will pay particular attention to the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees and many fear they may lose that right as part of any future deal.

According to U.N. figures some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes at the time of Israel’s independence in 1948. Today, they and their descendants are estimated at over five million worldwide. Their right to reclaim family land and homes remains a cornerstone of Palestinian policy and a rallying point for refugee communities. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the mass repatriation of Palestinians would destroy Israel and cannot be considered.

Mr. Rantawi says the right of return is a symbolic demand for Palestinians, a way to reaffirm their connection to their homeland. But, he also thinks Palestinian refugees would accept limited resettlement with compensation in return for an independent and viable political state.

“Palestinian refugees can compromise on this issue within a package, if there is a package deal with the Israeli government concerning all the major issues for the final state of negotiation,” he noted. But Mr. Rantawi concedes there will be some who will refuse to give up the fight for the right of return.

Abdul is a taxi driver in Baqaa. He gives only his first name but insists the refugees here will never accept anything short of complete access to family lands. He says the refugees will fight politically but if their voices are ignored he says they will use guns to make their point. But just down the street a neighbor seems less adamant. He will not give his name or speak on the record, but he says privately that while he wants the right of return, he would never actually move to Israel. He says it is a matter of honor that Israel acknowledge his existence.

At one point as part of past negotiation discussions, the Palestinian side demanded that an apology from Israel for the Nakba be part of any settlement. Such an apology would constitute an admission of responsibility, but it would also go a long way to appease many of the victims of this historical injustice.

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