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For Many Palestinians, Right of Return Is Primarily Theoretical

Hussein Refugee Camp, Amman, Jordan – With spiky hair propped up by loads of gel, and a goatee with shaved vertical strips, Khaled Jamal would make a hip hair stylist in any Western metropolis. But Jamal, 22, is a Palestinian refugee, born in Amman to a family from Jaffa and Kafr ’Ana. His life centers on the corner of Alley #48 and Ein Jalout Street in the Jabal Hussein Refugee Camp, where he runs Khaled Professional Hair Salon, a tiny, rundown shop with just enough space for two old-fashioned barber chairs and a bench for waiting customers and talkative friends.

Though he wants out of the cramped camp of narrow alleys and squalid cement-block shacks, where he lives with some 30,000 other refugees, Jamal says that if he were to be given the right to return to his family’s ancestral land in modern-day Israel, he’d rather stay put.

“For me, I won’t return,” Jamal said. “I was born here, grew up here, live my life here and work here. I have nothing there — no friends, no work. I don’t know that place.”

Estimates say that the survivors and descendants of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence now number 4.5 million. Although nearly all say that they want the right to return to their old homes — that is, to choose whether or not they would like to return — many are not interested in implementing that right.

In 10 days of traveling through Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan and meeting with Palestinians in each place, the overwhelming impression was of individuals preferring to make lives in the places where they live. Their stories seemed to illustrate the evolving hopes of a people whose circumstances have changed in the decades since their families fled with only what they could carry on their backs. Economically, politically and culturally, Israel and the future Palestinian state do not answer the needs and dreams of every Palestinian refugee.

It’s not only the members of the younger generation who prefer not to live within Israel’s borders. Older refugees also say that they would not go back. “I cannot live alone in Israel,” said Mohammad Lutfi Dassan, 58. Dassan’s parents also came from Kufr ’Ana. “I need my people,” he said. “In Arabic there is a saying: Paradise without people is worthless.”

Dassan was born in a West Bank refugee camp, months after his family fled the Israeli forces that captured his village. The recently retired electrical engineer, a father of six, has lived all his life in Kuwait and Jordan. Today he is deputy director of the Kufr ’Ana Unity Center, established in Amman by ex-villagers who succeeded financially, for the purpose of helping those who didn’t. Dassan estimates that some 20,000 survivors and descendants from the original 3,000 villagers are spread across Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the West Bank.

Moving to a future Palestinian state was not an option to him. “I’d rather stay in Jordan,” Dassan said in English. Nor did relocation to a foreign country attract him. “I visited Canada,” he said. “I didn’t like it. You know, we are old. It’s difficult to change one’s manner. But maybe for my children it’s okay.”

Some younger-generation refugees, like Jamal, hope that any eventual plan will include resettlement in a Western country. Exposed to the West through satellite TV and the Internet, many would like nothing better than to leave the region behind, along with its dictatorships and monarchies. “I’ll take a foreign passport tomorrow morning,” Jamal said.

But it must be Western. “Forget an Arab state or Russia. Someplace like Sweden, Germany, France, Canada,” Jamal said. “Those countries are stable, developed, respect human rights. They offer more opportunity.”

A friend hanging out at the salon told Jamal not to say such things to a journalist.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Jamal retorted. “Aren’t we free to speak our minds?”

The lack of interest in a return to Palestine does not surprise political scientist Mohammed Al-Masri of the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. “Time was on the Israeli side,” Al-Masri said. He pointed to the younger generation’s lack of familiarity with Palestine, the terrible economic and security conditions in the Palestinian territories, and the discrimination faced by Arab citizens of Israel as reasons that refugees would choose to stay put or to go elsewhere.

“The Palestinian Diaspora also knows that differences now exist between them and the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza — societal and cultural,” he added.

But while many refugees wouldn’t return to their family homes, they repeatedly insist that they won’t give up their theoretical right to do so. They speak of a need for Israel to take responsibility for creating their problem, though Israel claims that the fault lies elsewhere, because the Arab states would not accept the 1947 United Nations partition of the land.

In Al-Masri’s view, “the refugees were blamed for leaving their homes. For years they have been trying to say they were forced to leave. They want acknowledgement from the Israeli state for the refugee problem.”

