Palestinian refugees place little hope in Camp David talks

BAQAA CAMP, Jordan - Latifa Awad sighed as she glanced at a photo of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the shabby wall of her living room.

''He can do little for us because the Jews do not want peace,'' said the 62-year-old mother of 11, who fled her home in the West Bank town of Ramallah during the 1967 Middle East war.

''The Jews want us to stay where we are, so what is the use of the talks in America?'' she asked, echoing the feelings of many of the millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The question of the refugees' future is one of the most difficult facing Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

That difficulty was reflected again Saturday when Palestinians held two demonstrations to demand that the refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel. About 160 demonstrators gathered near the West Bank town of Deir-Sharaf, while about 100 protested at an Israeli checkpoint at A-Ram, between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. There was no violence at either event.

At Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly offered to allow about 60,000 refugees to return to Israel under a family reunification scheme.

The 1.5 million refugees living in 13 U.N.-run camps scattered across Jordan are part of an estimated 3.5 million Palestinians who were displaced, or are descendants of those displaced, by the 1948 and 1967 Mideast wars.

The Jordanian government says the displaced living in Jordan can remain in the kingdom and enjoy full citizenship rights if they wish.

It insists, however, that negotiations between Arafat and Barak on a final peace accord must ensure the right of refugees to return home and be compensated for their agony, lost property and business. Barak has said there will be no blanket ''right of return.''

Calls on refugees to insist on their right of return echoed Friday from a mosque loudspeaker two blocks from Awad's house in Baqaa, home to 120,000 refugees 17 miles northwest of Amman, the Jordanian capital.

''It is treason and religiously forbidden to abandon your right to your homes and the land usurped by the Jews,'' a mosque preacher told worshippers.

''The Jews want no peace, and the Americans are deceiving you because they only care for the Jews and not you, the Arabs or Muslims,'' he shouted.

Some of the most militant opposition to the negotiating path chosen by Arafat can be found in Palestinian refugee camps. But the anger doesn't tend to be directed at Arafat - the bulk of the refugees in Jordan support his mainstream Fatah faction rather than hard-line Palestinian dissidents.

Still, some in the camps were emboldened when they saw Israeli troops withdraw from southern Lebanon in May under pressure from Lebanese guerrillas.

''What was taken by force can only be restored by force,'' said Ahmad Araari, a 67-year-old garment shop owner who hails from Haifa in what is now Israel but lives in Hussein Camp, a small Palestinian community in the heart of Amman.

Standing at his vegetable stand in Baqaa, Mohammed Shaaban expects nothing from the peace negotiations being mediated by U.S. officials.

''If America wanted peace, it would have forced the Israelis to give up all of (traditionally Arab east) Jerusalem, allow all the refugees to return home and end the occupation,'' said Shaaban, 73, who is originally from the West Bank town of Nablus.

''There is no peace and there will never be peace,'' he added. ''We have been talking to them (Israelis) for 10 years. But what happened? Nothing. It was only talk, talk.''

Sameh Baydoon, 29, a construction worker from Hebron, another West Bank town, was equally skeptical about the talks.

''Camp David is a big lie like the other meetings in Egypt, America and others,'' he said. ''We don't want handshakes and good pictures for television. We want results.''

''Is restoring our rights too much to ask?'' he shouted.

In her run-down brick house in a squalid alley of Baqaa, Awad said tearfully: ''I wish I could see my home again. I dream everyday of my neighborhood, my house and the backyard where I played when I was young.

''But it seems this wish will never come true.''

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