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As peace talks pick up, Palestinians demand a return to villages fled long ago

Palestinians insist that a peace agreement include a 'right of return' to the villages they fled in 1948, but Israelis say there is no room for any of them in Israel.

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Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are seen in the background as tourists walk atop a wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City August 13. The status of Jerusalem remains one of the thorniest issues to be resolved in a possible peace deal with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as a future capital of a Palestinian state, while Israel describes Jerusalem as its eternal undivided capital — a status not recognized internationally.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be hard pressed to sell any peace deal reached with Israel in crowded and drab refugee camps like Dhaishe, near Bethlehem.

There is an enormous chasm between what Palestinian refugees and their descendants view as a just solution to their displacement and the Israeli negotiating position that not a single Palestinian refugee will be repatriated in Israeli territory as part of a final agreement. As the weaker negotiating party, Mr. Abbas has significant limitations. 

Only the mosque of her native village of Zakaria inside Israel remains, but Dhaishe resident Fatima al-Haj Ali Adawi, only a child when her family left, still holds on to her memories of the village west of Jerusalem that was transformed into a farming community for Kurdish Jewish immigrants after its last Palestinians were expelled in June 1950. It was renamed Zecharia. Both the Hebrew and Arabic versions of the name refer to the Old Testament prophet revered in both Judaism and Islam. 

The buildings she remembers were razed as part of an Israeli government policy of destroying the remains of Palestinian hamlets to discourage the idea of a return by their former inhabitants. But the emotional attachments to the ancestral homes were carried from generation to generation.

"I want to die in our village. Our house is in Zakaria. I don't forget my country," Ms. Adawi says.

Her great niece Marwa al-Adawi, a 24-year old lawyer, has never seen the site, now a quiet town of red-roofed houses near the city of Beit Shemesh. "I am from Zakaria, not Dhaishe, and to anyone who asks me where I'm from I answer Zakaria," she says. "This is the village of my grandparents and we are hoping to return back to it. This is our right and our dream." 

"Anything taken by force is unacceptable," she says of the Israelis living there. ''This is a question of justice and dignity. No president or any other man can give this up."

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Returning is 'impossible'

But Abbas has shown signs that he intends to do exactly that in order to reach an agreement establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas has endorsed the Arab League's position espousing an ''agreed'' solution to the refugee issue, a stance that in effect gives Israel a veto over any return.

More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled when Israel was established in 1948. Today, including their descendants, there are more than 4.7 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations and living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. About 13,000 of those live in Dhaishe in an area of roughly one square kilometer.

Last year, Abbas infuriated some Palestinians by saying he did not have a right to live in Safed, the town in northern Israel where he was raised, only to visit it, and that to him Palestine was the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Following a barrage of criticism, he later said he was voicing his ''personal stance'' and that his remarks had no bearing on the ''right of return'' Palestinians assert to their former homes inside what became Israel.

But a Palestinian legislator who supports Abbas also struck a moderate tone on the refugee issue in remarks to the Monitor this week.

"The main issue is having our right to self-determination and to establish our state in the territories occupied in 1967," says Abdullah Abdullah, deputy head of international relations for Abbas's Fatah movement. "That's the start and the end, and in between whatever issue arises is solvable. We can't abandon our right of return but we are willing to discuss how we implement this right so that it won't be at the expense of anyone."

He added that any peace deal will be put to a referendum. If public opinion is largely opposed to any tenets of the agreement, voters could scuttle the deal.

Not everyone in Dhaishe is fixated on a return to their ancestral villages. Lutfi Sayed, a barber, says that a peace agreement that gives Palestinians all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ensures open access to Jerusalem, and makes it possible for people to make a dignified living would be acceptable to him.

Asked why he had given up on the idea of return to his now destroyed ancestral village of Zikreen inside Israel, Mr. Sayed, a father of six, responds: "Because it is impossible."

Erasing the past

The elder Adawi recalls growing up in a house in Zakaria with six rooms. ''It was good, the people were good. We had fig trees, grape vines and a lot, a lot of olive trees. There were no hungry people in Zakaria.''

During fighting in October 1948, Jewish forces shelled the village, she says. But they also told villagers they could remain in their homes if they surrendered. The vast majority of the population – which numbered 1,180, according to a 1945 count – fled, fearing the Jewish forces would kill Arabs, she says.

"'We were afraid after Deir Yassin,'' she said, referring to the April 1948 massacre of about 250 Palestinians near Jerusalem by right-wing armed groups.

Adawi and her family fled on foot into the nearby hills, then walked to the town of Hebron behind Jordanian lines. Eventually they were given a tent and taken to Dhaishe, which, like the other refugee camps that have become permanent fixtures, began as a tent camp.

After the fighting ended, the new state of Israel made a deliberate decision to empty Zakaria of its remaining Palestinians, eyeing it as a site to settle Jewish immigrants. Israeli historian Benny Morris writes in "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49" that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided in January 1950 to evict the 145 Arabs who remained in Zakaria. The removal was carried out in June 1950 and a Jewish communal farm, or moshav, was soon established at the site.

Israel: No right to return

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says Israel has no historic responsibility for the refugee problem.

"The Israeli position is that the refugee problem is a result of Arab aggression against us. The Arab side rejected the 1947 partition [of Palestine] and launched their aggressive war to kill the Jewish state. The primary responsibility is therefore on the Arab side," he says. 

According to Mr. Regev, the new Palestinian state that could emerge from peace talks – not Israel – is the place that should absorb refugees.

"Israel has absorbed millions of [Jewish] refugees and for the Palestinians to say they want a state for their people and simultaneously demand that Israel take responsibility for the Palestinian refugees is a contradiction in terms and runs counter to the goal of two states for two peoples," Regev says.

Most Israelis appear to agree. A late July poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University showed that 77 percent of Israeli Jews oppose allowing the return of even a small number of refugees.

In Zecharia, which means "God has remembered," the memory of Zakaria has been completely erased. The mosque's windows are sealed with concrete and litter is strewn outside. A sign warns that the dilapidated structure is a ''dangerous building'' but makes no reference to its religious significance. Residents say they are very attached to their community.

''We love the place,'' says Sara Levy, 67, who has lived there for 49 years. She says that today most residents work in Jerusalem or nearby towns, through previously many residents grew wheat and raised poultry for a living.

Ms. Levy, who has born in Iraqi Kurdistan, has little sympathy for Dhaishe residents who want to return to the area.

"They are stupid," she says. "This place is named after the prophet Zecharia. It is a place for Jews, not Arabs. It is not theirs."

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