The initial euphoria of great expectations associated with the peace process in September 1993 has quickly subsided. With hindsight, there was no reason to expect such a happy solution for the 100-year Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the last 50 years of which have been soaked in blood, usually Palestinian. The Israeli side has not given an inch on its basic premise: the confiscated Palestinian land, which comprises 92 per cent of Israel's area, will not be returned to its rightful owners, and the inhabitants of 532 villages and towns who were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948now known as Palestinian refugeeswill not be allowed to return home. On the other hand, these Palestinian refugees, now numbering five million, who have endured 50 years of wars, destitution and exile, refuse to accept this diktat and insist on their right to return home.

They have strong bases for that claim. For them, the return home is sacred. They have lived on this land for over 30 centuries. Their historical bond with the place moved an Israeli writer to note: "Every people in the world lives in a place. For Palestinians, the place lives in them". The grandchild of a 1948 refugee, when asked, says he comes from his original village, not from the refugee camp where he lives. The Mukhtars (village heads) are elected on the basis of their original villages. The schoolchildren are registered in school accordingly. A recent study showed that 66 per cent of all refugees moved to their exile in one of the five areas of UNRWA operations (Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) as a complete village unit, 25 per cent of the villagers split into two UNRWA areas and only nine per cent moved to more than two areas. It is remarkable to note that 87 per cent of the refugees are in Palestine (where 29 per cent live) and in a 100 km-wide ring around it. Only 13 per cent are in other Arab and foreign countries. This proximity to the homeland is indicative of the bond between the refugees and their homes.

The right of return is legal. There is no precedent in UN history to the universal, sustained and firm consensus accorded to the right of the refugees to return to their homes. It has been affirmed over 100 times by the UN. The right to return home has been affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by similar European, American and African charters. The rising political weight of NGOsin effect working as parallel parliamentshas added emphasis to the Palestinians' right to return. Today there are 200 websites and societies advocating the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. From last summer to the next, there were and will be over a dozen conferences, seminars and workshops advocating this right.

The contrast in the attitude of Western powers between their vigorous military and diplomatic efforts to ensure the return of refugees in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Abkhazia and Kuwait and their feeble, and sometimes obstructive, efforts towards the Palestinian refugees is striking. No doubt this aggravates the refugees and increases the prospects of instability in the Middle East.

If Al-Ahram Weekly has chosen to publish Randa Shaath's poignant picture, taken in 1998, for the second time, it is because there may be no more powerful representation of what the right of return really means for Palestinians. Umm Saleh still holds the key to her house in Jaffa, which she was forced to leave over half a century ago. She now lives in Rafah, at the Sweden Camp. Her house, she knows, is still there, its occupants the occupiers. So Umm Saleh waits, and holds the key. Her grip is no looser now than it was 50 years ago, when she left her life behind.

The right of return is physically possible. This is contrary to the myths and misinformation campaigns propagated by the Israelis. Demographic studies show that 78 per cent of the Jews in Israel live in 15 per cent of Israel.

Only 22 per cent live in 85 per cent of Israel, which is largely Palestinian land. Of these, 19 per cent live in towns, mostly Palestinian. This leaves three per cent of Jews, the rural residents of the Kibbutzim and Moshav, in control of the vast Palestinian land. The Kibbutzim, once tenets of Zionism, are now ideologically and economically bankrupt.

They waste not only land, but 80 per cent of water (mostly stolen Arab water) to produce agricultural products which are worth three per cent of Israel's GNP. Thus we have here a tiny minority of 200,000 Jews obstructing the return of five million refugees, the rightful owners of the land they exploit. It is impossible for peace to prevail without the return of the refugees to their homes.

How could it be when a refugee in Gaza, with a density of 4,200 persons per square kilometre, looks over the barbed wire and sees his land almost empty, with six Jews per square kilometre wandering around?

The plight of the refugees in Lebanon is well known. Both they and the Lebanese refuse their resettlement in Lebanon.

