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a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
Online NewsHour Online Focus
August 29, 2000
Unsettled Lives


One of the most contentious issues that Middle East negotiators must overcome is the fate of nearly four million Palestinian refugees. Elizabeth Farnsworth has this report.


NewsHour Links

Aug. 23, 2000:
Jerusalem, center of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

July 25, 2000:
Secretary Albright on the breakdown of the Camp David talks.

July 25, 2000:
Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on Camp David.

July 20, 2000:
An update on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

July 11, 2000:
Negotiators arrive in Washington for the latest round of Mideast talks.

May 24, 2000:
Israeli troops pull out of Lebanon.

Jan. 10, 2000:
Recess declared in the West Virginia Syrian-Israeli talks.

Jan. 3, 2000:
Middle East journalists update the Syrian- Israeli negotiations

July 19, 1999:
Experts discuss peace under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

May 18, 1999:
Barak tells his supporters that the "time for peace has come."

May 17, 1999:
Analysis of the Israeli elections.

Dec. 15, 1998:
President Clinton visits Israel and Gaza.

Oct. 26, 1998:
The CIA's new role in the Middle East peace process.

Oct. 23, 1998:
National Security Advisor Samuel Berger on the "land-for-peace" agreement.

Oct. 23, 1998:
Three Middle East experts discuss the land-for-peace agreement.

May 15, 1998:
Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the current state of the peace process.

Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East


A Palestinian teenager gives his perspective on life in the Middle East in a NewsHour Extra report.


Outside Links

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Washington Institute for Near East Policy

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These are the faces of Palestinian refugees whose fate is at stake in peace negotiations underway now. Rasslan Sukkar fled Jaffa in what is now Israel in 1948 when he was 12 years old. His wife left Jaffa as a child too. They, their children, and grandchildren -- three generations -- have lived most of their lives in a refugee camp in Gaza.

The SukkarsThey live in this house in the 'Beach Camp,' as it is called. It is a small city now, with more than 75,000 people. The United Nations has helped refugees construct houses here, building up, not out, because of limited space. This is one of the most densely populated areas on earth -- and one of the poorest. The annual per capita income here is $800. Thirty-four Sukkars live in this three-story house. They all say the main thing they want from peace negotiations is simply to go back home to Jaffa. And that is a desire Israeli negotiators resolutely oppose. The places refugees like the Sukkars consider home, are mostly inhabited by Jewish Israelis now, many of them refugees from Europe and the Middle East. Yuli Tamir is a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Barak:

YULI TAMIR: Can you imagine now a Jewish move back to Europe, saying to people in Poland, or in Germany or in Czechoslovakia, go back, leave your houses -- these were our houses?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Gaza, the Sukkar family gathered to explain their desire to go home.

RASSLAN SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) We are determined....if it's not us, it's the sons of our sons -- one day they are going to go back.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rasslan Sukkar's father was a manager of stevedores at the Jaffa Harbor until 1948 when the family fled the chaos of the war that followed the declaration of the Jewish State in Palestine.

RASSLAN SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) In 1948 because of the war, we had to leave there and emigrate to Egypt; and after two years there we had to come and live in Gaza. The U.N. was the only organization helping; otherwise a lot of people would have been dead by now.

AMERA AHMED SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) I remember when I left Jaffa I was eleven years old. My father was always telling us tomorrow, next month, next year, and until now look what happened to us.... we didn't go nowhere.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You still have your key?

AMERA AHMED SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) I remember my aunt at that time, my husband's mother, when we were leaving, she locked the door and put it around her neck.

DEEB SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) When I look at this key, I say where am I from? Fifty years I'm waiting to go back to my Palestinian soil in Jaffa.

Farnsworth and SukkarELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jaffa, which is just south of Tel Aviv, lies tantalizingly close to the Sukkars' Gaza home -- a 40 mile drive up the Mediterranean coast. The family has returned to Jaffa occasionally, but they need a special permit from the Israelis to cross the border, and it is often refused.

Debating the "Right of Return"  
Elizabeth FarnsworthELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Standing here next to the ancient port of Jaffa , it's easy to understand why refugees like the Sukkars want so intensely to return. They remember this beautiful light, the graceful homes, the fragrance of orchards that used to surround the city. Even Palestinians who didn't flee, who are still here, remember the old times with longing.

FAKHRI GEDAY: Now the house down here on your right…

One of those Palestinians is Fakhri Geday, a pharmacist who is writing a history of the Arabs community here. On a tour, Geday described what Jaffa was like before the 1948 fighting drove people like the Sukkars out. The city was mainly Arab, he said, but with many Jews. Of more than 65,000 Arabs in 1948; all but a few thousand fled. Today, Jaffa is part of Tel Aviv now and is mostly Jewish-Israeli. Geday said 75 percent of the old Arab buildings in Jaffa, including the Sukkars' home, have been destroyed. Those that remain are much in demand now, and some are being restored.

FAKHRI GEDAY: This building used to be an Arab building. But it was bought by a Jewish lawyer, who is my friend, Sewkawalski. And he repaired it and it is very nice and is now renting it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israeli Artist Etti Barchil has been a leader in the effort to protect the old Arab homes. She and her husband restored this 150-year-old house themselves. Her family fled anti-Jewish persecution in Iran in 1949. She has little sympathy for the Palestinian refugees' desire to return.

