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Refugees Look Homeward With Hopes, Dreams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Against the squalid backdrop of the largest Gazan refugee camp outside the Israeli occupied territories, 62-year-old Ismail Ibrahim Abuhayy slammed the leathery fist of a retired carpenter onto the table Monday at Mohammed Muzher’s “Coffee House of the Gray-Haired Men.”

He beamed at the other Palestinian refugees who had packed the shabby little place on the most historic day of hope in their half-century of humiliation, poverty, fear and pain.

“For 40 years I have no identity. I am pushed from here to there. I am shunned by the world,” Abuhayy shouted with a new pride as the ceremony that he hopes finally will change his life was about to begin.

“But when I hear this news, I lift my head. Today, I am a citizen from Gaza.”

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At the next table, Farid Ibrahim, his face deeply lined and hollow after 50 years of being pushed from land to land, laughed with glee and shook with emotion as he considered the real possibility of moving from the poverty of this camp in Jordan’s northern hills to the even deeper squalor of his childhood home.

“My friend, I would prefer to die naked under a tree in Gaza tomorrow than live all my life in a palace in paradise,” he declared.

So it was that many men, women and children of Gaza, who are at the top of the list of the Palestinians with the most at stake in the historic pact signed in Washington on Monday, greeted the rhetoric of peace coming from thousands of miles away--with the hopes and dreams of their lifetimes.

The day also brought a flurry of isolated, angry protests in refugee camps elsewhere in Jordan and in Syria and Lebanon.

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Most were organized and well-orchestrated by the 10 Palestinian opposition parties that have rejected as a sellout to Israel the Declaration of Principles that Palestine Liberation Organization member Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signed, authorizing limited Palestinian self-rule in lands that Israel has occupied for 25 years, beginning with Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

In Beirut, the protests turned violent. The Lebanese army opened fire into a surging protest against PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat by the fundamentalist group Hezbollah, killing six, after the Beirut government had banned demonstrations Monday both on the streets and inside the Lebanese camps that house hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians.

Outside the camps, millions more Palestinians and other Arabs crowded around radios and television sets throughout the Middle East to witness the signing of the landmark document that has drawn the full spectrum of reaction in a region tired and afraid of war.

Public opinion ran the gamut among the 31,000 refugees at this camp named for their homeland, with so much at stake in the weeks and months ahead.

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It was here in this remote encampment, which houses refugee families that fled their homes in Israeli-conquered lands not just once but twice in their lifetimes, that the true human drama and uncertainty behind Monday’s milestone was captured in a singular moment of emotion.

“Wait! Wait a minute,” shouted Issa Mohammed Abed-Rabbo, a 73-year-old shepherd, thrusting his weathered old cane into the conversation at Muzher’s coffeehouse.

“This agreement says nothing about us, the refugees from 1948. Look, I want peace. I love peace. But I want a real peace, not just a signature on an agreement.

“The real peace is not a show on the radio or TV. The peace must be a reality, and the reality is land.”

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The fate of the Gazans here--indeed, that of more than 2 million of the Palestinian Diaspora who fled and lost their homes during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948--is not addressed in the Declaration of Principles signed Monday.

The document deals only with lands conquered by Israel two decades later, when it captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip along with the Syrian Golan Heights and a strip of southern Lebanon.

The old shepherd was born near the town of Beersheba, which was captured by the nascent Israeli army when he was 20 and is now wholly integrated into Israel.

Like others in Gaza Camp, he fled with his family to the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, then a protectorate under Egyptian rule.

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Finally, when Israel conquered Gaza in 1967, the refugees became vagabonds once again, escaping to this hillside camp in Jordan.

Ahmad Najjar, 35, represents the second generation of that exodus. Najjar, an unemployed waiter, was born in a Gaza refugee camp, the son of parents who fled Beersheba. And his life has been little different from the lives of some in the Jewish Diaspora, who coined that word to describe their centuries of roaming in exile from their ancient homeland, which is nearly one and the same with Palestine.

“I left Gaza when I was 8 years old, but I remember everything--the sea, the markets, my neighbors, my relatives, who still live there. My grandfathers died before I saw them again,” Najjar said.

But for Najjar, Monday’s qualified hope was tempered by even deeper complexity of real estate and peace. His wife is from Nablus, a West Bank town that may well remain in Israeli hands for years after Gaza becomes a laboratory for Palestinian self-rule.

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“I am happy to return to Gaza, but I want Jerusalem and the West Bank to return also, because we are all one people,” he said. “It’s not fair that I can go back and see my family, even if I cannot live there, but she cannot even visit.

“But, in any case, we want any kind of solution.” Najjar was referring to attacks by Syrian-based opposition groups accusing Arafat of squandering Palestinian rights.

He added with genuine anger: “We’re disgusted with slogans. We just want to live in peace with the Jews.

“We have our hands extended to the Jews for peace. Just give me a piece of land, and you live the way you want.”

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When asked about the persistent fears of Palestinian civil war, particularly from among his generation, which has sympathized more with fundamentalist Islamic groups opposed to the agreement, Najjar smiled and shook his head.

“Things will not reach the point of brothers fighting brothers. Everyone has the right to oppose, but no one will raise arms against each other.”

Then, as Arafat was about to take his place at the podium on the White House lawn, Najjar’s smile grew from ear to ear. “To see Arafat side by side with heads of state when they did not even recognize our right to exist, well, this is a victory.”

Throughout Gaza Camp, Monday seemed a day of such triumph, and the profound rhetoric of peace from Washington spread such a deeply shared hope that many simply overlooked the fact that the agreement stops short of resolving the complex plight of these double refugees.

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“We will go crawling on our stomachs, swimming--any way. We just want to go back to Gaza,” said Abed-Rabbo Abul Hussain, 45.

Fadel Mansour, a driver who has been struggling to find work in the camp, added, “I want to take my wife and seven children on my shoulders and walk back to Gaza.”

Finally, it was coffee-shop owner Mohammed Muzher’s turn.

“You just cannot imagine how precious our homeland is,” the 47-year-old said. “Nothing will take its place. And now, this agreement gives hope to me, my brothers and all my children.”

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