Father to son, keys to Palestinian home cherished

AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon Fri Nov 23, 2007 9:35am EST

1 of 2. A general view of Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp on a hillside above Sidon, south of Beirut June 4, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Hashisho

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AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon (Reuters) - The portrait of Hussein Saleh al-Me'ari holding a slim iron key and the legend "We will return" hangs on a wall with peeling paint in a tiny room at the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

His 45-year-old son, Salah, was born and later married in the camp. Salah's four children and extended family live in a few cramped rooms in the sprawling, decrepit camp which is Lebanon's largest and houses about 70,000 Palestinian refugees.

There is no immediate prospect for any of them to return to the family home in what is now Israel, even as Israelis and Palestinians prepare to meet in the United States next week for talks on a Palestinian state.

Yet Salah still keeps 18 carefully folded, yellowing pages of land documents that show his father and grandfather own 67 hectares (170 acres) of land in the small Palestinian village of Akbarah, near Safed town north of the Sea of Galilee.

Salah's grandfather and father fled along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in which the state of Israel was created.

"It was winter. A rainy and bitter cold day in February. The Arab armies told them just two weeks or 15 days and we'll bring you back," Salah said nostalgically in the room where his father Hussein died in January.

Hussein's traditional Arab headdress and black cloak hang next to his portrait and a black-and-white photograph of Salah's grandfather, Saleh. Three copper coffee pots that Saleh used in Akbarah occupy the corner of the poorly furnished room.

"The 15 days have become 60 years," Salah said.

FAILURE FROM THE START

Salah recalls how his father would describe what the family house looked like -- two storeys of old stone -- and the Ja'ara valley where he used to play and where the family grew figs, olives and walnuts.

Akbarah today lies 500 metres (yards) west of the site of the old village and is mainly inhabited by other displaced Palestinians, according to a Web site that monitors the fate of Palestinian villages. Only 15 of the original 53 houses still stand.

Before Salah's father died of cancer, he gave his son the land documents and two slim, smooth, rusty iron keys -- one that belonged to him and the other to his father.

"He always had the papers with him. He never trusted anyone else with them," Salah said.

"My father died as one of the oppressed. Every time he used to tell us about Palestine, where he played, where he relaxed, a tear would form. He always used to say: 'God willing, I don't want to die until I'm back in Akbarah, in my own land.'"

He was buried instead in the south Lebanese port of Sidon, about 70 km (45 miles) away from his birthplace.

The fate of Palestinian refugees is one of the main contentious issues which have yet to be resolved in any negotiations to end the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A conference opening in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 27 is expected to launch formal negotiations on Palestinian statehood and is unlikely to result in an immediate solution to the issue.

The conference barely registers with Salah, who says that previous conferences failed to endorse a Palestinian right to return and gave more to Israel than to Palestinians.

"This conference is a failure from the start. As a Palestinian, as a refugee, the conference doesn't concern me. Because Israel wants to take from us, it won't give anything."

Still Salah holds out hope that four generations of yearning to return to the two-storey stone home will one day end.

"My grandfather gave the papers to his son in 1954 and told him to hold them in trust. And now we hold them after my father died. And we will pass them on to our children and grandchildren," he said.

(Editing by Dominic Evans)

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