Iraq’s Palestinian refugees back at square one

5 March 2009

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“Word is that the Palestinians will be hosted in tent-camps in the afterlife,” al-Tanf refugee camp, January 2007. (J. Wreford/UNHCR)


When images and news of the new border tent-camps that the Palestinian refugees from Iraq fled to after the US invasion began to spread through Arabic-language media, a concurrent anecdote began to circulate: “Word is that the Palestinians will even be hosted in tent-camps in the afterlife.” The nightmare of the approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Palestinians whose families sought refuge in Iraq in 1948 is but the latest manifestation of the ongoing tragedy of Palestinian stateless refugeehood. This is a story of multiple uprootings and dispossessions since 1948 by both Israel as well as Arab host states that have turned what is known as the Nakba of 1948 into a persistent and ever-present condition that has led to, and allowed for, multiple post-1948 Nakbas.

The central reason for this condition has been the lack of a resolution and restitution for the Nakba of 1948, leaving the Palestinians refugees in a peculiar hereditary refugee-stateless politico-legal status. Its peculiarity lies in the fact that it was supposed to be both transitional as well as temporary whereas after six decades it seems to have become an ad infinitum status. Their right to return to their homeland has thus far been withheld by Israel, under whose territorial jurisdiction their homeland now lies. At the same time, Israel by definition and in praxis ethnically excludes the indigenous inhabitants of the land on which it was established. The Palestinian refugees are therefore simultaneously stateless, denied their homeland as well as the right to return. Since 1948, this reality has left the Palestinians expelled beyond the borders of historic Palestine vulnerable to the fate and at times even whims of their Arab host-states as they have nowhere to return to.

During my extended doctoral fieldwork stay in Damascus, Syria, I met and interviewed a group of Palestinian refugee women from Iraq whose memory of the Nakba was painstakingly present. “In short, we are back at 1948,” as Suhaila, one of my interviewees, explained. Like her sister Suhaila, Umm Nawras is also considered one of the more “fortunate” Palestinian refugees from Iraq owing to her legal right of abode in Syria. This right is based on her citizenship from her deceased husband’s country in a time when the world has closed all doors in the faces of Palestinians who hold refugee travel documents from Iraq despite the onslaught to which they have been subjected in the new reality of US-occupied Iraq.

Umm Nawras’s fortune, however, is entirely relative to and perhaps quite telling of the calamity that has befallen the Palestinians from Iraq when one takes into consideration that she fled Baghdad a widow and the sole carer for her two young children after the double kidnapping and murder of her husband and her brother as well as the repeated raids and threats by militias on the Palestinian housing complex in al-Durra, Baghdad, where she lived. The story, however, does not end here, as a large number of her immediate family — including her elderly mother and two of her married brothers and their families — now live in tents in al-Tanf camp as they await third country resettlement because they cannot go back to Iraq, enter a neighboring state or return to their place of origin.

From Palestine to Iraq

Umm Nawras generously invited me to her home where I was introduced to Suhaila as well as Amira, their nine-months-pregnant sister-in-law. Amira is a current resident of al-Tanf camp who was given temporary permission to enter Syria in order to give birth and then return to her tent home in al-Tanf as there are no medical facilities in the camp. The family histories of these women are similar to many Palestinians refugees from Iraq.

Like most Palestinian refugees in Iraq, their families were originally from villages in the Haifa district that were ethnically cleansed between May and July 1948 and later wiped off the face of the earth. Furthermore, their families too had first sought refuge in the Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarm areas in the West areas before the retreating Iraqi army withdrew with approximately 5,000 refugees in 1949. However, unlike the fate of the villages of most of the refugees who found themselves in Iraq, Umm Nawras and Suhaila’s families hail from a village that was not demolished owing to its architectural appeal to some in the unit that occupied it: Ayn Hawd today is an “artists’ colony.” The implications and injustice of 1948 could not be crueler, especially when some of the original inhabitants of Ayn Hawd as well as their descendants are languishing in tent-camps yet again.

“When they first brought them to Iraq from Palestine, they put them in Basra, in a place they used to call al-Shuaybah camp,” Umm Nawras explained, referring to where her family, alongside the rest of the new Palestinian arrivals, were first placed in Iraq. Shuaybah was an abandoned British military barrack in the desert south of Basra where the Palestinians were placed under military jurisdiction. Two years later they came under civil jurisdiction and their welfare was relegated to the newly-created Refugee Affairs Department of the Ministry of Interior. They were issued Iraqi travel documents for Palestinian refugees and allowed equal access to health, education and public sector employment. These conditions were generally consistent, with a few exceptions during the various regime changes of Iraq’s post-independence history.

