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Palestinian Refugees in Jordan Fear for Their Rights

Palestinian and Israeli leaders are due to hold a summit on Tuesday and efforts to revive peace talks between them has brought renewed attention to the nature of any possible future settlement. In order for any negotiations to succeed, both sides will have to make compromises on some key issues. VOA's Benjamin Sand visited the Baqaa camp, outside the Jordanian capital Amman, where Palestinian refugees fear their rights could be jeopardized in the process.

Grocers sell fresh fruit and vegetables at the central market. Customers haggle for a better price and then move on to the next stall.

The streets are clogged with traffic and scores of young children walking home from school.

This may look like any other teeming Jordanian town but it is actually a refugee camp, home to roughly 100,000 Palestinians. The Baqaa camp is one of ten such sites the United Nations administers in Jordan.

Mohammad Khalak, 53, says his parents were forced off their land west of Jerusalem in the 1940s. He was born in exile and raised his own family in Baqaa since it was first set up in 1968.

He says he now has 23 children and 28 grandchildren. And he says he has promised them that one day they will all be able to return home.

It is a rather common sentiment here and has taken on renewed importance since the election of new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in early January and increasing signs that he may restart peace talks with Israel.

Political analyst, Oraib Al-Rantawi chairs the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. He says Palestinian refugees hope Mr. Abbas, who is also widely known as Abu Mazen, can produce tangible results after years of disappointment.

"Abu Mazen's popularity and support is getting much bigger than before and it will get much better in the future if things go well in the Israeli-Palestinian peace track," he said.

Mr. Rantawi says people will pay particular attention to the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees and many fear they may lose that right as part of any future deal.

According to U.N. figures some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes at the time of Israel's independence in 1948. Today, they and their descendants are estimated at over five million worldwide. Their right to reclaim family land and homes remains a cornerstone of Palestinian policy and a rallying point for refugee communities.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the mass repatriation of Palestinians would destroy Israel and cannot be considered.

Mr. Rantawi says the right of return is a symbolic demand for Palestinians, a way to reaffirm their connection to their homeland. But, he also thinks Palestinian refugees would accept limited resettlement with compensation in return for an independent and viable political state.

“Palestinian refugees can compromise on this issue within a package, if there is a package deal with the Israeli government concerning all the major issues for the final state of negotiation,” he noted.

But Mr. Rantawi concedes there will be some who will refuse to give up the fight for the right of return.

Abdul is a taxi driver in Baqaa. He gives only his first name but insists the refugees here will never accept anything short of complete access to family lands.

He says the refugees will fight politically but if their voices are ignored he says they will use guns to make their point.

But just down the street a neighbor seems less adamant. He will not give his name or speak on the record, but he says privately that while he wants the right of return, he would never actually move to Israel. He says it is a matter of honor that Israel acknowledge his existence.