Friday, February 23, 2007

Palestinian Refugees - Stateless Forever?

This year the Palestinian Diaspora will be sixty years old. During the war that began in 1947 and concluded with the establishment of the State of Israel, a quarter of a million Palestinians were expelled from their homes at gunpoint and driven across the borders of the neighboring Arab states, where they became refugees - an event they now refer to as the Naqba: the Catastrophe. Despite UN Resolution 194,
that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible
the State of Israel has never allowed them to return. In 1967, hundreds of thousands more refugees fled the West Bank. Most of both groups remain, with their descendants, refugees to this day, four million persons without a state of their own.

The Palestinians as a people have a home nowhere on Earth. Of all the Arab states where they took refuge during the Naqba, none wanted them to remain. Only Jordan has offered a substantial number of them citizenship. Some have been able to emmigrate to the United States and other western nations, where citizenship is open to them. The remainder are officially homeless, often confined for generations to refugee camps under restrictive and discriminatory rules, without the same rights as citizens. In some places, they may not own property or work in certain jobs. Without rights, their presence in other nations is always precarious. As many as 400,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait as punishment for the PLO's support of Saddam Hussein's invasion of 1991.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was for some time one of the more welcoming of the Arab states to Palestinian exiles. Being seen to support the Palestinians was one of Saddam's ways of expressing his antagonism to Israel. Palestinians were given incentives to immigrate to Iraq - although not citizenship or the right to own land - and special privileges not available to ordinary Iraqis.

These privileges, however, caused resentment of the Palestinians, particularly on the part of the Shi'ites, and almost immediately after the war, the Iraqi population began to turn on the foreigners living among them. Hundreds of Palestinians have been murdered in Baghdad, and the violence has only increased since, as Shi'ite militias conduct campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

Many of the approximately 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq have been living in the country since 1948 and have known no other home. Stereotyped as supporters of Saddam Hussein, and prime candidates for the insurgency, many today face harassment, threats of deportation, media scapegoating, arbitrary detention, torture and murder.

Palestinian refugees came to Iraq in several waves. The first group, some 5,000 persons from Haifa and Jaffa, came in 1948. Others arrived after the 1967 War and a third group arrived in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when many Palestinian refugees were forced to leave Kuwait.


Palestinian refugees were provided protection by successive Iraqi governments and enjoyed a relatively high standard of treatment, mainly guided by the Casablanca Protocol ratified by the League of Arab States in 1965.1 Palestinians were issued special travel documents, had the right to work and were given full access to health, education and other government services. In addition, they were provided with government-owned housing or fixed, subsidised rent in privately-owned houses and apartments. In effect, Palestinians enjoyed many of the same rights and relative prosperity as Iraq citizens. However, in the aftermath of wars, Palestinians, like the Iraqis among whom they live, have witnessed dramatic declines in their standards of living.

The fall of the former regime in April 2003 left Palestinians particularly vulnerable, given their uncertain legal status and the loss of benefits previously provided to them. They have been harassed by segments of the Iraqi population and armed militias who resent their perceived close affiliation with the Ba’athist regime. The ongoing insurgency, which has taken the lives of thousands of Iraqis, is blamed on foreign agents, Palestinians and other refugees of Arab origin, who are accused of acts of terrorism.

When the former regime fell, hundreds of Palestinian families were evicted from their homes by landlords resentful that they had been forced to house subsidised Palestinian tenants. There was an intense climate of hostility to Palestinians and many received verbal or physical threats. In May 2005, Palestinians were widely blamed in the media for a bombing incident in the al-Jadida area of Baghdad after a televised ‘confession’ by four Palestinians. They bore visible signs of beating and according to their lawyer had undergone torture while in detention.

