Forgotten people cry in despair: Robert Fisk meets Palestinians at a camp in southern Lebanon who say hopes of returning to their original homes have died

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THE posters of Yasser Arafat are pasted from gutter to hovel rooftop outside the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Rachidiye. 'The decision-maker in war and in peace' it says underneath.

But down the road where the Mediterranean thrashes the beach 12 miles from Israel - 'so close you can smell the breeze from Palestine', as one of them puts it - the Palestinians of Rachidiye have never felt such despair. Um Hussein, withered after 46 years in the refugee camps of Lebanon, lives within sight of the land she fled in 1948. 'Yasser Arafat has ruined our lives,' she says.

Her arguments are simple, unanswerable and hopelessly unrealistic. She came from a village called Safa outside Acre, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who walked into Lebanese exile on the assumption she would return home 'in seven days or seven weeks', once the first Arab-Israeli war was over. But like the other 700,000 Palestinians who fled their land in 1948 - they and their children now number 2 million in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan alone - Um Hussein is forbidden to return, her refugee status consigned to a sentence in Mr Arafat's 'Declaration of Principles'.

'There is nothing in this agreement for us,' Um Hussein says in the backyard of her concrete shack. 'All of us have now been ruined. Our homes are in what is now Israel. My village of Alma was totally destroyed by the Israelis in 1948, but it was my father's land and I must return there. If necessary, I would live in a tent on that land. I would live under Israeli rule on my land rather than live under Palestinian control somewhere else. Even if I could go to Gaza or Jericho, it is not my home - if I go to Gaza, aren't I going to be a refugee just like I am here?'

Abdul-Hakim Jerad fought for Mr Arafat as a guerrilla in 1982 and endured 18 months in the Israeli prison of Atlit before returning to Rachidiye to pick oranges. 'I have given up all hope,' he says with a dead smile on his face. 'Arafat has done nothing for us. We have no independence . . . Even the martyrs' families are no longer being paid.'

The PLO used to reward the families of its dead guerrillas with monthly payments, but the money stopped almost as soon as the PLO signed its agreement with Israel. Mr Arafat's financial bankruptcy cuts no ice in Rachidiye. 'They stopped paying the families here for one reason,' Mr Jerad declares angrily. 'They know that our resistance men would only set off on missions against Israel if they knew their families would be provided for if they died. Now, who wants to risk his life fighting the Israelis? In this way, the PLO has destroyed the resistance here.'

These are not arguments to upset Sultan Abu al-Ainein, the PLO's commander in southern Lebanon. It was his gunmen who plastered the camp with Mr Arafat's posters, and he explains the 'new realities' and the 'new international logic' with which Mr Arafat is coming to terms.

'Gaza and Jericho are Palestinian entities that cannot be measured by the number of people in them,' he says. 'They are an entity that is like an embryo growing bit by bit, and this is for all Palestinians, whether they were born there or not. What is important is that our people, all of us, can now be defined by this entity of Gaza-Jericho and they will have a real identity.'

Ask Sultan Ainein why the Palestinians of 1948 do not agree with him and he replies at once: 'Really it is unfortunate that you call us 'people of 1948'. I also lost my home in 1948. But Gaza-Jericho is the start of a Palestinian state that will have its capital in Jerusalem.' Suggest that Mr Arafat's peace agreement has nullified UN resolution 194, which enshrines the right of 1948 Palestinians to return to their original homes, and he becomes more philosophical.

'The 'right of return' is a national demand, yes, and it is in resolution 194 and there will be talks about the 'right to return' three years from the commencement of self-rule. And in the end solution, part of the people of Palestine will have the right to return to where they were born. Another part will go to Palestinian land. A historic leader like Yasser Arafat realises there will be difficulties about this. The Palestinians in all the diaspora will have the right to belong to the nation-state of Palestine. It is not easy for all of us from 1948 to go back to the place we were born. Perhaps a few, a very few, will go back to their 1948 homes.

'Most of us would not wish to go and live under Israeli rule. If we cannot go back to our Palestinian villages in Galilee, I promise you these places will never be erased from our collective memory. But we must be logical and take account of international reality.' Nobody can stop the path of history.

And there it was, the admission that the Palestinian diaspora is going to hear more and more in the coming months and years. The injustice done to them - save, perhaps, for some small symbolic 'return' to 1948 homes - will not be undone.