Gaza Refugees Want to Go Home

As children in the street chanted "Gaza is liberated," 65-year-old Ayed Suleiman Abu-Hashish broke into tears.

"I can't wait to go back," he said. "I bet it has changed a lot since I left nearly 40 years ago."

For many in this squalid refugee camp, Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip (search), which began Monday, revived hopes they could return to homes they fled in the 1967 Middle East War. It was unlikely that would happen anytime soon, however.

The fate of refugees — many who also fled land that made up the state of Israel before the war — still must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians in so-called final-status talks.

Also at issue in those thorny talks will be the status of Jerusalem, claimed by Palestinians as their capital but under Israeli control since 1967.

In the meantime, even after the Gaza withdrawal, Israel still commands all entry points into the strip and the West Bank (search), meaning it can prevent refugees from returning.

Israel has not recognized a general Palestinian "right of return," and was likely to bar the bulk of refugees from returning to Gaza or the West Bank, from where Israel has also pledged to withdraw four settlements.

So far, Israel has indicated willingness only to allow a limited number of Arabs to join relatives in pre-1967 Israel under a family reunification plan.

At Gaza Camp's only coffee shop, regulars received free refreshments as they rejoiced over the Israeli withdrawal.

In one smoke-filled corner, 67-year-old Mohammad al-Ghazawi, wearing a traditional white-and-black-checked headdress, quizzed his friends.

"Do you think the Israelis will allow us back in Gaza?" he asked, sipping spiced Arabic coffee.

"No," was the quick answer from Ismail Abu-Taha, puffing on a water pipe.

"The Israelis are only maneuvering to show the world that they're giving back lands to Palestinians, but we're not in their books. We have long been forgotten," he said.

Two blocks away, Umm Mohammad, 72, disagreed.

"Why would they give back the land if they won't allow its owners to go live in it? Don't listen to this nonsense," she said, standing on the doorstep of her shabby convenience store and handing out candy to neighborhood children.

"Palestine is Arab" and "Gaza is liberated" chanted the children, some as young as 5. Waste flowed along the street from an open sewer at a cluster of rundown brick homes.

Passers-by gave thumbs-up and victory signs to the children, who were leaving a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (search). The organization oversees services — including health care and education — to some 13 refugee camps in Jordan.

Gaza Camp, located west of Jerash (search), Jordan's famed Roman-ruin city, and about 30 miles north of the capital, Amman (search), is home to 27,000 Palestinians.

UNRWA estimates that 122,000 Gazans live in Jordan, the largest Arab host to the estimated total of 1.8 million Palestinian refugees. Most of the Gaza natives live in Gaza Camp.

Inside Lebanon's Ein el-Hilweh (search) camp, that country's largest with a population of 75,000 Palestinians, the pullout from Gaza generated joy and hope. Lebanon is third after Jordan and Syria in its number of Palestinians refugees.

Palestinian guerrillas from various factions joined civilians and old women, their heads covered with white scarves, in an Arabic dance accompanied by bagpipes in the teeming camp.

"When the intefadeh [uprising] began, we felt that something would be achieved. Today, we are sure that this intefadeh has begun achieving the first of its goals with Gaza's independence," said Lt. Col. Maher Shabaitah, who heads the camp's Fatah guerrilla movement office.

Ramzi Qabalawi, 55, a refugee in Lebanon since the 1948 founding of Israel, called the Gaza withdrawal "a great victory" for the Palestinians.

"Had it not been for the resistance and stepped-up attacks on Israel, they [Israelis] would have never thought of withdrawal," he said.

Jubilation at Jordan's Gaza Camp, however, was dimmed by suspicions that the Gaza pullout was merely a tactic to strengthen Israel's grip on the West Bank.

"Any inch of Palestinian land given back to us is good," said Ibrahim Jallad, 35, a sanitation worker. "But it looks like Gaza will be first and last."

But for Abu-Hashish, the tearful 65-year-old, there was little to think about but returning to Gaza: "I have a plot of land and a two-story house here, which I'm offering for free to my Jordanian brothers.

"I want to go home, even if I have to walk all the way."