RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Tareq Abu Jawad was not impressed. "What does that mean?" asked the 26-year-old mechanic. "I have no rights? I've been a refugee since I was born and my parents were refugees before me. What does it mean that we may not have a right of return? That is the only right we have." Mr Abu Jawad was reacting to a report in Haaretz that suggested Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, would agree to a "compromise" on Palestinian refugees' "right of return".
"We intend to hold talks with Israel about the number of refugees who will return to its area," Mr Abbas was quoted as saying in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper published on Sunday. "I am criticised for not demanding the return of all five million, but I say that we will demand the return of a reasonable number of refugees to Israel." Unsurprisingly, his remarks were almost immediately seized upon by Hamas. "We will not agree to any agreement with the enemy that contradicts our national constants," Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, announced from Damascus. Among these, he noted, is an "absolute commitment" to refugees' right of return.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, waded into the debate yesterday by expressing his "sorrow" for the plight of Palestinian - and Jewish - refugees. He went on to say however that, "under absolutely no circumstances will there be a right of return". In Ramallah, meanwhile, Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary of the PLO executive committee, denied any truth to recent reports that agreement had been reached on limiting the number of Palestinians able to return to Israel to 20,000 under any future settlement.
"These [reports] are a kind of senility that deserve no reaction. First, negotiations have not reached such a level of details. Second, the PLO is committed to a resolution of the refugees' issue in line with UN resolution 194." The strength of both Mr Abed Rabbo's rebuttal and Mr Olmert's position show the emotive depth of the issue at stake. The rights of Palestinian refugees go to the very heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a much more central way than is commonly understood.
Indeed, it is one area Jews and Palestinians might have shared a common understanding. The expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, is as much a narrative of identity to the Palestinians as the Holocaust is to Jews. But in many ways the two narratives have become mutually exclusive. The experience of persecution in Europe led to the idea of the creation of a Jewish state, an ideology that was incompatible with the presence of another people in Palestine, according to Palestinians.
"The issue of the right of return goes to the very heart of the Zionist ideology and whether Israel will remain a racist exclusive state or will become a democratic open state for all its people," said Abdel Jawad Saleh, a historian and former member of the PLO executive committee. Mr Abdel Saleh said that even if an agreement could be reached between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, any solution presented to the Palestinian public that somehow forfeited a right of return would simply not be accepted.
But just as for many Palestinians the right of return remains the central issue - in 2004, the Fateh Tanzim (youth fighters) in the West Bank city of Bethlehem released a statement saying that if it were a choice between statehood and the right of return, they would choose the right of return - for most Israelis it remains the one issue where there can be little room for compromise. "Refugees is one of two existential issues [the other being sovereignty over al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem] that most exercise Israelis," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. "Most Israelis would accept 5,000 to 50,000 refugees returning. But Israelis will not take on board the responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem that is implied in the right of return. As long as Palestinians insist on the right of return both in the abstract and in practice in large number there can be no agreement."
With such stark opposites it is easy to see the scale of the task negotiators face in trying to find a workable formula. Past attempts have included complicated calculations for compensation payments and age-limits or quotas based on where refugees are returning from; those in Lebanon are often cited as having the priority. The closest any has come to universal acceptance is the one issued by the Arab League in its 2002 peace initiative that simply skirts the issue by talking only about a "just solution".
"This is an obfuscation, and obfuscation is the only formula either side can really get away with for now," Mr Alpher said. In his garage in the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, Mr Abu Jawad has little time for either complicated propositions or obfuscations. "Look, I know this," said the young mechanic who claimed Fatah allegiance. "I know that my father's father once had land in what is now Israel. I know no one bought this land or even offered to buy this land from him or my father. Now, this land should be mine. I have at least the right to go there."