(7) Palestinian refugees in Arab countries denied vote for president
Associated Press 19 December 2004 http://www.azdailysun.com/non_sec/nav_includes/story.cfm?storyID=100379
RASHIDIYEH, Lebanon (AP) — The three men live in different Arab countries but they share a common destiny and predicament: Like hundreds of thousands in the Palestinian diaspora, they have no say in next month’s election of a president to succeed the late Yasser Arafat.
“If I had the choice, I would definitely vote for him. But I don’t have the choice,” Abdul-Aziz Rehayel said after listening to front-runner Mahmoud Abbas speak at Rashidiyeh, a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, not far from Rehayel’s ancestral home in what is now Israel.
At another refugee camp across another border, in Syria, Bakr Younes indignantly argued for his right to vote, saying that if the Palestinian diaspora is left out, it will be destroyed. And in yet another country, Jordan, Ahmed Khalil, a 55-year-old blacksmith, complained that Abbas was being foisted on the Palestinians by the United States and Israel.
The fate of the refugees and their descendants, just like the Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, hinges on a negotiated settlement between an elected Palestinian leadership and Israel.
But PLO officials say only Palestinians in the territories can cast ballots Jan. 9, because they are voting for their local government and institutions.
Still, even without a vote, refugees form a crucial constituency whose backing will bestow additional legitimacy on the new leadership. And any solution negotiated with Israel will have to resolve the refugees’ plight — whether by financial compensation,resettlement in the West Bank and Gaza, or the right to recover property they lost in the 1948, and 1967 wars.
None of this was lost on the Palestinian leaders visiting Rashidiyeh this month.
Abbas, who is endorsed by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Fatah movement, tried alongside Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to woo the audience of thousands with pledges not to abandon their right of return to their homeland.
“We will not compromise over this right. We will cling to it and we will struggle for it,” Qureia said, to applause. But in Mideast peace efforts,that’s a deal-breaker. Arafat was never willing or politically able to give up the right of return, and Israel flatly rejected it, saying it would destroy the country’s Jewish majority.
Rehayel, a toothless, gray-stubbled man who fled from his Galilee home with his family at age 3, said he trusted Fatah’s choice of Abbas. So did Khaled Awad, seated in front of him at the rally.
The 49-year-old former guerrilla, wearing a wool cap in the winter cold, recalled with a grin how he was captured by invading Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982, then released in a prisoner exchange. He still hangs on to hope he will one day return to the Acre area where his family had land.
“Even if we don’t have land, I will return to live under a tree, an olive tree, an almond tree,” he said.
Life for the refugees varies. In Lebanon, they have no civil rights and their camps are run by rival guerrilla groups. In Syria, they can work and join the army. In Jordan, most have Jordanian citizenships.
Now, many of them feel their fate is being decided over their heads.
In Damascus’ Yarmouk camp, Mohammed Issa, a 42-year-old greengrocer, warned: If the elections “do not guarantee my rights in the diaspora, they will be null and void.”
“We must take part in the elections,” said Khalil, the blacksmith, sitting outside his workshop in Amman’s al-Hussein refugee camp. “We have people in the diaspora who are capable of representing the Palestinians. Why should we accept someone who is imposed on us?”
But not all refugees care so passionately. “Whatever happens there is not my concern,” said Mohammed Jamil, 38, a shoe store owner living in the al-Hussein camp.
“I was born here and I never saw Palestine. This is home for me and my family.”
DITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press reporters Albert
Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Shafika Mattar in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.