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Yasser Abu Moailek's Letter From Gaza

Exiled Palestinians Yearning For Hometowns

Yasser Abu Moailek's Letter From Gaza

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Palestinian exile Hatem Hamoud fondly remembers embracing his West Bank comrades last February, at the doorstep of his Gaza apartment, and bidding them farewell as they returned to their homes in the West Bank after nearly four years of exile.

"We will embrace again soon, once we are reunited in our hometowns," Hamoud, from Bethlehem, told his departing comrades.

The men were among 26 Palestinians deported to the Gaza Strip at the close of what became known as the Church of Nativity standoff.

A five-week siege on Bethlehem's Church of Nativity, where 39 Palestinians took refuge from the Israeli army, ended on March 10, 2002, with an agreement to guarantee safe passage for the holed up Palestinians in return for their exile.

Hatem and 25 others were transferred to the Gaza Strip, while 13 more were spirited away to the island of Cyprus and, with EU cooperation, distributed on several countries around Europe.

Upon their arrival to Gaza, Hatem said that they were received with the utmost hospitality and warmth by Gazans.

"We were treated like dignitaries or victorious conquerors," he said. "Everybody wanted to meet us and everybody wanted to help us."

However, after almost three years, he confessed that their cause and struggle to return home has lost its flare.

"Since our deportation," Mahmoud Saadi, another deportee who remains in exile in Gaza said, "we have organized sit-ins, demonstrations, hunger strikes and given many public speeches and press conferences, but nobody worked to solve our problem".

Saadi, who is originally from Jenin refugee camp, noted that they had discussed this matter several times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that he promised to prioritize their case to help repatriate them.

In February some were permitted to return home. The Israeli government allowed 16 of the Gaza deportees to return to their towns and villages in the West Bank, leaving the others stuck in Gaza.

Naji Ebayyat, who also is unable to return, spoke about his dreams of returning to his hometown of Bethlehem and warming up his now cold bakery with fresh bread and cookies, as he used to before his deportation.

"When we were deported, I left behind four houses full of women and children," he said.

"There was no one to provide for them, and I couldn't sleep sometimes thinking who would take care of my children at night if they became sick," he added.

About their life in Gaza, Fahmi Canaan, another deportee, said that in the beginning, they lived in six apartments in Gaza City - four to five deportees in each one. They were not allowed to bring in their families, and kept up contact through the phone.

"We received a salary from the Palestinian Authority [PA] of almost $250 a month - barely enough to support our families and ourselves."

Before Israel allowed their families to join them, Canaan said that he used his time to catch up with his studies. He took a computer course and joined university to finish his Islamic law studies that he never got around to finish in the West Bank.

As for Hamoud, who is still nurturing hope of returning to Bethlehem - he used to own a restaurant there - if it would be too far-fetched to return home in the near future, he might open one in Gaza.

Hamoud lives with his wife and four children who, after two years of separation, were permitted by Israel to be reunited with him in Gaza.

"Not a day passes by that I don't think of my life in Bethlehem and my return," Hamoud said, acknowledging that his wife and children have eased some of his homesickness.

Following the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last September, the deportees met with Abbas, and pled for their repatriation.

"We were promised a solution by President Abbas," Canaan said, noting that the return of their comrades in February might be the first sign of a solution.

However, Canaan did not try to hide his concern about what level of priority their case has been given on the list of Palestinian demands to Israel.

"We are not sure where Palestinian negotiators have placed our issue on their agenda. We hope it is indeed a priority for them, but we are worried that it might be forgotten in time," he said.

As for Ebayyat, he said that he had lost hope in returning to Bethlehem.

"I don't know if anybody remembers our cause anymore, and I have only asked for my wife and three children to come live with me here," he said.

"I don't deny that I like being around my Gazan friends, who have been more than generous to me," he added, "but Gaza remains a big prison and there's no way out for us here".

The deportees all agreed that they would keep hoping to return home, although pessimistic about the future of the West Bank and the PA's ability to convince Israel to allow their repatriation.

"We can live with the fact that we won't leave Gaza," Hamoud said. "But can our families do the same?"

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