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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: The UN said this week that the number of refugees worldwide rose for the second year in a row. More than 11 million people were living outside their home countries as refugees in 2007, many of them forced to flee violent conflicts. Officials said the increases could be the start of a pattern as countries also try to cope with climate change and dwindling resources.
Of all the world’s refugees, the plight of the Palestinians may be the most long-running and dangerous. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, 700,000 Palestinians chose to leave their homes or were forced out. Now that population has grown to four-and-a-half million scattered throughout the Middle East, many of them in crowded refugee camps. We have a special report today from Kate Seelye in Lebanon.
KATE SEELYE: In a refugee camp in Lebanon, Palestinians demand the right of return to homes from which their ancestors fled or were expelled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. That was 60 years ago, a date that marks the anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. To the Palestinians it’s known as the “nakba,” which in Arabic translates as “the catastrophe.” This 19-year-old says her family fled from Acre in what was once Palestine.
JAMAL SALHANI (Refugee): My dream is to return to my land, to my home. It’s my only dream. I want to achieve it.
SEELYE: For the past six decades, the story of the Palestinian exile has been passed down from generation to generation. Parents teach their children about the birth of the refugee crisis. Young people keep traditions, like this Debke dance, alive. There are some four and a half million Palestinian refugees. Many live in the West Bank and Gaza. Others took refuge in Arab states. Some 300,000 are crammed into 12 refugee camps here in Lebanon. This is the Bourj al Barajneh Camp in a Beirut suburb, where Olfat Mahmoud grew up.
OLFAT MAHMOUD (Director, Women’s Humanitarian Organization): People never thought they would stay so long, for 60 years. Always they hoped next year, next year. So it’s overcrowded — no privacy in the camp, no drinking water, no electricity.
SEELYE: That’s because the camps, established in the late ’40s, weren’t meant to be permanent, so the Lebanese government bans any changes. Building is illegal, but people build anyway — upwards. The government refuses to provide electricity, so refugees run their own network.
Ms. MAHMOUD: It’s a big prison with a little bit of freedom.
SEELYE: Mahmoud heads a woman’s charity here. It provides counseling as well as home economic classes, like this one. The community has become more religiously conservative with time, she says. More and more women are donning the headscarf. Depression is a big problem.
Ms. MAHMOUD: You go to people’s homes at 12 midday, people are asleep — sleeping, sleeping, sleeping, and this is their way to run away from the reality.
SEELYE: And extremism is on the rise. Outside Mahmoud’s center are posters celebrating suicide bombers and the fundamentalist Islamist group Hamas. Mahmoud says the refugees are losing hope.
Ms. MAHMOUD: So people have been really for many years waiting for a solution, and they have this hope. They live for this hope. But, unfortunately, always they get disappointed. So I use now a term. It’s a funny term. I say my hopes are “frozen.”
SEELYE: Solving the refugee question is key to any settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are many stumbling blocks. Among them: the future of Jerusalem and the final borders of a Palestinian state. But the most emotional and arguably the most difficult issue may be the refugee question.
MURIEL ASSEBURG (Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Middle East Center): It’s so intricately linked to the Israeli but also the Palestinian collective identity, the reading of history — the narrative, if you want.
SEELYE: Given the different narratives, it’s no surprise the refugee issue is so contested. Palestinians demand the implementation of UN Resolution 194, passed in 1948. It states Palestinians have a right to return to their homes if they are willing to live in peace with their neighbors. Israel views the resolution and the possibility that millions of refugees might return as a threat to its existence.
Ms. ASSEBURG: And that’s what frightens the Israelis — the idea that the Israeli state is a state for the Jews. A Jewish state that will protect them, be a homeland to them, could be undermined — this is their reading — by a massive return of Palestinian refugees.
SEELYE: In the meantime, Palestinians in Lebanon face great hardship. Their camps still bear the scars of Lebanon’s long civil war and Israel’s invasion in 1982. While Israeli forces controlled the area, a Lebanese militia entered this camp, Shatila, and carried out a massacre. Unlike some Arab countries, like Jordan, Lebanon won’t grant citizenship to its refugees. Lebanon is home to many different religious communities. There’s fear the delicate sectarian balance here could be threatened by naturalizing Palestinians, who are mainly Sunni Muslim. That’s according to this camp resident.
