Following the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Palestinians on both side of the border line were quick to grab the historic opportunity for family reunions across the make-shift border fence. The air was filled with joy, yearning and despair as thousands of Palestinian refugees from camps in Lebanon were able - for the first time since 1967 or even 1948 - to touch their relatives living in Israel or in one of the West Bank refugee camps, exchange news and get a glimpse of the landscape of Palestine.
"You could see that people were wearing their new clothes, fit for the occasion. It is a family visit flooded with love and prevention. From inside the one meter separating both sides, you can hear a flow of names flying through the air, "My name is so & so…, I'm looking for such and such person…do you know him?" Words were not directed towards a specific person, but only hoping for a positive reaction from the other side. The only clue was the name of a father or grandfather to re-unite the families. "Are you the son of …your grandfather's name was….I'm your relative…whom did you marry…how many children do you have…"Talks about marriages and deaths were overshadowed by fixing dates. "Meet me tomorrow…meet me Friday after prayer, tell the others to come…" They never failed to come. News was flying so fast. Those absent suddenly appeared, and those present don't want to leave. A girl and a boy arrived with their mother. They cried waiting for their grandfather. Nour, the little boy, kept asking for his grandfather. He knows him very well. His mother told him a lot about him. He knows him, but only needs to see him for the first time. The grandfather came at last, rushing, causing more tears to flow. Imagination became reality, breathing and talking, but not allowed to survive. Nour went on crying, calling his grandfather until the Israeli soldier told him to shut up and keep away from the fence to allow the "legal" distance, maybe to protect the wire from the warmth of a meeting that might melt it into pieces, the meeting that they feared most. Not scared at all, Nour kept crying and coming nearer until he was able to touch his grandfather's hand. His grandfather said, "Don't cry my dear, Habibi Nour…don't come and wait for me in the hot sun. I will send a message for you to come and see me again. I promise." Nour's face shone to hear that promise. He left with his mother shouting, "You see mother, he will send for me again. Don't forget, don't forget…" Nour continued to say. Hands and bodies were penetrating the fence, the thorns of the wire were piercing its teeth inside their hands, chest, even faces, tearing their clothes, but they did not mind as long as they could have one touch from an outstretched hand. Letters, addresses, and dates were flying everywhere. Bottles of water, pieces from torn clothes, photos were exchanged across the fence, but tears were the master of the occasion. They couldn't cut the iron fence for sure, but they made it more flexible. They had been waiting all their lives to exchange such a long look, but how long will they wait to embrace each other?"
(ASSAFIR newspaper, Beirut, May 31, 2000; forwarded by Beit Atfal al-Sumoud, Beirut)
News of the open access to the border spread rapidly, and the initially random meetings started to be replaced by coordinated visits organized by Palestinian committees and NGOs on both sides of the dividing fence. Refugees of Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut were planning to meet their relatives and friends of the destroyed village of al-Bassa, and the children of IBDA'A Cultural Center of Deheishe camp (West Bank) took the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the children of Shatilla camp (Beirut), whom they had known only via email correspondence in the framework of their joint Across-Border Internet Project (www.deheisheh.acrossborders.org).
Scenes and stories of Palestinian refugee longing for the implementation of their right to reunite with their families and to return to Palestine were extensively covered by the local and international media - a fact which caused much disturbance to the Israeli authorities. Anxious about media pictures and stories which will remind the world about the fact that Israel continues to deny the right of return to Palestinian refugees, Israel's army started to obstruct the Palestinian refugee reunions on Sunday, 4 June 2000 by adding fences which prevented physical contact between the people arriving from both sides. On Saturday 3 June, a young man of the Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe, the main site of these meetings, was injured by an Israeli soldier who had fired at him, and the head of the Northern Command of the Israeli Army, Brigadier Gabi Ashkenazi, had declared the area a closed military zone. Protest by Palestinians on the site, joined by Knesset member Issam Makhoul, resulted in violent clashes with the Israeli soldiers on June 5, and more troops arrived to take control. Israeli Minister for Public Security Shlomo Ben Ami explained to journalists that "these concentrations of thousands of people may create a dangerous situation. We are trying to find an official solution and Knesset members should not turn every such situation into a Stalingrad." (Ha'aretz, 6 June 2000). Pending such an official solution, Palestinian refugees are no longer able to embrace each other and glance at their homeland.