What is not well known is that if they returned to their homes in Galilee (now mostly Arab), the effect on the Jewish density in the centre of the country would not exceed one per cent. Similarly, if the refugees in Gaza return to their homes in the south of the country (now largely empty), the effect on the Jewish density in the centre would not exceed five per cent.

The irony is that refugees in both Lebanon and Gaza are almost the same in number as the Russian immigrants who entered Israel in the '90s. This analysis shows that what is happening is a clear case of ethnic cleansing whereby the rightful owners are replaced by foreign immigrants whose only credential, according to Israeli law, is that they claim to be Jews.

The fact that the right of return is sacred, legal and possible has considerable implications. The refugees observe with dismay, rising to anger, then to possible violence, the pathetic performance of PA and the arrogant intransigence of the Israelis. A concession follows another by the PA in the charade called negotiations.

The rights of the refugees are pushed behind in their priority list, lip service to affirming Resolution-194 in public statements notwithstanding. There is now considerable agitation among the refugees and anxiety that the right of return, the raison d'être of the PLO and the pillar of the past 50 years of struggle, is now reduced to such trivialities as "token return" or "improvement of living conditions".

The pro-Israeli machine is busy producing studies, plans and the like for the resettlement of the refugees anywhere in the world except their homes. The much-touted Arzt plan, endorsed by the (US) Council on Foreign Relations, is shown, after careful analysis, to be nothing less than an ethnic cleansing plan, punishable by international law. Donna Arzt would not dare, on her admission, to advocate her scheme in a refugee camp. A dwindling number of misguided or simply uninformed Arab individuals parrot these ideas in the name of "peace relations".

They publish articles or "studies"sometimes generously paid forproposing schemes or suggestions which do not withstand the slightest scrutiny. A sign of the changing times is that such utterings are beginning to disappear from respectable fora. The tragedy of the Palestinians and the misrepresentation or neglect of their rights by friend and foe alike prompted many Palestinians to call for a unified and serious action. Academics, writers, activists, ordinary refugees in camps, university students and others like them saw the need to state their rights clearly and push for their implementation. They have one thing in common: they are non-political and their personal record and integrity are impeccable.

They come from all areas of Al-Shatat (the Diaspora), including Israel, where 300,000 are uprooted and declared "present-absentees" by Israel. On Saturday 4 March, a Declaration of the Right of Return was announced in Jerusalem, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, the Gulf and in Europe and the US. This Declaration will be presented to the UN and the heads of Western and Arab governments. Already there was an outpouring of support from places as diverse as refugee camps and Korean university campuses.

This new movement manifests itself everywhere, in the poor refugee camps and in the comfortable life of academia in the West. A recent poll conducted by the PA showed that 90.8 per cent of respondents refused to accept a Palestinian state if the price is to forfeit their right of return. If that is the opinion of refugees who live on Palestine soil, one can imagine the opinion of those outside it.

Imagine that a miracle occurs and 99 per cent of the refugees agree to forfeit their right of return and only one per cent decide to resist it. This means 50,000 determined people, or 10,000 in each of the five main areas of UNRWA operations.

This would be a cause of concern for all those who wish for a just and stable peace. Imagine also that the PA is forced to impose an unjust solution on the refugees in a contrived sort of agreement with Israel. This will affect only 29 per cent of the refugees who live in Palestinian territories, leaving 71 per cent free to respond to this agreement as they like. Many of those living abroad have considerable skills. Some are now citizens of European countries and the US, who could take their case to their governments and human rights courts.

A recent example is the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation (CPRR), incorporated in the US, which has collected 15,000 signatures in favour of the right of return and is affiliated to 130 similar organisations.

It is clear that such a swell of support for the right of return will not be assuaged by PA assurances, Arab complacency, European "humanitarian" gestures and total US-Israeli disregard for the Right of Return. The plain fact is there shall be no peace in the Middle East without the return of the refugees to their homes.