BASHIR MAHMOUD FAAR (through translator, Resident, Bourj al Barajneh Camp): The Lebanese are terrible to us. They don’t like us. As long as you have a Palestinian ID you’ll never be accepted.
SEELYE: Palestinians have no legal status. They’re not allowed to own property or compete for jobs. This refugee earns a little more than $200 a month giving private lessons at home.
IBRAHIM MAROUF (Shatila Resident): I have three certificates. This one is from the Beirut Professional Center, and it’s for business accounting or chief accounting.
SEELYE: But like most men in Shatila Camp, Marouf can’t find decent work.
Mr. MAROUF: If me and you now began to count the jobs that I am not allowed to work with they are too much — seventy-three. I don’t have the right of a human — that mean that I’m not a human. Sometimes we feel that we are already dead but we don’t know that yet.
SEELYE: Unemployment is believed to be as high as 70 percent among the refugees, making them highly dependent on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA, established in 1950. UNRWA runs schools, like this one in Shatila. It also provides social services, emergency aid, and health care to Palestinian refugees throughout the region. But while the population has grown, UNRWA’s budget hasn’t kept pace. Clinics like these are overcrowded, and UNRWA provides only limited hospital care.
WAFA ABDEL MALIK (UNRWA Nurse): Sometimes our doctors see more than 100 patients per day — too much patient. If one patient only says “Hi” for the doctor, time’s over.
SEELYE: According to UNRWA officials, the international community has grown tired of giving.
RICHARD COOK (Director of UNRWA Affairs, Lebanon): The financial situation has been a chronic one, a chronic situation of underfunding for decades and — but particularly the last two decades, I would say.
SEELYE: This is the world’s longest running refugee crisis, and it’s racked up a big bill.
Mr. COOK: Roughly $10.5 billion has been spent by UNRWA since its coming to being in 1950. Something should have been done in the last 60 years to resolve this issue. We’ve come very close, but not close enough.
SEELYE: The last major peace talks that promised a breakthrough were held in 2000 and 2001. The negotiating teams discussed several formulas and options for the refugees.
RAMI KHOURI (Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy, American University of Beirut): You have a limited return to Israel itself — their original homes in Palestine; compensation; monetary compensation; restitution of property; third-party resettlement; living in other countries, Canada, Australia, whatever. The creation of a Palestinian state, where you have your own Palestinian government — you can go to that country if you want, but if you live overseas you also get the protection of that government and its passport.
SEELYE: Khouri, who is of Palestinian origin, says the return of only a limited number of refugees would be acceptable if Israel recognized, at least in principle, the right of Palestinians to return. He says Israel must also admit its role in displacing them.
Mr. KHOURI: Acknowledgment is absolutely the linchpin of finding a resolution. Acknowledging what was done — what the Israelis, what they did in ’47 and ’48 has to be acknowledged because it is part of the essential rehumanization of an entire people who have been dehumanized and treated like animals.
SEELYE: But Muriel Asseburg says assigning guilt is a non-starter for the Israelis, who point to the 600,000 Jews who left or were forced to leave Arab countries. Laying blame won’t serve the refugees.
Ms. ASSEBURG: I think that it will indeed be very, very difficult to bridge the narratives, but it will be feasible, however, to solve or to find a settlement for the practical questions, and the practical questions, to my opinion, are more important, and that it is giving refugees a perspective, a horizon, a life in the future.
SEELYE: Back in Lebanon’s refugee camps, some say they are ready for practical solutions.
Mr. FAAR (through translator): If anyone you ask whether they would choose Palestine or Europe, they would choose Europe. Palestine is a dream we’re not going to see it. We want Europe. We want to wake up in the morning to the sound of birds, not to the sound of tomato vendors.
SEELYE: But it’s unlikely Palestinian leaders will give up a right — the right of return, which they say is backed by international law, and Israelis are not likely to risk what they claim is at stake — Israel’s security and identity.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kate Seelye in Beirut.