JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Munir Jaber was seven years old when Jewish fighters assaulted the thinly defended village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem before dawn on April 9, 1948 and killed scores of men, women and children.
Now a dapper man of 66, met by chance in Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, he fingers blue worry beads as he recalls an episode that terrified Palestinians at the time and created an enduring symbol of their exodus from their homeland.
“Thirty seven of my family were killed,” Jaber said, telling how his brother’s throat was slit and his cousin was shot.
Ali Mohammed, 69, said his family had fled the village of Beit Thul, west of Jerusalem, in panic soon afterwards.
“There was no attack on our village, but we saw soldiers blowing up houses in the nearby village of Saris. We were afraid after what happened in Deir Yassin,” he remembered.
Deir Yassin fell five weeks before British Mandate rule ended and Israel was created. Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled into nearby Syria, Jordan or Lebanon in 1947-49 fighting, leaving 165,000 who became Arab Israeli citizens.
The 1948 refugees and their descendants make up the bulk of the 4.3 million refugees cared for by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, many in slum-like camps in Arab countries and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. All claim a right to return.
No issue, with the possible exception of Jerusalem, is as emotive and troubling for Palestinians and Israelis as the fate of these people at the core of the Middle East conflict.
This week an Arab League summit in Riyadh is expected to renew an offer of full peace and normal relations with Israel if it withdraws from all the land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, accepts the creation of a Palestinian state and reaches an “agreed, just solution” for the refugees.
Israeli leaders have said the plan has positive aspects, but others, such as the proposal on refugees, are “problematic.”
The Arab plan endorses a 1948 U.N. resolution which calls for refugees to be allowed to return or be compensated.
Neither Resolution 194 nor the Arab peace proposal contains the phrase “right of return,” although this remains a longstanding Palestinian demand — and anathema to Israel.
Mere talk of refugees sets off alarm bells for Israelis.
They fear that any mass return would threaten the Jewish character of the state carved out in 1948 on land partly assigned by a U.N. partition plan and partly gained in a war with Palestinians and Arab states which rejected that plan.
Israelis say the refugees should be resettled where they are or elsewhere in the Arab world.
Benny Morris, an Israeli historian who has chronicled what he calls the “partial ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in 1948, says “morality would dictate that people have a right to return to their homes” when this concerns displaced individuals.
“But we aren’t talking about individuals, but about a political problem involving millions of people and a vast demographic change if it (return) happens,” he told Reuters.
“So on the political level, I would reject the right of return because it implies not just a moral return of people to their homes, but the disestablishment, destabilization and basically the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Nobody knows how many refugees would actually want to go home to a country that many would find alien, with their villages long since demolished or settled by Jews.
Many enjoy citizenship in Jordan and full rights short of citizenship in Syria. Only Lebanon’s estimated 400,000 refugees are confined to camps, barred from many jobs. The idea of accepting them permanently is taboo in Lebanon, which fears upsetting its own delicate sectarian balance.
What Palestinians want above all is for Israel to accept that it is responsible for a historic injustice which, in their eyes, created the Jewish homeland at their expense.
“Israel has to agree to the principle of return,” said Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi.
“By acknowledging that, they are acknowledging the responsibility. Then you can go into the details of how many are going to return and how many compensated.”
What Palestinians view as a matter of essential dignity, Israelis see as an admission that would threaten the legitimacy of the entire Zionist enterprise.
They have long argued that a population exchange took place in effect, with Palestinian refugees roughly balanced by the Jews who left Arab countries after 1948. Some were forced out, others migrated willingly with active Israeli encouragement.
Jarbawi denied that Israel risked being dismantled if it simply recognized its role in what Palestinians term the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, of their 1948 dispossession.
“If you acknowledge you have done something wrong, there are many ways of rectifying it,” he contended.
Yisrael Medad, a settler spokesman in the West Bank, denied any Israeli responsibility for Palestinian refugees, saying a fraction of Arab oil money could take care of them.
“You can’t start a war against Zionism...and kill hundreds of Jews even before the state is created...and then go to war again, this time with Arab states, and expect to continue to live where you are,” he said.
Under most readings of international law, refugees do not lose their individual rights because of the actions of their leaders, the uncertainties of war or the passage of time.
But in the Arab-Israeli conflict, international law has often collided with realpolitik and come off worst.
Israel and the Palestinians have had no formal peace talks since U.S. President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001. He had proposed that a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza be the “focal point” for refugees choosing to return “without ruling out that Israel will accept some of them.”
Palestinian refugees will not disappear any time soon, to be absorbed in a wider Arab world unwilling to integrate them for reasons that combine principle with hard-nosed expediency.
They yearn for what they have lost.
“I would never accept compensation,” said Jaber, the Deir Yassin survivor, wearing an embroidered black cap.
“It’s my home, my land, my country. There can be no peace unless they let us return.”