DAHISHA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank, March 15 (AFP) -Palestinian refugees
visit next week by Pope John Paul II will help deliver them from this
squalid camp to the land where they lived before the creation of Israel more
than 50 years ago. Refugees said they hope the pope's scheduled visit to the
Dahisha camp, near the Palestinian-run town of Bethlehem, will focus
attention on the fate of some 3.5 million Palestinian refugees made homeless
by the Jewish state's war of independence. "The pope's determination to
visit us here must help our case. This is an opportunity to show the world
how we live and to petition for our right to return," said Khaled al-Sifi, a
member of a camp committee preparing for the pope's visit. Another refugee,
73-year-old Hassan Gabril, said that when the pope sees the Dahisha's open
sewers and the crumbling buildings in which the camp's 8,000 people live, he
will be compelled to take up their cause.
"The pope's visit is both a political and a personal visit. And I hope
emotions and opinions about refugees help push forward our cause," he said.
Sifi said the massive media contingent that will accompany the pope will
also help shed light on the plight of the refugees. More than 1,000 visiting
journalists, in addition to the locally based press corps, are expected to
report on the pope's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the first in 36 years.
Sifi said camp residents are planning a grand welcome for the pontiff with
traditional Arab dancing. They will line the streets with elevated stages
and people born before 1948 will perform scenes depicting life before
Israel. Sifi said refugees from throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip have
been invited to join in the celebration. Three youths from the camp will
also embark on a 20-nation bicycle tour to promote Palestinian refugees.
The fate of the Palestinians refugees is one of the most formidable
so-called final status issues under negotiations that are to be wrapped up
in September, at which point Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has promised
to declare statehood. Palestinians insist all refugees should have the right
to return to the areas where they lived before May 1948 when Israel was
established and that all of the property they owned be returned. UN
Resolution 194, adopted in 1948, stipulates that refugees wishing to return
should be permitted to do so "at the earliest practicable date" and that
compensation should be paid to those who choose not to return.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, however, had vowed that there will
return of refugees to the Jewish state, although he has said it is possible
that some could be absorbed into the Palestinian territories. Dahisha
activist Ziyad Abas, 38, said he hopes the pope's visit will put Palestinian
negotiators in a stronger position to push for the right of refugees to
return. "We have a great opportunity to stress our right to return,
specifically now as the negotiations are going on," he said. More than 1.3
million Palestinian refugees live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 590,000
of them in 27 camps, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
for Palestine Refugees. Many refugees, a third of whom have immediate
families numbering 10 or more, live in dire economic straits, earning less
than 112 dollars a month for a family of six or 47 dollars for each
individual, according to a Palestinian statistical survey released in March.