Exiles 'will be left to rot' in camps

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The Independent Online


When I asked Hikmat Abu-Hawsi if she would be watching the White House handshake on television last night, she raised both her hands above her head and brought them crashing down to her waist. "If I turn on my television and see this, I shall smash the set," she said. "The television will tell me this is a great moment for peace in the Middle East, and I know that I and all the other Palestinians here are going to go on rotting. This is not a peace because I want to be able to go home to Palestine, to Jaffa."

Behind her, a thin trickle of sewage ran down the alleyway towards the Sabra-Chatila mosque, an echoing, narrow canyon of children's screams and car horns, a long, long way from the White House lawn - even further, perhaps, from the Palestine to which Mrs Abu-Hawsi wishes to return. Najah Asfour watched her friend with amusement and pity. She is 43, was born in the Lebanese refugee camp at Karantina - razed and most of its male occupants slaughtered by the Phalange militia in 1976 - but still calls home "Jaffa". Ms Asfour's parents were born there, but unlike Mrs Abu- Hawsi she has given up all hope of "returning". Yasser Arafat's "peace" with Israel has seen to that.

"He is a traitor and he has betrayed all the 1948 Palestinians who lost their homes," she said.

There were no CNN cameras in Sabra and Chatila yesterday to record the reaction of Palestinians to the latest PLO-Israeli agreement; nor in any of the other camps across Lebanon in which more than 300,000 refugees from the 1948 exodus from Palestine - the survivors or their children - now live in squalor. The Palestinians of Lebanon and the other Arab states were not going to produce happy sound-bites to run alongside the televised celebrations in Washington.

Their ancestral homes are in what is now Israel, their fate to be decided - without their presence - in the amorphous "final-stage" talks between Mr Arafat and the Israelis. But if the familiarity of their tragedy breeds a kind of weary contempt among those who believe in the "peace process", it is still worth prowling the lanes of Sabra and Chatila, the site of the 1982 massacre by Israel's militia allies, and the other Palestinian camps of Beirut.

Yesterday morning there stepped from the local office of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Mar Elias 39-year-old Khalil Anani. He had just resigned from the Palestinian movement, sick of the Arafat agreement and of Arafat's Palestinian opponents.

"Jews and Arabs can and must live together, not divided by the great powers and Zionists, not by Arab leaders," he said. "I went to Palestine, to the land my parents came from, in 1986. No, it wasn't an operation. I just wanted to see Palestine. I learned Hebrew and stowed away on a boat from Cyprus and landed in Haifa and spent 15 days sightseeing. Then when I wanted to cross to the West Bank, the Israelis picked me up at a checkpoint because I had no papers." Mr Anani paused to see if I had the patience to hear his story through.

"Well, they put me in prison for illegal entry [to Israel] and I spent seven months and 20 days in prisons at Ramleh, Haifa, Ashkelon, Sarafand and Gaza. And they were the most beautiful seven months and 20 days of my life. There were many Jews with me - they were in for drugs or beating their wives, all kinds of things. But they were decent people. I broke the psychological barrier between me and Jews. We talked about everything, about each other. Both of us had been oppressed. The Jews were terribly treated in Europe but until after the Holocaust no one ever made them welcome."

Mr Anani did not want to be misunderstood. "The Arafat agreement is hopeless. All these settlements dotted all over Gaza and West Bank and the settlers' roads - it's like an agreement with chicken pox. I understand why the Israelis want security guarantees. And I think that if we want UN resolutions on Israeli withdrawal adhered to, we must accept the UN decision to partition Palestine [which led to the creation of Israel]. But if there can be true friendship one day between Jew and Arab - not between corrupt leaders and Zionists and world powers - then yes, I say we will one day go back to our part of Palestine. We can be friends together."