Etti BarchilETTI BARCHIL: (speaking through interpreter) The truth is I cannot blame people who fled out of fear, I cannot judge them, but the fact is that a lot of people stayed. Over a million people in Israel today are Palestinian Arabs who chose to stay. I have no problem with that. But we were forced to flee, and that's important to emphasize. We've got a small piece of land. Damn it, let us live.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gaby Aldor also lives in a restored Arab home. She bought it from the Israeli Housing Authority, which took over abandoned Arab properties after 1948. Some of Aldor's family came from Europe in the early 20th century, some later, fleeing the Holocaust. She's a choreographer/director who has produced a much-awarded theater piece about the overlapping claims in this city.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you justify living in a home that, that perhaps belongs to somebody else?

GABY ALDOR: Well, it's the same as I can't justify or not justify the fact that somebody's living in my father's house in Vienna. I mean this is really the tragedy of history. In this century people have been moved, people move. So what I can do is recognize their pain and say yes, it is painful. You can't emotionally say "Okay Palestinians, something was done wrong to them," because you can't cut it off from the history of the whole era; and the whole era's history is awful.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Aldor's play, the protagonist, like the Sukkars, long to go home.

Gaby AldorGABY ALDOR: In my play, the guy has a key, but as a matter of fact, no one can come back because there is no way back. So I understand his longing. But my father was longing, all his life, for Vienna. There is no way back, ever. "Okay," I say, "You're welcome. Come here." Where do I go? Vienna? I'm not wanted there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gaby Aldor said this issue is especially sensitive because Israelis in Jaffa and elsewhere worry a Palestinian Right of Return threatens Israel's existence as a Jewish State. Cabinet Minister Tamir explained.

YULI TAMIR: For us, the main motivation of the peace process, apart from living in peace with our neighbors, is that we would like to have a state which is a Jewish state, that has mainly a Jewish majority. And at the moment I don't think that the Middle East is ripe for some sort of mingling of populations and if the refugees will come back to the territory of Israel, Israel will turn into a binational state.

SALIM TAMARI: Well, see that's part of the process of negotiations where you try to intimidate the other side by making justice so catastrophic to your side that it's unthinkable.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Salim Tamari is a Palestinian sociologist who has been closely involved in negotiations on the refugee issue. He has pushed for the "Right of Return" as an essential component of a just peace. His old home in Jaffa has become a drug rehabilitation center. He would like it returned to his family, at least in principal; but says they probably wouldn't go back.

SALIM TAMARI: The "Right of Return" does not mean the practice of the right of return by four and a half million refugees. It means the refugees have the principle right to return as a choice and then the modalities of return will have to be negotiated with the Israelis.

Yuli TamirYULI TAMIR: In this respect I think the same advice I'm giving the Palestinians, I'm also giving our own people: you cannot turn the historical will backwards, and if you do, it will just cause disaster. Imagine if all the Jewish refugees who came here from the Arab world would now say, "Okay, we want to go back to Morocco or Tunisia or Algeria or to Syria, or to Egypt." I think this would destabilize the area to an enormous extent.

Awaiting the decision

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: While experts and negotiators debate, researchers at the "Orient House," the headquarters of the Palestinian leadership in East Jerusalem, are working to document Arab holdings confiscated by Israelis since 1948. Using records going back to the Ottoman Empire and the years when the British ruled, geographers are painstakingly identifying ownership of Arab homes and lands then and now.

In the past Palestinian negotiators had resisted discussing the issue of compensation; but it is very much on the table now, Tamari says.

Salim TamariSALIM TAMARI: Compensation is being considered now as part of a package which includes the right of return, repatriation, resettlement and restitution. Now compensation is acceptable only within this context because it will have to include, for example, notions of restitution which means people who had property, at least some of them, will be able to claim their property back.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Israelis have their own proposals too...

YULI TAMIR: First of all, Israel insists it will not recognize the right of return to the sovereign territory of the state of Israel; however we are trying to put together a package deal that will alleviate the pain and suffering of the Palestinian refugees. We will also take into account that Israel itself has absorbed many Jewish refugees from the Arab world, from all around the world, and we'll try to work for the benefit of those individuals.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Specifically, there was discussion at Camp David about setting up an international consortium which would administer a multibillion dollar fund to provide compensation to Palestinians refugees and perhaps to Jewish refugees from Arab countries too. The money would come from the United States, Europe and other countries. No one can say at this point what a peace agreement might mean for the Sukkar family in Gaza. They have heard they may be offered compensation instead of the right of return, but they know nothing is definite.

DEEB SUKKAR: (speaking through interpreter) If they want to give compensation, look, I mean, to give me back my life is cheaper for them than to give me money; I want my land. To give me compensation my suffering -- my suffering is in the heart; it will not go away.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At sunset in Gaza that week, people cooled off in the Mediterranean Sea.

For Palestinian refugees here and all over the world, this is a time of waiting as negotiators discuss their fate.

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