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Survey: Many Palestinians Not Anxious to Return to Israel - 2003-07-14


A survey finds the majority of Palestinian refugees would not wish to return to Israel after a peace deal is negotiated. It says most would prefer to remain where they are now or move to live under Palestinian control in the West Bank or Gaza strip. But the Palestinian organization which conducted the survey could not release its findings because hundreds of Palestinians trashed its offices.

Its one of the most emotive issues in the middle-east conflict - the right of Palestinians to return to land occupied by their families before the state of Israel was established in 1948.

Palestinians insist on this right in recognition of their losses of land and homes. But Israelis fear the return of refugees and their descendants, more than four million people scattered throughout the Middle East, arguing that absorbing this number would alter the nature of the Jewish state.

Just how emotive an issue this is was evident Sunday when the publication of survey data by a Palestinian think tank was prevented by an angry Palestinian mob.

The press conference at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research - an independent academic institute in Ramallah - was stormed by hundreds of people bused in from surrounding refugee camps. The crowd ran up the stairs, throwing eggs and coffee, breaking windows and trashing the offices, preventing publication of the findings.

"We are here to protest against this organization of spies, and its discredited survey which has been funded by Americans and Zionists, against the refugees and the right of return", says one protester.

"My family has struggled so hard for us to return over more than 50 years and now this spy comes and tells lies, saying that we don't want to go home", says a second man.

The protesters handed out leaflets in English published by the PLO, calling the results of the survey fabricated.

"We certainly didn't expect this, no indication that any of this would happen," says Dr. Khalil Shiqaqi, the Director of the Policy Research Center.

He denies the results were fabricated, saying that the survey, the first of its kind - was the result of three years of research. Dr. Shiqaqi says the protesters were misled about the information in the survey.

"We believe that most of the people had no idea whatsoever what the results are, the statement they published was full of outright lies about the results," he says. "They said that 95 percent give up right of return whereas in fact 95 percent insist on right of return - and survey is trying to find what happens next."

After the crowd left the scene an ambulance was called to remove an unconscious female office worker and the police tried to seize the tapes of foreign journalists.

It was four hours later before Khalil Shiqaqi could tell me about his survey methodology and results, in depth research with 4,500 families of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank, funded by international donations, including from the United Nations and Canadian and German institutions.

"This has been essentially the most dramatic result that only a small minority want to go to Israel," says Mr. Shiqaqi.

The findings are that in opposition to Jewish fears, most refugees do not want to return to land their families lost in Israel. All want a recognition of their right to return, but 55 percent want to move to the Palestinian controlled West Bank or Gaza and 20 percent want to stay where they are, or emigrate overseas to countries such as Germany.

"Bottom line is that everybody should be happy, one of the few cases where the conflict is not a zero sum game. Refugees should be thrilled because after the right to return comes the right to choose, because negotiator Israel would not be required to admit anything in percentages the Israelis talk about," says Mr. Shiqaqi. "Nothing here that would change demographic balance in Israel, destruction of state of Israel, though right of return is nonsense based on the survey."

Most Palestinians surveyed say that they would accept financial compensation to give up the right of return although some families expect hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Israeli authorities have not yet had a chance to see and respond to this data.

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