Under civil jurisdiction, the Palestinians were moved between Mosul, Basra and Baghdad, although the overwhelming majority then, as in 2003, were placed in the capital. In Baghdad, the Palestinians were housed in various public buildings until most were placed in complexes: al-Baladiyyat and al-Durra in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. Some families did remain in the various public buildings and the more affluent rented at their own expense. Later on, the housing issue would be one of the main catalysts of Iraqi resentment toward Palestinians that exploded after 2003 due to their perceived preferential treatment under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“I came of age in [the area of] al-Za’faraniyya where we used to live in huge blind peoples’ homes … It was a huge complex with many rooms; it had huge halls around which every family was allocated a room,” Umm Nawras told me after I probed about life in pre-2003 Iraq. “I remember that whenever we would write our postal address, we would write: the former blind peoples’ homes, the Palestinians’ houses.” In the late 1980s, the women’s families were allocated a private apartment in the purpose-built al-Durra complex and shared the fate of other residents of the country who lived through the Iran-Iraq war and later the UN-imposed siege after the first Gulf War.

Post-US invasion Iraq

“After the fall of the regime [in 2003], we lived on but of course it was difficult for us to come to terms with the idea that the regime had fallen and that the country was falling apart,” Umm Nawras explained. She added, “We lived on as there was no other option but to live on. The material circumstances improved a little when compared to how things were before, meaning that the sanctions were no longer there.” Suhaila added to her sister’s thoughts by explaining that “during the first year after the fall of the [former] regime, we weren’t affected at all.” “A year later,” Umm Nawras continued, “we would hear a Palestinian was kidnapped here, a Palestinian was killed there. It was happening both randomly and sparsely — it wasn’t a continuous and a targeted onslaught. So those of us who were in different areas weren’t necessarily affected by these distant events.”

In fact, as early as July 2003, the United Nations Higher Committee for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that some 1,000 Palestinian families in Baghdad, or some 4,000 individuals, had already been internally displaced and lived in makeshift camps in the city after they were forcibly evicted from their houses by landlords who saw the general lawlessness that engulfed the country as an opportunity to reclaim their property. Human Rights Watch reported that as early as late March 2003, fleeing Palestinians were already stuck on the Jordan-Iraq border. In a one-off concession, they were admitted to a camp in the beginning of May that was established near al-Ruwaished in the Jordanian desert in internment-like conditions.

“It began in earnest in 2005, and by 2006 things simply exploded,” Suhaila added. “In 2005 the state itself began to target Palestinians, they put Palestinian men on TV and blamed them for bombings.”

Before meeting the women, I interviewed the director of the Committee for the Relief of Palestinians from Iraq. During our interview, the director also noted Suhaila’s account of the impact of the actions of powerful actors in post-invasion Iraq on Palestinian refugees. After a bombing in May 2005, the notorious al-Dib Brigade of the militia-infested Ministry of Interior (MOI) raided al-Baladiyyat and arrested four men, including three brothers. They were later paraded on TV with visible signs of torture and made a public confession with regards to their responsibility for the bombing.

“People started looking at us differently,” Suhaila said, referring to the storm that swept the Palestinians. “The general perception was that you [Palestinians] live amongst us and dare to bomb us?” Referring to the introduction of a residency permit system for the Palestinian refugees by the powerful MOI, Suhaila explained that “it was during that same time that the Immigration and Passports Department [of the MOI] began to demand residency permits from us. First, they demanded a renewal on a monthly basis and then increased it two months and in the end it was three months. It involved a lengthy bureaucratic process in which we had to sit out and wait in the sun while we were out there as an easy [Palestinian] target. It was a way in which they could register all the young men firstly and foremost.” Amira added that “In the end we stopped taking the risk of renewing our residency permits — the journey to the ministry was dangerous and it was in the dangerous Green Zone. I saw with my own eyes how they would use this opportunity to register the names of the young men.”

The MOI-initiated persecution had thus far been carried out on a wave of resentment of Palestinians for their perceived Saddam loyalty as well as former regime benefaction. The bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 added a new dimension to the fate of the Palestinians as sectarianism now openly came to the fore. Thus, Palestinians were seen as former benefactors of the regime and Saddam loyalists, but moreover, they were now also seen as “Sunnis” or recently-arrived terrorists responsible for atrocities like the al-Askari bombing or a combination of both. It was shortly after this pivotal bombing that armed militia men came to Amira’s sister’s house in Madina al-Hurriyya and explicitly threatened to rape her daughter if she didn’t leave her house immediately.