In mid-March, a militant group calling itself the “Judgment Day Brigades” distributed leaflets in Palestinian neighborhoods, accusing the Palestinians of collaborating with the insurgents, and stating, “We warn that we will eliminate you all if you do not leave this area for good within ten days.” The killings and death threats put the Palestinian community in a “state of shock,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and led Palestinian National Authority President Mahmud Abbas and the High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to each call upon Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to intervene to stop the killings of Palestinians. Fear continues to grip Palestinian communities in Baghdad, and thousands more Palestinians in Iraq are eager to leave the country. And the killings continue: UNHCR reported at least six more killings of Iraqi Palestinians in Baghdad and renewed death threats against Iraqi Palestinians in the last two weeks of May.

Last week three Palestinian men were abducted in Baghdad.

The three were identified as lawyer Ibrahim Saleh Abu Abdoun, Ayman Baha’ Ed Deen Al Marzouqi, and Waleed Khalid Sadeq.


Armed groups in Iraq have carried out several abductions of Palestinian refugees, and are responsible for several bombings that targeted Palestinian areas; dozens were killed and injured in these attacks.


Several Palestinian refugees were abducted in January by gunmen who attacked areas inhabited by Palestinian refugees, especially Al Ameen neighborhood, Al Sina’a and Al Nidal in Baghdad.

In response to this violence, thousands of Palestinians are attempting to flee the country, along with many times the number of Iraqis. There is, however, one difference. While Iraqi citizens will be able eventually, in theory, to return one day to Iraq, the Palestinian refugees are stateless. There is no country that will take them in for fear they may never leave, having nowhere else to go. Jordan and Syria, in particular, while they have allowed in large numbers of Iraqis, have closed their borders to Palestinian Iraqi refugees.

In consequence, an increasing number of Palestinian refugees from Iraq are trapped on these border in no-man's-land, existing in tents, in limbo. They can neither return to Iraq nor leave it.

"All our lives we've been refugees. My family fled, we fled. My family stayed in tents, they saw similar war, now we're sitting in tents, seeing war and not knowing what the future will bring."
Miriam, Iraqi refugee of Palestinian descent

Meanwhile in a related development, the number of Palestinian refugees stranded at Al Waleed on the Iraq-Syria border has now [February 2007] reached more than 750 after the arrival over the last two days of 73 refugees fleeing the violence, harassment and killings in Baghdad. More are reported to be following. The total of Palestinians at this border area has now reached 753, with 354 stuck in no-man's land and 399 remaining on the Iraqi side. An abandoned school close to the border site has been opened to accommodate the new arrivals but is already full and any new arrivals will have to live in tents.

If it is a human right for any people to have a state, a home to which they can return in times of distress, the Palestinian people have long been deprived of such a right. For 60 years, they have been homeless. The State of Israel persists in its refusal to allow them to return to the land of their birth and ancestry, within its borders. For most of this period, Israel also worked to prevent the establishment of a state for the Palestinians, but in the last decade, this has finally changed. Israel now officially supports the idea of a Palestine state, and in doing so, insists that the human rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes must be fulfilled by their returning to Palestine, not Israel.

And surely this is only right and just, when all the world refuses to accept them, that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return, of all places in the world, to Palestine. However, Israel, which controls all the borders of the Palestinian territory, refuses to allow this. Despite its declaration that Palestine is the only acceptable homeland for the Palestinian refugees, it will not let them in.

Now, with the urgency of the situation of the refugees fleeing Iraq, would be the perfect time for the world to urge Israel to reverse this policy. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the Israelis to allow those refugees from Iraq who were born in Gaza to return there. Israel has refused.

Israelis claim that their state was established so that Jewish people anywhere in the world would have a homeland, a place to which they could turn for refuge and escape from danger. They have claimed that this is a human right which justified the establishment of this state, even when it created as a consequence another stateless people. Surely the Israelis, of all the people in the world, ought to recognize that what is a human right for one people must be a right for all.

For 60 years, the Palestinian exiles have remained stateless in a world where people lacking a state have nowhere to turn for safety and refuge from danger. Now, the crisis in Iraq dictates that it is time to put an end to this failure of the international community to fulfill their human rights. Let the Palestinians fleeing Iraq take refuge - in Palestine.

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