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The Arabs who can’t go home again

Waiting by the radio for news from Jerusalem, where Egyptians and Israelis were wrangling over the future of the West Bank, Sabri Moustafa dreamed of going home. Like most of the 17,000 Palestinians in Burj el Barajneh, the sprawling refugee camp that he directs, Moustafa has dreamed of little else since 1948.

BEIRUT – Waiting by the radio for news from Jerusalem, where Egyptians and Israelis were wrangling over the future of the West Bank, Sabri Moustafa dreamed of going home.

Like most of the 17,000 Palestinians in Burj el Barajneh, the sprawling refugee camp that he directs, Moustafa has dreamed of little else since 1948.

But like most of the refugees throughout Lebanon, Moustafa would not go to the West Bank regardless of the outcome of the Jerusalem talks.

"No, not to the West Bank," he said, shaking his head. "To my village, Tarshiha, to my farm."

Tarshiha is in Israel, deep in Israel – official, 1948 vintage, kosher Israel.

And that means Moustafa, like many others here, may be a long time dreaming of home in the cinderblock maze called Burj el Barahneh.

Dropped somewhere from the current international equations on a "comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem" is the fact that the West Bank and Gaza are not home for most refugees. They were driven out of villages in the north of Palestine, from the orange groves around Haifa, Jaffa and Acre.

Though they hope for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the River Jordan's West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, the interest of many lies primarily in obtaining a more convenient base from which to carry on the fight against Israeli control of what were once their real homes.

"You're stronger from your own land, from your own home," said Husseim Shadi, 58, in his dark little barbershop in Burj el Barajneh. "The way it stands now, our fighters (Palestine Liberation Organization commandos) have no base. If they get out of Israel after an operation they're killed by the Arab armies."

In a home nearby, with a poster of PLO leader Yasir Arafat hanging on the wall like an icon, Ibrahim Jershi, 40, said he might leave Lebanon for the West Bank.

"It's part of Palestine," he said. "But I'll have my gun with me and I'll get back to my village, Ghabsiyeh."

Ghabsiyeh is 12 kilometers from Acre. Once again, deep in original Israeli territory.

Estimates here vary as to the number of Palestinians who might be expected to leave Lebanon if a West Bank-Gaza state resulted from the Middle East peace negotiations.

But no one is predicting that all will leave. Few expect more than 50 percent to emigrate. Many Palestinians and Lebanese say that only 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinians here would be attracted by a West Bank-Gaza state.

"Look," said a Lebanese named Yusuf Hashim. "Here, you have a business, you have a home, you have lived here for 30 years. Are you going to leave this for a place you have never seen, where you have nothing, just because it has a name 'Palestine?'"

There are about one million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. There are at least three times that number scattered across the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.

It is probable that there will be Palestinian refugees and hence a "Palestinian problem" for many years to come.

As they freely admit, the Palestinians are too weak and too dispersed to win back their land by force without the aid of the Arab governments in the nations surrounding Israel.

Counting on that aid is like counting on nothing at all.

Since 1948, the worst wounds the Palestinians have received came from their Arab brethren. The first Palestinian slain in the fight for his homeland was killed by a Jordanian soldier.

The most serious slaughter of Palestinians in their slaughter-filled history happened a year and a half ago at the Tel Zaatar refugee camp here. About 3,000 Palestinians were massacred at the hands of the Lebanese while heavily armed contingents of Syrian soldiers stood by.

Now, with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat apparently intent on cutting the PLO out of the maneuvering toward a partial peace, the refugee Palestinians seem to have reached their lowest political ebb.

But it is the strength of the movement that it does not rely on constantly rising expectations to survive and even flourish.

"It is eternal," said Mahmoud Labaday, a spokesman for the PLO. "As long as any of us breathes, there will always be a fight to regain Palestine."

There is no indication that the craving to return has diminished as the movement passes to a new generation that has never drawn a single breath in "the homeland."

A study conducted by researchers at Kuwait University found that more than 90 percent of Palestinian students in Kuwait answered "yes" when asked if they would rather have a country than their parents.

The results were almost identical when the youngsters were asked if they would rather have a country than an education and whether they would rather have a country than their arms.

These were not all children bred in the fanatic atmosphere of Palestinian camps and schools. The percentage of students choosing a country over their parents was higher among middle-class children in private schools than it was among those in schools operated by the PLO.

At the camps in Beirut – gray, unlovely acres of concrete crowded with squat brick and block homes – the old men hand on stories of palestine, embellished and enlarged by constant retelling, to the youngest children.

In a plain, neat living room in Burj el Barajneh, Jusef Shihadi, 80, tells his family of the orange groves he was forced to leave behind.

He came here in 1948 and lived for nine years in a tent. Then he built a brick room, with a kitchen to one side. Now he has built in Burj el Barajneh six little block houses – one for him and his wife, one for his daughter and one for each of his four sons.

All his 26 grandchildren, living in the little block houses, can talk now about the orange groves in Kabri.

"I have all the papers for my home," Shihadi said. "This house, this land, this garden, it belongs to me. I have still the papers from 1948 for all my home in Palestine, and I will pass them (on), and my sons can pass them, because all the children have seen the home in their hearts."

Hosni Abt Razik lived for 28 years in grim Tel Zaatar. He lives now in the Lebanese town of Damus. "You cannot imagine how beautiful it was. I used to walk in the garden with my father in Palestine," he said. "Behind we had rows of olive trees, 400 trees."

When Razik left Palestine, in the arms of his parents, he was hardly old enough to walk, much less count to 400.

On the Street in Damus, two young boys – they said they were 15 and they may have been younger – sat in green fatigues with automatic rifles that proclaimed them "cubs," members of the youth branch of Fatah, the PLO's military arm.

"We are fighters for our land," said Torik Mushrif.

He was asked what Palestine was like, and said:

"It's our land."

What does it look like?

"It's beautiful."

That's all?

"I know it's our land, that's all."