Al-Masri maintained, “the right of return does not only mean physical return to the homeland.” He cited a famous July 2003 survey by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Out of 4,506 surveyed Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon, only 10% expressed a desire to live inside Israel.

Dassan voiced understanding for Israel’s demographic dilemma. “I think the Israelis will not agree” to a mass refugee return, he said. “It will not be a Jewish state if 2 to 3 million return.” But he hoped that Israel would recognize the Palestinians’ right to return in theory — as distinguished from accepting its implementation.

“What we would like to know is if they agree to our right. Afterward, we can discuss how we can implement this right,” Dassan said. The implementation would be “in a measured way, which should be accepted by both the Arabs and the Israelis.”

But he said that Israelis also need to show understanding: “Most of our people were farmers. They lost everything. I was a small boy in a camp, I had no trousers. We suffered greatly.”

Individual desires sometimes divide refugee families. Hussein Okasha, 78, is waiting patiently for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be resolved so that he can return “to Palestine.” He now lives down the street from Khaled’s salon in the Hussein camp, but he’s originally from Ramleh, which was once an Arab city with a few Jews but now is mostly Jewish with some Arabs.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever return to Ramleh, because “the Jews don’t want us,” but he would love to move to the West Bank. “I have children who don’t want to,” Okasha said, “but I want to return. I’d go to Jerusalem, Hebron or Nablus.”

His grandson, Mahmoud, 20, still dreams of returning to Ramleh. “Jordan is not my country. I am Palestinian,” said Mahmoud, who has been unemployed for more than a year. Unlike Jamal and his friends, Mahmoud is uneducated and unskilled. He does not know how to use the Internet, and he prefers to stay home rather than earn low wages. “I want to go back and farm my family’s land,” he said.

Mahmoud’s mother, Hussniyeh, 38, wants to stay in Jordan. “I’m used to it here,” she said. Her wrinkled face makes her look like a woman of 50. She feeds her family with U.N. food supplies and with “donations from here and there.”

Many refugees in other countries haven’t even experienced the Palestinian culture that’s been preserved in Jordan. “I am Bahraini,” (not his real name) said Nabil, 42, speaking in a heavy Gulf accent as we sat in a Bahrain nightclub drinking mint tea. An electrical engineer, he was born and bred in Bahrain and works for the Bahraini government, but he is officially classified as a displaced Palestinian.

As Bahraini and Lebanese male singers performed onstage, Nabil told me how his family became refugees. In the mid-1960s, his father left Gaza to study abroad. After the 1967 war, Israel prevented him and thousands of others from returning to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Nabil has visited his father’s home, and has met his own aunts and uncles, but he has no desire to live there. In 2003 he happily received Bahraini citizenship, reportedly part of a policy by the Sunni-ruled government to dilute Bahrain’s Shiite majority.

“My roots are Palestinian, and I would like to be able to visit,” he said, “but I love Bahrain, and I can’t be away for more than a month without getting nervous. Palestine is my homeland, but Bahrain is my country.”

Not all Arab countries are as welcoming. In Qatar, Abdullah (not his real name), 20, identifies himself as a Palestinian refugee from Jibneh, today’s Israeli city of Yavneh, but he isn’t sure where it is. He shows me his driver’s license, which identifies him in Arabic as Palestinian, meaning he has no citizenship. But life in Qatar is not bad, even without a passport. He serves in the police and owns his own jeep, in which he takes tourists on rides across the dunes on his days off. He’s happy in Qatar. And like other Palestinians there, he hopes one day to get citizenship.

By contrast, Abu Ahmed (not his real name), 38, a taxi driver in Masharat in northern Jordan, has no intention of accepting anything but a return to his land — in Israel. “My grandfather had 250 dunams in Bisan,” he said, pointing across the Jordan River to what is now the Israeli city of Beit She’an. Most of the Beduin in Bisan fled across the valley for safety during the 1948 war. When the war ended, Israel would not allow them to return.

Now the Masharat taxi driver sees his land across the valley daily and waits “for a great Arab leader like Saddam Hussein” to return it. He’s in no rush. “It took the Muslims 700 years to get Palestine back from the Crusaders,” he said. “Israel has only held it for 60.”

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