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In camps outside territories, exclusion from polls spurs anger

Refugees say they see little hope of negotiated return

BAQAA CAMP, Jordan -- Yehya Shatarat punched his fist into his hand as he watched satellite television pictures of Palestinians in the West Bank voting for a successor to the late Yasser Arafat.

"Mahmoud Abbas is definitely the winner and he will destroy us completely because he sold out the Palestinian cause to Israel and America a long time ago," said the 28-year-old refugee. Exit polls showed Abbas winning handily.

Shatarat wasn't the only one in the camps scattered across the Middle East who expressed frustration at having no say in choosing the leaders who will sit down with Israel to decide the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Israel flatly rejects allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants to return to homes abandoned in the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars, saying that would destroy the country as a Jewish majority state.

A future settlement will probably be a combination of financial compensation for those barred from returning and resettlement in the West Bank, Gaza, or in the West.

Arafat, who died in November, was never willing or politically able to declare that the right of return for refugees might be an unrealizable dream.

Only Palestinians in the territories were able to cast ballots yesterday, with officials explaining that was because the vote was for local government and institutions.

"How can they ignore our right to pick our leader?" said Haitham Abu-Said, 30, who mingled with Shatarat and other friends at a smoke-filled room in a sports club in Baqaa, 17 miles northwest of the Jordanian capital Amman.

Palestinian officials "seem concerned that the refugees may want a hard-line leader because they know well that retrieving our occupied lands will not be achieved without weapons, without struggle, without blood," he said.

In Lebanon, supporters of the radical Popular Democratic Front set up a mock polling station outside the front's offices in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp on the southern fringes of Sidon, 28 miles south of Beirut. Crowds cheered as supporters cast mock ballots for Tayseer Khaled, the front's candidate. Khaled phoned in from Ramallah to pledge that the right of return would be upheld.

In Syria, Palestinian refugee Naiem Rajdan, 53, said he would have liked to have voted. But Ahmed Jibril, secretary general of the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, dismissed yesterday's balloting as an exercise "conducted under occupation" and engineered to put Abbas in power.

The Syrian government daily Al-Thawra said the international interest in the elections should be accompanied by an equal international effort to end Israeli violence against Palestinians.

In Kuwait, the Cabinet said in a statement that it hoped the vote would lead to a "permanent, just, and comprehensive peace in the Middle East."

In Iraq, which holds its own elections later this month, university student Mohammed Hady said he hadn't been able to follow the Palestinian elections because frequent power outages make it hard to watch television, and "because we are preoccupied with what is going on here.

"But I believe this [the Palestinian vote] could be the beginning of democracy in the Middle East," he added.

The Palestinian vote competed for attention in the Arab world with news from Iraq and the signing of a peace treaty in Sudan's two-decade southern civil war. The main Arab satellite stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, devoted large sections of their broadcasts yesterday to both the Palestinians and Sudan.

In Baqaa, women's activist Rajaa Dirbash, 47, said she cared little for the elections. "We are frustrated people because we have suffered for very long living in exile, away from our homes and families and nobody was able to resolve our plight," she said. "Why should we care for what's going on today?

"Is the new president going to change things for us?" said Dirbash, who heads the camp's branch of the Jordanian Woman Federation.

"Mahmoud Abbas is the spice of the meal that was prepared by Israeli cooks in the American kitchen," said Dirbash's associate, Nadia Jundi.

Federation member Umm Nabil said had she been allowed to vote, she would have picked jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti. "He's a real man with guts, he speaks against the negotiations, against the peaceful settlement and he's with the armed struggle, with Palestinians taking up arms against the Israeli enemy," she said.

In Baqaa's bustling marketplace, boutique owner Awni Shatarat, 41, said Abbas "is the right man for this very difficult time."

"Although he will not fill in Arafat's place, I'm confident he will carry on the same policies, which are for our well-being," he said.

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