Times staff photographer Rick Loomis' photo essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks today at a seemingly intractable point of dispute: the fate of nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees scattered in U.N.-administered camps that were meant to be temporary but have evolved into sprawling cities with a desolate air of permanence. The refugees, many of whom looked to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as their champion, seek not only the creation of a Palestinian state but the reclamation of homes and property inside what is now Israel. The Jewish state says that is impossible.
Palestinians have a name for the 1948 creation of Israel: Al Naqba -- "the catastrophe." During Israel's war of independence, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from homes inside what was to become the Jewish state. They and their descendants, designated as refugees by the United Nations, now number nearly 4 million, scattered in slum-like camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians' late leader, Yasser Arafat, was an unyielding proponent of the "right of return" -- the refugees' claim to lost homes and land. Israel has long rejected any large-scale return of the displaced and their descendants, saying Israel's predominantly Jewish character would be destroyed. In the past, moderate Palestinians have suggested a compromise that might involve compensation and the symbolic resettling of a few refugees inside Israel, with the rest making new homes for themselves in a future Palestinian state.