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The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"This is the one middle east problem that may never get solved"
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Monday, 29 May, 2000, 21:46 GMT 22:46 UK
Palestinians reach across divide
Israeli-Lebanese border
Israeli guards keep "Israeli Arabs" (left) and refugees apart
Hundreds of Palestinian refugees have been meeting family members from Israel for the first time in 52 years on the newly demilitarised border between Israel and Lebanon.

Palestinian refugees have come to exchange gifts and photographs through the barbed-wire with those who stayed behind, or just to shake hands or touch fingers.

Israeli-Lebanese border
Some Palestinians have just come to look
There are 350,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon, mostly in miserable conditions in refugee camps.

The refugees are mainly from families which fled the northern towns and villages of Palestine - what is now Israel - during the 1948 war.

They have been coming to the border wire to exchange messages every day since Israel's occupation of south Lebanon ended on Tuesday night.

Half an hour from home

In many cases the refugees are meeting brothers, sisters and cousins for the first time.

Fakri Awad, aged 45, still lives in the refugee camp in Lebanon where he was born.

Israeli-Lebanese border
Others have arranged a rendez-vous with relatives
He brought his family to meet their cousins from modern Israel, who live in their ancestral home in Acre.

"It's beautiful," said Mr Awad, although he has never seen the town, "and my cousins tell me it's only half-an-hour's drive from here."

Ahmad Rabah, 70, telephoned his brother in Acre to arrange a meeting, their first since he left in 1948.

His wife is carrying the key of the home they were forced to leave behind. A nephew born in Ain al-Helwa camp near Sidon declares himself very happy to "finally see my uncle who I had long heard of".

'Perfume of Palestine'

Israel soldiers patrol the border. They switch easily from Hebrew to Arabic as they tell each side to stay back from the fence.

Israeli-Lebanese border
Traditional Palestinian dance to celebrate the "liberation"
This serves as a reminder of how the Palestinians came to be divided in this way, but their enthusiasm for this novel experience has remained undiminished.

"This is the third time I've come here since Wednesday," said Mahumud Abu Shebba, who was born in the Rashidiyeh refugee camp near Tyre.

"I came to smell the perfume of Palestine," he added. "It smells so nice."

In limbo

The Palestinian refugees are widely considered to have the worst lot of all their compatriots - unable to integrate into Lebanese society, without careers, civil rights or passports.

ain al-helwa camp
The squalor of Ain al-Helwa refugee camp
Nor are they thought to stand much chance of ever being able to return to the homes they left south of the border half a century ago.

In theory all Palestinian refugees are guaranteed a right of return under international law, but that right is under negotiation in peace talks between Israel and Yasser Arafat's PLO.

Israel does not countenance the return of refugees, whose numbers have swelled to about four million in all, because of the demographic impact on the character of the Jewish state.

It expects Mr Arafat to make concessions in a final peace deal on refugees, arguing that they should be absorbed in the host countries.

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29 May 00 | Middle East
No decision on Lebanese detainees
27 May 00 | Middle East
Lebanese return south
08 Mar 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Arafat's other Palestine
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