The New York Times

July 14, 2003

Palestinian Mob Attacks Pollster Over Finding on 'Right of Return'


RAMALLAH, West Bank, July 13 A mob attacked an eminent Palestinian political scientist today as he prepared to announce a striking finding from a regionwide survey of Palestinian refugees: Only a small minority of them exercise a "right of return" to Israel as part of a peace agreement.

The political scientist, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research here, had intended today to discuss for the Arabic-language press the tensions and complexities of Palestinian society. Instead, struck, shoved and pelted with eggs but not seriously injured, he wound up starkly illustrating them.

From the wreckage of his office here, as workers swept up the broken glass and shampooed the carpet, Dr. Shikaki offered a political analysis of the attack. He said the dozens of rioters who came prepared with their own news release, in Arabic and English were hijacking his news conference as a signal to the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

"They are trying to send a message that the right of return is sacred, and that you who are negotiating are on notice," said Dr. Shikaki, who is a refugee himself.

Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has accused Mr. Abbas of botching negotiations with Israel about a new American-backed peace plan. The two leaders have not spoken to each other since Mr. Abbas threatened to resign in an acrid argument last Monday night. "People are taking sides," Dr. Shikaki said. "The accusations are flying, and no one is being civil."

The rioters marched from Dr. Shikaki's office to Mr. Arafat's compound a few blocks away, where he received them, Palestinians here said. It was not clear if Mr. Arafat knew what they had done.

The attack also reflected a degree of lawlessness in Palestinian cities like this, where Palestinian security forces have yet to resume policing the streets but Israeli troops have become less pervasive.

The violence sprang from tension over the right of return, perhaps the deepest divide between Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war claim a right to live in what is now Israel. Israel rejects the claim, fearing that Palestinians hope to achieve by demography what they have failed to do by force of arms erase Israel's Jewish character. Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number about four million, while Israel has roughly five million Jewish citizens and one million Arab citizens.

In a broad, detailed survey, Dr. Shikaki's researchers questioned 4,500 refugee families living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and Lebanon. More than 95 percent of them insisted that Israel recognize a right of return, accepting their position in principle, he said.

The researchers then presented five options, like financial compensation and moving to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The options were based on those negotiated but never formally endorsed by Israeli and Palestinian officials in January 2001, and they assumed that Israel recognized a right of return.

Only 10 percent demanded permanent residence in Israel, a proportion that decreased if the refugees were told that they would have to take Israeli citizenship or that their old homes were gone.

More than half a total of 54 percent said they would accept compensation and homes in the West Bank and Gaza, or in land ceded by Israel in a swap for West Bank land, Dr. Shikaki said. Others said they would elect to stay in their host country or go to another country. Thirteen percent rejected any deal at all.

The survey had a margin of error of less than three percentage points, Dr. Shikaki said. It did not encompass the roughly 10 percent of Palestinian refugees who live in Syria, where researchers generally face government restrictions.

Dr. Shikaki said the poll's results showed that refugees were less interested in being nationalist standard-bearers than in living fuller lives. "Refugees are human beings with needs," he said. "These people want to live their lives."

Dr. Shikaki's biography shows the diverging paths refugees can take. He grew up in Gaza's dismal Rafah camp. His older brother, Fathi, a physician, founded Islamic Jihad, bent on Israel's destruction. In 1995, Fathi Shikaki was killed in Malta, apparently by Israeli agents.

Dr. Shikaki, who rejects violence, earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and now directs the polling organization here. For his independent views, he has been threatened by both Mr. Arafat and Hamas.

He consults regularly with Israeli political scientists and plans to travel to Washington this week to present his new findings to the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and others.

Asked how he would respond to his survey, he said he would choose to keep living in Ramallah, not to return to his family's village in what is now the Israeli town of Rehovot.

Today, many refugees remain confined to camps like Rafah, unable to vote or otherwise join in the life of surrounding towns or cities. Some Palestinian experts say Arab and Palestinian leaders prefer to maintain the refugees as an open political wound, rather than help them integrate into other societies.

The release by the group that invaded Dr. Shikaki's office said his study "claims the vast majority of Palestinian refugees are prepared to renounce their right of return" which Dr. Shikaki called a deliberate misrepresentation and it maintained that his results were fake.

The mob's statement carried the letterhead of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Saji Salameh, director general of that body's refugee affairs department, disavowed any connection to the rioters and criticized the violence. But he said of Dr. Shikaki's study, "We don't believe that it reflects the reality and the position of the refugees."

Asher Arian, an Israeli political scientist, called the right of return the most important issue to Israelis. But, he said, "we've seen Israeli public opinion very flexible when legitimate leadership makes an effort to lead it in that direction."

During the attack, Dr. Shikaki locked himself in his office. After trying to break down the door and wall, some in the crowd smashed a window onto the balcony, then broke through the window into his office. But he said that while some attacked him, others tried to restrain them. No one was armed, he said.

In the Amari refugee camp here, two young men said they had joined the mob because they had heard that Dr. Shikaki had found that 70 percent of refugees rejected a right of return. "Our message to Shikaki was that he was not going to decide the right of return," said Ashraf Abu Ghadab, 18. "I thought if the people managed to reach Shikaki, they would kill him."

Mr. Abu Ghadab spoke outside the camp's youth center. Inside, one wall displayed a poster of 31 people from the camp who have died in the conflict, some from Israeli fire and others from blowing themselves up in attacks. Another wall was covered by a picture of an alpine stream running among pines and maples.

A new poster was going up today, decorated with knotted ropes that seemed to imply a political message. But its Arabic titles proved to be more literal than that instructions for local scouts on how to tie bowlines, clove hitches and other knots.

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