Palestinian refugees’ dreams of returning home fade
search

Palestinian refugees’ dreams of returning home fade

As time passes since 1948 and 1967 wars, frustration at entrenched status quo grows among those who fled and their descendants

In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 photo, a boy walks by graffiti of Palestinian flags with Arabic reading: "The flag is four colors that shine on the face of the sun" in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 photo, a boy walks by graffiti of Palestinian flags with Arabic reading: "The flag is four colors that shine on the face of the sun" in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

AL-WIDHAT REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AFP) — Fifty years ago, Sobhi Awwad left the ancient West Bank city of Jericho with his parents, running to dodge the crossfire from battling Jordanian and Israeli soldiers.

Today, living in a refugee camp in Amman, his seven children and 15 grandchildren know his homeland only through his stories and those of others who fled.

“The past will never come back. I wish I had died in Jericho and not come here so I wouldn’t have to carry what I carry in my memory today,” he said. “Our life was simple, but very happy. There were good things in Jericho.”

Awwad is among the some 300,000 refugees from the 1967 Six-Day War and its immediate aftermath.

Over the past five decades, the tent that the family pitched about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Jericho has been replaced by a house, and the Al-Wihdat camp in which it stands looks much like any other neighborhood in the Jordanian capital.

One difference is the graffiti proclaiming that the refugee camps are just a way station, a “waiting room before the return” — a message seen on posters throughout the camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 photo, a woman walks past a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 photo, a woman walks past a poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The Palestinians claim a “right of return” to homes their families fled or were driven from both in the 1948 War on Independence and again in 1967.

It is one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For the Palestinian leadership, it is a right that must be negotiated painstakingly if stalled peace negotiations ever resume.

Israel says that in the same way that it took in Jews fleeing postwar Europe and Arab countries, the proper place to settle Palestinian refugees is in a future Palestinian state.

‘We never forget’

Graffiti reading “we never forget” adorns the walls of homes in the Deheishe refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The camps can be grey zones where neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli army exert much influence.

Palestinians walk past graffiti in Deheishe Refugee Camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem on May 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Palestinians walk past graffiti in Deheishe Refugee Camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem on May 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

A small, parallel world is evolving where political consciousness is sharper and despair greater than in the towns and cities.

Politics are conducted differently than elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where internal rivalries are fierce.

“In the camps, solidarity among people is stronger. Even political parties take unified decisions,” says Louai al-Haj, a local activist.

The PA’s security forces do not often venture in, he says, making the camps towns within towns, hidden from the eyes of the authorities.

Deep distrust prevails between the PA and the youngsters in the camps who appear in its alleys only after dark or, their faces masked, at the funerals of “martyrs” killed in clashes with Israeli forces.

A Palestinian from the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades holds up a weapon while speaking to the media at Balata refugee camp near Nablus, February 2008. (photo credit: Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)
A Palestinian from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades holds up a weapon while speaking to the media at Balata refugee camp near Nablus, February 2008. (photo credit: Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)

For them, the PA is a body that negotiates with Israel and which could one day, with the stroke of a pen, sign the death warrant of the right of return.

Unrest has also broken out. At the Balata camp in Nablus, there was an uptick of violence last year when PA security forces launched raids to seize illegal weapons.

‘Waiting to get back on the road’

Still waiting in the Deheishe camp to go back, Abdel Qader al-Lahham, 96, laments what has occurred over the past half-century.

Palestinian Abdel Qader al-Lahham seen in the Deheishe Refugee Camp south of the West Bank town of Bethlehem on May 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)
Palestinian Abdel Qader al-Lahham seen in the Deheishe Refugee Camp south of the West Bank town of Bethlehem on May 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Musa Al Shaer)

Recently one of his grandchildren obtained an Israeli permit to visit ancestral land.

“I described to him the house and even the fig tree which I had planted,” he told AFP.

But he says that love of working on the land has been lost and with it the desire to return to the villages.

The Israelis who now control the area “employ the young people and sometimes pay them as much as 200 or 300 shekels ($56-$84) a day.”

With such temptations, he says, “who is going to wear themselves out growing vegetables?”

After reflecting on the past, he points out his house in Deheishe.

“It doesn’t even belong to me,” he sighs.

“All this is the agency’s,” he adds, referring to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which also provides schools and hospitals.

Mohammed Nassar and other youngsters are trying to preserve the memory of the exodus — and life before it — by restoring a pre-1948 bus.

Parked at the side of the road in Ramallah, the beige bus has been lovingly refurbished, with varnished wooden slats running along its windows and wooden paneling inside. The names of the cities it once visited run in Arabic script along its side.

In their day, Nassar said, such vehicles took travelers from Haifa to Beirut and from Jerusalem to distant Sana’a in Yemen.

Mohammed Nassar opens the door of a restored pre-1967 bus which bears writing in Arabic of the names of the cities it used to visit, parked on the side of a street in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Mohammed Nassar opens the door of a restored pre-1967 bus which bears writing in Arabic of the names of the cities it used to visit, parked on the side of a street in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 31, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

After the glory days when they ferried Palestinians to the cinema in Amman or took Christian pilgrims from Damascus to Jerusalem, the last international journey of Palestinian buses was in 1967.

Then, passengers “with their suitcases left their country for another,” Nassar said. “The Palestinians are waiting to get back on the road in the opposite direction.”

read more:
comments