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Mideast Peace May be Decided by Israeli Election

Aired February 1, 2001 - 1:20 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Israeli election now just five days away, and polls over there giving opposition leader Ariel Sharon a strong lead over the current Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The peace process Mr. Barak has championed remains stalled by several disputes, including the question about whether Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to their homes in Israel.

More on our report from CNN's Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just off this bustling main street leading to Bethlehem lies the Deheisha (ph) refugee camp. Its walls are splattered with graffiti that spells half a century of frustration and fantasy.

For 52 years, Fatemeh Odeh (ph) has kept the big iron key to the home her family fled in the War of 1948.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We were just children. Our parents took us and ran to the hills; they thought it would be just until the end of the war.

AMANPOUR: But Israel never allowed the refugees back, and for all these years Fatemeh has raised her children and her grandchildren on a diet of dreams and tales of a beautiful homeland.

Her son, Naji:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): When my mother told us the stories she was crying all the time, and she gave me a belief that I must go back; that we are here as guests, only temporarily.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Twenty-five miles away from the refugee camp in Israel proper, this is all that's left of the Odeh family village. Like so many Arab villages, it was seized and destroyed by the Israelis during the 1948 war, and today it's public parkland. What once were village streets are now hiking trails.

(voice-over): This is where Israelis now come to enjoy a walk, a bike ride, a weekend escape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why are our children living here in refugee camp, but other children coming from Russia to have nice fresh air and nice barbecue on our -- on my homeland? And this is no justice in the world.

AMANPOUR: Ziad Abbas (ph) runs the Deheisha Camp Community Center, where the walls are hung with pictures of their villages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a map of the destroyed villages in 1948.

AMANPOUR: Youngsters chat with e-mail pals who are scattered around 59 camps throughout the Arab world. The ideal of return to Palestine has sustained generations through half a century of refugee life.

Some Israeli academics are beginning to acknowledge that many Palestinians were forced from their homes in '48.

BENNY MORRIS, HISTORIAN: Until the 1980s, Israelis believed that the Palestinians, the 700,000 who became refugees in '48, left voluntarily. It was a very mixed bag in what happened in '48. Some were expelled, some were, in fact, advised by their leaders to leave; but by and large people left because of the war. There was a war, people were shelled, there was shooting, there were massacres, and people fled.

AMANPOUR: But even doves like Benny Morris believe allowing 4 million Palestinians to come back would be demographic suicide for Israel.

MORRIS: You would have had something like 50-50 Jews and Arabs here, and you wouldn't have had a Jewish state.

AMANPOUR: But Palestinian politicians say that their people must have the right to return, even if they never use it.

AZMI BISHARA, ISRAEL ARAB KNESSET MEMBER: I think many of them would not like to live under Jewish rule. In Israel, they have this megalomania; they think that everybody's dream in life is to come and live in Israel. It's not true.

AMANPOUR: All of this is academic for families in camps like Deheisha, where their squalid streets are named after the villages they lost, and where that name is the first lesson every child learns.

Naji Odeh says any concession on their right to return would be a sellout.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the message -- we got it from our fathers and we will pass it to our children.

AMANPOUR: "My grandmother described her village in such detail that we could see it in front of our eyes," says 12-year-old Mourad (ph). "God willing, as she passed the message to my father and my father to us, we will be able to return to our land in our time; and if not, in the time of our children or their children, until we get the land back."

For Arab and Jew, this land is all about identity, even existence.


AMANPOUR: For years and years Arab leaders, Palestinian leaders have held up the right of return as the holy grail. But this issue is shaping up as a key issue in the Israeli election campaign. Prime Minister Barak, who's fighting for his political life, says that he will never allow the right of return. Nonetheless, many Israelis are very afraid of the prospect of million of Palestinians coming back to claim homes inside Israel -- Joie.

CHEN: Christiane, with the outcome of the elections -- the election so close and the polls showing such -- so much favor for Ariel Sharon, what do Palestinians now do? Is there much in the way of negotiation? Is there any point in that at this point, before the outcome of the election?

AMANPOUR: Well, no; at this point there is no talking and no negotiating going along. As you know, a week ago, when certain talks wrapped up, both sides say they were tantalizing close -- tantalizingly close to a full agreement. Nonetheless, those talks have broken off ahead of the election and there will be no meeting between the Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinians, as that thought was bandied around. But it turns out that this will not happen before the elections -- Joie.

CHEN: And Mr. Sharon's lead seems very strong in the polls. is there an indication that Ehud Barak would step aside, say, in favor of Shimon Peres running on the side for the doves?

AMANPOUR: Well, that was a thought, but the deadline for that to happen -- for Prime Minister Barak to agree to give the party leadership to Shimon Peres and have him as the candidate officially expires in about 10 hours in from now. It's now considered extremely unlikely that anyone other than Barak will be Labor Party candidate.

And, indeed, the Likud Party camp has said, look, even if you do run Peres, the polls still show that our side will win -- Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Christiane Amanpour reporting to us from Jerusalem; and CNN will continue extensive coverage leading up to the Israeli elections now just five days away, with Christiane Amanpour as well as our other correspondents in the region.



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