Refugees size up their old Jericho homes: Mohammed Atiyeh's family fled in 1967. He is returning for the first time, writes Sarah Helm in Jericho

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TWENTY-SIX years later, the primitive old stove was still in working order. There were gaping cracks in the walls, but under the dust the peacock murals were unspoilt, and the place seemed nearly habitable.

'I guess I was born in here,' said Mohammed Atiyeh, stepping into a dark ground-floor room. 'New furniture for the house had just been ordered from Jerusalem. We never saw it before we fled.'

Mr Atiyeh was back in Jericho, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank: one of the first of a stream of Palestinian refugees coming back from Jordan to take a look at what they left behind and to consider whether to return when Palestinians have self-rule.

There are about 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Figures are disputed, but probably the majority are members of families who fled during the Six-day War of 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their future will be one of the key issues to be decided in peace negotiations starting yesterday when the details of self-rule, starting in Jericho and Gaza, are to be hammered out. The right of Palestinians to return to their former homes is one of the most contentious issues.

Mohammed Atiyeh was 13 when his family left this Jericho house, during the fear and mayhem of 1967. 'I remember the panic when we heard that Arab villages had been destroyed. I remember refugees from other parts of the West Bank flooding down to Jericho to cross the bridge.' His family and most other Jericho residents joined the exodus.

They climbed in a truck, and clattered across the Allenby Bridge, the crossing point across the Jordan river from the West Bank to the East Bank of Jordan proper, where Mr Atiyeh has lived ever since.

Those Palestinians who did not choose to return immediately after 1967 and live under the new occupation, were swiftly barred by Israel from returning in future. Their houses and land they left behind have either remained empty, been lived in by squatters, rented out or taken over by the Israeli authorities.

For many Jericho refugees this was their second flight in 20 years. Decrepit refugee camps built around the town are evidence of the first Palestinian flight of 1948, when refugees came to Jericho to escape the fighting that erupted when Israel was founded. Mr Atiyeh's family were among those fleeing from Jerusalem. He has been unable to find his parents' house in Katamon, now in Jewish west Jerusalem. It was long ago declared 'absentee property' by Israel and sold on to a Jewish family. 'I even have the dog licence showing we lived there,' he says.

From the roof of his Jericho house, over the date-palms and the banana-trees, Mr Atiyeh looked across the hazy valley towards his Jordan home - a farm less than 15 miles away. He will be crossing back there again within a few days.

But he may return to Jericho soon - and next time he may decide to stay. The outline peace accord, signed in Washington, makes no provision for the return of refugees who fled or were forced to flee to Arab countries in 1948. But the agreement does allow for the possible return of the 1967 refugees to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It may also allow them to vote in Palestinian elections, even if they remain resident in Jordan, which has granted them citizenship. How many will be allowed to return, and when, remains open to negotiation. Israel hopes to limit the number. King Hussein of Jordan appears unsure whether he wants Jordanian Palestinians - who now make up half his population and contribute to prosperity - to leave. The refugees themselves may not all wish to return to an uncertain future under Palestinian rule.

Since the signing of the peace accord a month ago, Jordanian Palestinians have been glancing anxiously at the homes and properties they left behind 26 years ago, particularly in Jericho where the prospect of self-rule has sent property prices spiralling. Absentee landlords are eager to secure their interests and a legal nightmare is unfolding. During Israel's occupation, privately owned Palestinian land may have been claimed by Israel, and its return will have to be negotiated. Claims and counter-claims among Palestinians themselves abound.

'People don't really know what they have any more. They haven't been here since 1967. Family transactions have been made from afar over the years but nobody has been to check what their property now looks like,' says Mr Atiyeh.

On behalf of other Palestinian refugees from Jericho, Mr Atiyeh secured from Israeli authorities maps of the town that delineate the boundaries of owners' plots. 'This land belongs to a friend in Amman. The maps show if it was taken over by Israel for military purposes,' he says, pointing to a patch of grass.

Mr Atiyeh returned to Jericho not only to see his lands but to assess the potential for Jericho and a Palestinian state. An agricultural businessman, he would like to open a factory for irrigation equipment in Jericho. The talk is of 'potential' as planning for self-rule gets under way. 'It is wonderful to be back, finding relatives and old friends. And it has changed each day I have been here. More people are coming every day. More shops are opening,' says Mr Atiyeh.