May 4, 2007 / 7:46 AM / 10 years ago

FEATURE-Sixty years on, Palestinians mourn loss of homeland

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon, May 7 (Reuters) - While Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, Palestinian refugees mourn the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) when they lost their homeland. Often ignored in Middle East peace talks, they cling to a "right of return".

Alia Shabati was 12 when she fled Jewish attacks on her village of Kabri, captured a few days after Israel’s creation.

Now a matron of 72, wearing a flowery blue dress and white headscarf, her memories of Kabri in today’s northern Israel are vividly intact, unlike the village, which was wiped off the map.

"We had houses and land," Shabati said in the living room of her modest dwelling in the alleys of Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp. "We had olives, grapes, prickly pears and dates. We had orchards and fields. Now what do we have? Nothing."

Her life story encapsulates the bitterness of dispossession and exile familiar to about 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in squalid camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied West Bank and Gaza, or in a wider diaspora.

For Shabati, who has lost three of her 11 children, her tale is unique. "What I tasted, no one has tasted," she said.

Her father was killed by British forces during a Palestinian revolt in 1936, shortly after she was born.

Twelve years later, she fled Kabri with her mother, brother and grandmother, along with other women and children, after an attack by Jewish Haganah forces. Her uncle and several other relatives who stayed behind were among those killed.

Shabati recalls walking exhausted from one village to another, finding safety nowhere, until the Kabri survivors crossed the border into Lebanon and were taken to Syria.



ETHNIC CLEANSING?

The fate of Kabri was part of what Palestinians -- and some Israeli scholars -- say was systematic ethnic cleansing ordered by Zionist leaders to clear the way for the Jewish state.

Israel rejects this, saying the refugee problem resulted from a war launched by Palestinians opposed to the U.N. partition plan adopted on Nov. 29, 1947, and by Arab states which invaded as soon as the British Mandate expired on May 15, 1948.

The upshot was that of the nearly 1.4 million Arabs who lived in Palestine in 1947 more than 700,000 had been displaced from their homes by 1949, according to a consensus view.

Before fighting began in late 1947, about a million Arabs and 600,000 Jews lived in what was to become Israel. Israel emerged with 78 percent of Mandate Palestine. The U.N. plan, rejected by the Arabs, would have given it 56 percent.

At 12, Shabati may have only dimly grasped the conflict over her homeland, but she soon felt what it was to be a refugee.

Among the hardships and humiliations along the way, she remembers how some Syrian villagers began picking brides from her bedraggled group, until a policeman scolded them for abusing their guests. "We felt as if knives were striking us," she said.

After seven years in a refugee camp in Syria, Shabati got married and came to Burj al-Barajneh, on the edge of Beirut, where she raised a family with her husband, a yoghurt vendor.

Their 23-year-old son Mohammed was killed fighting Israeli troops who invaded Lebanon to drive out PLO guerrillas in 1982. His brother Ali, 24, was killed in 1985 when Lebanese Shi‘ite Amal militiamen assaulted Palestinian camps in Beirut.

Shabati dreams of going back to Kabri, even if she had to live in a tent again. "I’d walk, as long as I could return," she said, scorning a query on whether she would consider moving to an eventual Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.



LEBANESE RESTRICTIONS

Palestinians are treated worse in Lebanon than other Arab countries such as Jordan, where they have full citizenship, and Syria, where they enjoy civil but not political rights.

"They have had a particular history of subjection to violence and massacre, and of marginalisation and exclusion by the Lebanese authorities through legal and other means," said Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian scholar at Cambridge University.

Shabati’s 35-year-old son Idriss said Lebanese laws that bar Palestinians from 70 professions had hit a raw nerve after he realised his son could not hope to become a lawyer or a doctor.

"You can’t live your life as a citizen here," he complained.

Lebanese restrictions on refugees, slightly eased by the current government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, were designed to deter the mainly Sunni Muslim Palestinians from settling permanently and upsetting Lebanon’s sectarian balance.

Israel firmly opposes letting any refugees return to their original homes, on the grounds that this would effectively destroy the Jewish state by threatening its Jewish majority.

The PLO has accepted the conciliatory wording of an Arab League peace plan calling for a "just and agreed solution" in line with a U.N. resolution proposing return or compensation for refugees willing to live at peace with their neighbours.

"At the end of the day, everything is negotiable," said Basel Aql, a founder of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and former adviser to the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Aql, whose family fled the coastal city of Jaffa in 1948, acknowledged that refugee interests had not been fully taken into account -- "not because we willingly gave up our right to return, but the balance of power was such that the question of refugees did not have priority on any of the agendas".



WISHES IGNORED

Refugees have rarely been consulted about their wishes and have had little say in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks over the past 15 years aiming for a two-state solution, Sayigh said.

"The tendency is to regard them as an actual or potential obstacle to peace," he said, adding that this attitude was not confined to Israel or its staunch ally, the United States.

"A chunk of the Palestinian leadership has also treated them as potential trouble-makers, who might wreck a peace deal."

For now a final peace agreement seems remote, but many Palestinians yearn for some Israeli admission of responsibility for what they see as the historic injustice done to them.

"You need to acknowledge what happened in 1948," said Reem Kelani, a British-based singer who has recorded many traditional Palestinian songs. "If you don’t want to apologise, just acknowledge it, and then just maybe we could start something."

Palestinians in the camps or the diaspora should mark this month’s anniversary by reaffirming their identity, she said. "To me, it’s celebrating the Palestinian cultural narrative before, during and after 1948. It’s not just about victimhood."

In recent years, camp conditions have worsened everywhere as UNRWA, the cash-strapped agency that helps Palestinian refugees, becomes less able to provide adequate health and education.

"Palestinian refugees now, more than at any time in the last 60 years, face a serious decline in services," said Sayigh.

"They are going to become once again the most vulnerable community by every indicator," the Palestinian academic added. "We are looking at the re-emergence of a true under-class." (Edited by Sara Ledwith)



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