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Expectations High, Emotions Raw at Palestinian Refugee Camp in Syria


A few weeks after the militant group Hamas won a surprise victory in Palestinian legislative elections, there is still much uncertainty about what it means for Palestinians, Middle East peace efforts and for democracy in the region.

Cars make their way on narrow streets, and vendors hawk their wares in what could be any local market in any city of the Middle East. But this is Yarmouk, home to more than 100,000 Palestinians, many whose families fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war at the time of Israel's creation. Yarmouk is only eight kilometers from the center of Damascus.

It looks like a normal urban neighborhood, but there are signs it is different: posters of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdelaziz Rantisi, top Hamas leaders assassinated by Israel in 2004, decorate walls and lamp posts.

A Hamas leadership in exile has lived in Syria for many years, leading to accusations by Israel, the United States and others that Syria provides a safe haven for what they have deemed terrorist groups. It's something that Syria denies.

In recent weeks, Hamas leaders, such as Khaled Meshaal, have sent mixed signals, sometimes hard-line rhetoric that they will not recognize Israel's right to exist, other times hints of moderation, suggesting

that, after all, Israel is a reality on the ground with whom Hamas might be able to talk.

But, there are no political niceties here in the Yarmouk market. The vendors and many of the shoppers have long memories of homes lost, and no forgiveness for those who live there now.

"This is my father," says Zani Anabtawi, pulling out an old, yellowed identity card, issued in 1936 under the British Mandate for Palestine. "We are from near Haifa," he says, referring to the coastal city that is now part of Israel.

The family left in 1948. Zani was born here in Damascus. He says he keeps the card to show his claim to home.

A group of men quickly gathers round. "I'm from Nazareth," one man chimes in. "My family is from Tabaria, what is now Tiberius," another says.

"We've been uprooted from our land," says Anabtawi from behind his vegetable stall. "They've planted Israelis on our land."

What Israelis see as the rightful and ancestral homeland of the Jews, Palestinians see as their birthright, with the Israelis perceived as the outsiders from Europe and elsewhere.

Another man, Anwar Naji, says the Palestinians need to take back their land and their rights, and, if suicide bombers are the only way to do that, then so be it.

But, while Palestinians do want their rights and land, opinions polls have shown that most do not support suicide bombings. And, polls taken in the West Bank and Gaza also show that most want a negotiated settlement with Israel.

After winning last month's legislative elections, Hamas is under considerable pressure, especially from the West, to moderate its stance, to disarm, recognize Israel's right to exist and negotiate.

Palestinians here in the Yarmouk market don't rule out negotiations, but reactions are strong when it comes to recognizing Israel.

"What about our rights?", is the quick response.

"Israel does not recognize our rights and yet we should recognize theirs?"

Anwar Naji concedes: "If Israel returns to the borders of the 1967 war, there can be a truce, and we can talk."

The men agree, "There will be no peace, without our right to return to the homes and land we lost."

Palestinians living here were not eligible to vote in last month's elections - only those living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem were. Still Yarmouk residents are pinning their hopes on the outcome.

Sa'adam Jalbout is one of them.

"For years the Palestinian leadership under Fatah, did nothing but make concessions." Now, she says, "we are counting on Hamas to make changes, and give us back our rights."

These kinds of expectations are putting pressure on Hamas, as it seeks to form a Palestinian government. On the one hand, it has to stick to its tough hard-line principles. On the other, it has to deliver, and, to do so, it needs Israel and the international community.

The dilemmas of governing and diplomacy do not count for much here.

"We may be just selling vegetables here in the market," says Anwar Naji. "We do that to raise our children and to pay the bills. But our minds and hearts are with Palestine. We teach our children that every day, that these are our rights, and that, one day, we shall go back to our country."

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