It was after Samarra too that Umm Nawras’s husband and brother were rounded up from their place of work in a privately-owned mill factory by militia men patrolling the area under the guise of “economic security.” The militia men, self-proclaimed members of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia, released the Shia factory owner whom they had threatened to blow up alongside his factory after he had attempted to intervene on their behalf. Umm Nawras’s husband and brother were summarily executed. “We didn’t know these details for eight days,” Suhaila told me as she tried to explain the extent of the family’s torment. The family spent the next eight days mediating with what seems to have been criminal offices that operated under the banner of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia. “Part of their demands was a formal televised apology from the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister for a demonstration in which the recently killed [Musab] al-Zarqawi was proclaimed as the martyr of the Islamic nation.” She added, “But they had already killed them by then, these were just all excuses, it was a coincidence that their kidnapping had coincided with his death and this demonstration.”

“After what happened we were overwhelmed by a pressing need to leave Baghdad,” Umm Nawras explained. “My husband and my brother were killed and so members of my extended family began fearing for their men as well — so did our neighbors. Everyone knew that they were innocent and that their murder was therefore solely based on their identity cards. Jordan didn’t accept any Palestinians — Ruwaished camp was closed at this stage. So how were we supposed to leave? Syria didn’t allow any Palestinians in as well and this is how al-Tanf camp was eventually established [in 2006].”

It appears that the kidnapping and killing of the men was the beginning of the infiltration of al-Durra and the targeting of its Palestinian inhabitants by elements of the same militias who went on criminal rampages. Umm Nawras remarked that “shortly after what happened [to us] al-Durra was raided, and during those raids they would yell, ‘You Palestinians, you takfiriyyin [those who denounce a Shia person for blasphemy], leave, get out of here, you Saddamists, what are you still doing here?’ The men began sitting at home [for fear of being killed] and the women would run the errands.”

“The presence of the militias got deeper [in al-Durra] after what happened,” Suhaila explained. Amira added that “They would put an X on people’s homes meaning that if you didn’t leave within a day or two you would be killed.” The final straw for Umm Nawras and Suhaila was the kidnapping of their Palestinian neighbor who had gone to settle his business accounts with his associates as a precursor to leaving Baghdad. His kidnappers called his family and demanded a $50,000 ransom which the family could not deliver. After managing to raise some $13,000, the kidnappers took the money and disappeared. The family eventually fled Baghdad without being able to locate their son’s corpse.

I asked Amira about her last months in Baghdad, when her family fled al-Durra and opted to stay with relatives in what they thought would be a safer area, al-Baladiyyat. “They started attacking us with mortar rockets because it was a big and strong area and they therefore couldn’t just enter it [like they entered other areas] … So they began to shell us instead. Three or four days after our arrival in al-Baldiyyat we were bombarded with unbelievable ferocity. That day a rocket directly hit my sister’s brother-in-law … and immediately killed him.”

In search of a second refuge

By 2006, fleeing to the border was the only option for Palestinians who couldn’t otherwise afford forged passports, and this is where the tale of the border camps begins. Amira described the experience, stating that “Imagine that you lived a normal life and then you were put in a tent all of a sudden. The elderly Palestinians, like my father and my mother, used to live a very basic life in Palestine; they didn’t even have electricity, yet they found the experience of living in tents very difficult [in 1948]. So how can the same repeated experience be for someone who is used to a life in which there are computers and the Internet and universities?”

After I asked her about the possibility of being resettled in a country as far away as Brazil, like some in al-Ruwaished camp eventually were, Amira replied, “My priority is a house, I want a house first and foremost. I will give birth soon and my son may die from the wind or from the snow or from fire because all the tents are next to each other. This has happened before, and is very likely to happen during winter; there was a time when 50 tents burned down and after that you start from zero all over again.” I asked if an Arab country would be a better option because of the cultural affinity and to be closer to kin and family, to which she answered, “We in fact argue over this a lot in the camp.” Amira added, “during their first year in al-Tanf, they [the residents] used to prefer being resettled in an Arab country, but after all the bitterness they have lived through — sometimes the UNHCR would only come once every two months, you feel like no one cares about you, and not a single Arab country has opened its borders. They can at least take those who are skilled and can benefit their country. So when a country like Chile that is very far away offers to admit Palestinians, the resentment towards Arab states deepens.”

“I don’t want a house or anything,” Suhaila explained. “I just want citizenship, a document which forces others to respect me.” Amira agreed to this, and highlighted that defining characteristic of Palestinian stateless-refugeehood, that “the problem [is also] of needing a document with which you can travel and with which you can be respected. Because, in the end, what is a [Palestinian refugee] travel document [worth]?”

Before I leave, I ask the sisters about the prospect of being allowed to go back to Ayn Hawd. Suhaila immediately exclaimed, “I wish!” and then quickly added, “but they would never allow us.”

The names of interviewees in this article have been changed for their safety.

Anaheed Al-Hardan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College (University of Dublin) where she is researching memories of the 1948 Nakba. She can be reached at alhardaa A T tcd D O T ie.