Special Nakba Feature: Palestinian Refugees - Rootless but not Hopeless

AL QUDS: Birzeit University student Mahmoud Najjar walks with a limp, a gift from the Israel Defence Force. A child of the intifada, he was born halfway through the 50 years of statehood which Israel is now celebrating. Although he has never been there, he knows where he comes from but has no idea where he is going.

Mahmoud is one of 3.4 million Palestinians registered with the United Nations as refugees, scattered across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, who have been swept along on the tide of misery which coursed through their land in 1948 when the neighbouring Arab nations attacked the new-born land of Israel and were defeated.

The Palestinian refugees are a constant reminder of the hollowness of the claim by Israel's founding fathers that the Jews who came to British-mandated Palestine were "a people without a land" who created their state on "a land without people".

Today Mahmoud lives in Amari, a camp of 7,000 people near Ramallah, inside the Palestinian-controlled fragment of the West Bank. The families, like Mahmoud's, are mostly 1948 refugees, as they call themselves; not the later wave who fled in the Six-Day war of 1967.

He knows all about the village where he should have grown up, even though Beit Afa, near the modern Israeli town of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, no longer exists. "My family did go back once but... it had all been destroyed," says Mahmoud.

"But that doesn't stop them talking about it all the time." Mahmoud has an intimate knowledge of a place and a life he has never known, of Beit Afa's families and their relationships, its fields and festive occasions, of what made people laugh and cry.

The identity card he carries, issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is a badge of pride but an albatross around his neck. While it seems to promise exile may one day end, it marks him out from other West Bank citizens.

"Our status is different now. In the intifada we were the heroes - the camp dwellers always fought hardest. We had less to lose," he says. But Mahmoud lost the ability to walk properly. His hip was smashed by Israeli soldiers wielding stones and batons.

He wanders all over Amari on a crutch and salutes a similarly handicapped friend. "We used to laugh even more about it back then," he smiles ruefully. "If you saw a teenage boy who wasn't on crutches you'd ask him: 'What happened to you?'"

The intifada is no more than a memory now, though many like Mahmoud long for its return. "As a refugee now you get treated as if you are less than others, in terms of education, living conditions, even the way people look at you...I'm talking about other Palestinians.

"The Legislative Council talks a lot about refugees, but only about improving living conditions in the camps, not about going home any more...Nothing has changed for the refugees. The camps are being absorbed. Nobody at the official level talks about us going back. It's like: 'Let's even try to forget about our memory'."

In some respects life inside Amari has improved. Roads have been paved and the camp has been connected to Ramallah's water and sewage system. But tension is rising between the camps and the Palestinian Authority. And cuts in UNWRA's $192 million budget have left gaps that Hamas is filling with a blend of welfare, politics and religion.

Mahmoud wonders how long Yasser Arafat can hold it all together. "Arafat as an individual is okay because most people still see him as the revolutionary leader rather than the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA). And Fatah (Arafat's party) is still stronger than Hamas, because it brings benefits like jobs, money and not getting hassled. But I'm afraid of what's going to happen because you are talking about 17 different security agencies.

"A few months ago it was only 16 but now there's another. The alternative to the PA is Hamas and it's scary to think there may be a civil war here, either between the agencies or between Hamas and the agencies."

Mahmoud's fighting days are behind him. He is studying psychology at Birzeit University but has no idea what comes next. He says he would like to go to the US.

It is not an unusual ambition yet it leaves him looking a little shamefaced. There he could get treatment for his hip.

But there seems no escape for him. Last month he was invited to a conference in Greece but Israeli authorities turned down his request for an exit visa.

Condemned to live in the refugees' parallel worlds - someone else's past and the ugly present - Mahmoud draws strength, perversely, from his own rootless status. "So long as there is at least a memory of the land I'm sure it will change in the future.

"I want to be a refugee, because, if I could give it up, it would mean that I have no right to return home. It would solve the Israelis' problem, even if right now they behave as if they don't have a problem. And at least I keep this memory alive. It's not like your own memory, it's a national memory. It gives me more energy even if it often seems to keep me in a prison. I will always try to keep it. The reality of here and now is one issue. But there is something beyond reality."