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Regional Outlook : Palestinian Hopes for Home Fading : * The peace talks in Washington have little relevance for hundreds of thousands of refugees living in squalid camps in Arab states.


DAMASCUS, Syria — The rows of huts and tents have given way to boulevards of shops and cafes and crowded dirt alleys where untamed armies of young boys kick soccer balls between the cramped concrete block houses.

Yarmouk, Syria's largest quarter for Palestinian refugees, is more a city than a refugee camp--except for the disconcerting sense that it is a city on the run. Almost no one here owns the house they live in. Many weren't born here, and most never intended to stay. The schools fly Palestinian flags next to the Syrian banner. The schoolchildren draw pictures of their families and then color in a tent for a house.

Here, miles away from the Israeli-occupied territories that are the focus of this month's peace talks in Washington, is the Palestine that hope has suddenly left behind.

The crowded refugee camps of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are home to about 500,000 Palestinians who either fled Israel when it was created in 1948 or who are descended from those who left. More than a million additional Palestinians in those countries are still considered refugees, even though they no longer live in camps.

And while the Mideast peace talks have raised hopes among those Palestinians--refugees from 1948 and others--still living under Israeli control on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there is a growing realization among these others in the Palestinian diaspora that whatever happens in Washington or subsequent negotiations, they're not likely to be going home.

United Nations and government officials say the majority will likely never have the opportunity to move to whatever self-governing territory or state is created for Palestine. And if they don't go to Palestine, where will they go? With many Arab governments eager to rid themselves of the refugees after more than 40 years of waiting, the future of more than half the world's Palestinians is more in doubt than ever.

"Honestly, we are confused. We don't know what to think. Even if there is peace, will it be for us? I don't think so," said a young man in Yarmouk who was born in Syria after his father fled Jaffa in 1948.

"How can we go back?" shrugged Mahmoud Mawed, a prominent Palestinian writer who also lives in Yarmouk. "It's just a very small land, with very limited economic potentiality, and without any real Palestinian authority. What am I going to do in Nablus (a Palestinian city on the West Bank)? I need someplace to live, to work. In this land, there will be no place for me. Peace, autonomy--these are just abstract and empty words, and it's our own destruction if we accept them."

It was not without design that Israel insisted on talking only to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Left out of the equation are the more than 2.8 million Palestinians who live outside of Israeli controlled territory.

The half million who live in the Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese refugee camps are cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees. (UNRWA also operates camps in the Israeli-occupied territories for refugees from 1948) The rest of the Palestinian diaspora lives in unofficial camps that have sprung up near UNRWA facilities or in cities around the world which have allowed them to come as temporary workers or, much less frequently, permanent residents.

When multilateral peace talks get under way in Moscow next month, the refugee issue is one of a dozen or more regional problems on the agenda. But many suspect that, with the peace process itself in doubt and the complexity of issues involved, it will be one of the last to be addressed.

"You're talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Where are they going to go, and who is going to take them, and how are they going to get there? I can understand why people won't want to rush into that," said Ron Wilkinson, head of the UNRWA office in Cairo, which oversees a camp of 4,000 refugees from the Gaza Strip on the Egyptian-Israeli border.

The issues facing Palestinians outside the occupied territories are multiple and complex. Overriding most of them is the fact that they are citizens without a national identity--with all the problems that entails.

Of all the Arab countries which have professed brotherhood with the Palestinians, only Jordan has offered them passports. Most other Palestinians travel with murky "laissez-passer" travel documents issued by Egypt, Lebanon or Syria--documents which in many cases aren't honored by other Arab countries, or in some cases, by even the country which issued them.

Palestinians in Syria, for example, must apply two months in advance for permission to travel to Jordan. Palestinians in Lebanon have difficulty obtaining visas to go anywhere, and tens of thousands of Palestinians working in the Persian Gulf countries have been stranded in the wake of the Gulf War because they hold Egyptian travel documents which do not seem to admit them anywhere--even into Egypt.

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