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    Jul. 13, 2003
    Survey: Most Palestinian refugees don't want right of return

    Only a minority of Palestinians who lost their homes in the war that accompanied Israel's birth 55 years ago would seek to return if allowed, according to a groundbreaking Palestinian survey that was released Sunday, sparking a small riot.

    The poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed only 10 percent of respondents questioned in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan and Lebanon would wish to rebuild their homes under Israeli rule.

    "The refugees who didn't choose to return to 1948 lands ... know that life in Israel means Israeli citizenship, Israeli laws, and an Israeli social environment," the center's head, Khalil Shikaki, said.

    An estimated 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced out of the territory that became Israel in the 1948-49 war - and the issue remains an explosive one. The Palestinian leadership has demanded a "right of return" to Israel for surviving refugees and their descendants - who together now number an estimated 4 million - as part of any final peace settlement.

    Just over half of respondents said they would want to return to an independent Palestinian state, while 17 percent said they would stay in their adopted homes and 2 percent would like to move to a foreign country. The rest rejected all the options presented or did not have an opinion.

    Palestinian officials have in the past argued that only few would actually choose to return, especially if offered other options such as resettlement in a Palestinian state or other compensation. They say that at issue is a principle supported by a 1948 UN General Assembly resolution.

    But even dovish Israelis have reject risking a mass influx of Palestinians to a country already populated by 5.5 million Jews and 1.2 million Arabs. The impasse over the "right of return" demand was a main reason why an ambitious peace effort collapsed three years ago, and it will likely come up again if the current road map peace plan leads to renewed negotiations on solving the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it aims to do.

    The passions the issue arouses were made clear when Shikaki called a news conference to present his findings. About 200 Palestinian refugee activists stormed his Ramallah office Sunday, smashing furniture, throwing eggs and assaulting Shikaki and some other center staff.

    "We are here to announce that our right of return is a sacred right," said a leaflet distributed by the protesters. "We will resist any attempt to sabotage our right of return."

    In the survey, 4,506 people were interviewed, distributed almost equally between Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza. Together these areas account for most of the refugee population - although there are also some in Syria, elsewhere in the Arab world, and living in the West. The survey had a margin of error of less than 3 percent for each of the areas surveyed, the report said.

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