It is here, first in tents, and then in tiny cement-block shelters packed closely together, that Palestine's first refugees made their homes some 56 years ago.

Several hundred kilometres away, on the border between war-torn Iraq and Jordan, hundreds more Palestinians are now living in the Ruwayshid refugee camp.

They have been stranded there for more than a year now after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was unable to find a country willing to accept their claim for asylum.

These are Palestine's most recent refugees. Yet their problem remains essentially the same as those languishing in Jabaliya: They have been unable to return to their original homes in historic Palestine.

No return

This week marks the third anniversary of World Refugee Day, established to highlight the plight of the world's refugees, and celebrate their courage and resilience.

According to the United Nations, more than 35 million former refugees have returned to their homes over the past few decades. But unlike their counterparts the world over, the Palestinian refugees remain dispossessed.
 
The Palestinian case remains the largest and one of the longest-standing refugee cases in the world.

More than six million people, comprising nearly one-third of the global refugee population, remain without a durable solution to their plight. Half of them lack basic day-to-day protection, such as physical security, freedom of movement, and access to employment.

Rights in jeopardy

The Palestinian refugees are increasingly worried that a solution has become a distant reality, and that tacitly, the Palestinian leadership has given up on their right of return.

Last week, Haaretz published an interview with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in which he claimed to "definitely" understand that Israel ought to "preserve her Jewish character" and that he personally recognised "Israel's Jewish identity". Palestinians fear that such a statement implies that Palestinians do not have a right of return.

Arafat is quoted as saying Israel
should keep its Jewish identity

But Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) legal adviser, Michael Tarazi, said there is no contradiction in Arafat's statement. Ultimately, it depends on how Israel is defined.

"If you are talking about an Israel that recognises Jewish historical attachment to the land ... this is not comprised by allowing Christians and Muslims to return.

"If you're talking about an Israel where only Jews are allowed to return, then you're talking about a discriminatory state and only the discriminatory nature of that state will be jeopardised."

"No one is talking about the right of return as being allowed to negate Jewish right of return. It's only being used to affirm that Jews don't have exclusive rights to be here."

If any compromise is eventually made, he said, it will be done so by the refugees, not the PLO.

"The more we try to decide for them, the less likely there will be any resolution to this conflict," said Tarazi.

Choices

Tarazi suggested the way to balance Palestinians' right of return with Israelis' demographic concerns is to offer the refugees choices.

George Bush says Palestinians
should forget about returning

These include compensation and resettlement in a third country, compensation and resettlement in a newly independent Palestine, or returning to their homes in present-day Israel, a choice that Israel and the United States have yet to agree to.

"We're not insisting they all return; we're insisting they have a choice. We are simply negotiating the implementation of their rights," said Tarazi.

But with an increasingly hostile political environment both at home and abroad, many people are beginning to wonder if that is even possible any more. In April, US President George Bush declared that Palestinians should forget about returning to historic Palestine.

And closer to home, the infamous separation barrier continues to snake its way around the West Bank, choking Palestinian cities along its way. When completed, the wall will have annexed some 50% of the West Bank. More importantly, the "right of return" has become all but a taboo phrase within Israel and its current government.

Ethnic-cleansing

Salman Abu Sitta, General Coordinator for the Right of Return Congress, says recent events have changed nothing.

"[They] will not render [the right of return] more possible or impossible than before. This is one of a series of attempts since 1948 of Zionists trying to sell us their idea of leaving Palestine to them. It is what I call the ethnic-cleansing cycle.

Palestinian refugees remain
determined to regain their land

"On the other hand, we have an unparalleled situation in which Palestinians with their meagre resources have withstood this onslaught for 56 years. You do not find masses of people rushing to streets carrying white flags saying: 'We give up and we leave it to Israelis'."

Abu Sitta, a refugee himself, has been an ardent advocate of the right of return for several decades, documenting every detail of the 1948 exodus and historic Palestine. He is best known for demographic, geographic, and urban research proving there is ample space in present day Israel to accommodate all the Palestinian refugees.

Eighty per cent of the Israeli Jews live in 85% of present-day Israel, he says. Meanwhile, the land of the Palestinian refugees is controlled only by 1.5% of the Israeli population.

"And we've found by looking at maps, both old and new, that 90% of village sites are still vacant today. We also have complete records of who the refugees are, where they are today, their original villages in Palestine, and location and extend of their properties."

Inalienable right

However, Abu Sitta maintains that it does not matter whether or not the right of return is feasible. It is an inalienable right, he argues, and "inalienable rights have no statute of limitations".

"Feasibility it absolutely clear. What is missing is the international will."

"Feasibility it absolutely clear. What is missing is the international will"

Salman Abu Sitta,
General Coordinator for the Right of Return Congress

Abu Sitta blames the US and other Western powers for not enforcing international law as they have in other cases where refugees were allowed to return to their homes.

"You may be surprised to know that the return of the refugees has taken place in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Guatemala, Iraq, and many other places where they have far more problems with documentation," said Abu Sitta.

Theoretically, says Abu Sitta, the Palestinians have the easiest case of all. Yet 56 years after their first exodus, they remain the only group of unable to return home. 
 
"All the arms, all the money and all the Apaches in the world will never break the will of a peoples determined to recover their rights - and the last 50 years are a witness to that."