Sympathy and prejudice

A Palestinian couple weds in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, July 2009.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

It took a long time before Maryam’s father would sanction her marriage to Nasser.

“Marrying Nasser was a kind of fantasy for me,” Maryam, who did not want to give her real name or that of her husband for this article, told The Electronic Intifada while playing with her toddler son.

The problem? On the surface, there shouldn’t have been any. Nasser was eligible by most measures. He drew a good salary as a bank employee, owned his own apartment and came from an educated family. Maryam loved him.

But Maryam’s father was not enthused because, like some 1.3 million other Palestinians in Gaza, Nasser came from a family of refugees. Maryam and her family are Gaza natives, a minority now, and her father wanted her to marry another Gaza native.

Such social stratification is not unusual in Palestinian society. It is mirrored across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip where refugees wound up with their UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) ration cards, poverty and homelessness.

As a sense of shared Palestinian kinship competed with, and often came out second to, traditional ties to village and town, refugees came to be seen as outsiders to be treated with “a mixture of pity and contempt,” according to George Bisharat, a lawyer and commentator on Palestinian affairs.

Every city in occupied territory has refugee camps attached to it, and these often organize themselves in parallel to the city.

Refugees have their own schools – run by UNRWA, which was originally set up as a stopgap measure until refugees could return – often their own soccer teams and it is common for people to speak of themselves as being from either the camp or the city. If the former, that is almost always preceded by the town or village they were originally from.

Reactionary mindset

Still, Maryam did not expect her father to have such a reactionary mindset. He is young compared to other parents, and so his argument – “What will we tell people?” – shocked her.

Nasser had to go repeatedly to Maryam’s house and to her father’s office to convince him. His persistence eventually paid off. After several attempts and visits between the assigned notables from both families, Maryam’s father finally agreed.

In Gaza, the distinction between refugees and the local population is most obvious in older generations. Initially, there was more pity than contempt, to use Bisharat’s formulation, in the immediate aftermath of the Nakba in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced to flee, losing their homes, land and properties in what is now called Israel.

The occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967 changed that dynamic, said Arafat Hilles, a social scientist with Al-Quds Open University.

After 1967, Hilles argued, the importance of international institutions supporting refugees, such as UNRWA, increased.

“These international institutions limit their services depending basically on whether the person is a refugee. This strengthened the distinction between refugees and non-refugees in the minds of people,” he said.

Stereotypes emerged, where refugees came to be disparaged as dependents of international aid organizations. Locals, landowners in particular, were seen as arrogant and disrespectful of refugees’ plight.

Preserving memory

Sarah met Ali (neither would give their real names or the names of family members for this article) at a laptop repair shop. They fell in love. But when, after three years, Ali tried to ask for Sarah’s hand in marriage, he was rebuffed.

While Sarah’s father – the family hails from al-Majdal near Tiberias in the north, which was depopulated after attacks by Zionist forces and then destroyed after the fighting in 1948 – was neutral, her mother, Najat, objected. Without learning anything about Ali, Najat refused even to meet Ali’s mother simply because the family was native to Gaza.

Ali’s mother persisted. She went repeatedly to Sarah’s family home, the last time effectively being thrown out. In the end, Sarah threatened to starve herself if her mother refused the meeting. She went far enough and lost enough weight that she was admitted to a hospital.

Eventually, Najat came around. Sarah and Ali were married, have a small family, and even Najat can now laugh at the prejudice she then harbored.

“Our parents planted ideas in our minds that the people of al-Majdal are better than the indigenous, we’re well-educated and our habits are totally different,” Najat remembered while laughing at the absurdity of that belief system.

“My mother and I were born in Gaza and have never seen al-Majdal,” said Sarah. “I don’t know how the idea of different habits has not faded over the years. Most of us were born and have lived our whole lives in Gaza under the same circumstances as everyone else here.”

But the distinction has its roots in the Palestinian political struggle and should not simply be viewed as a negative, said Ramy Abdu, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.

In a society where more than half the population became refugees in 1948, he argued, and most of the rest continue to live under occupation, the existing relationship between refugees and those who remained on their land is overall a reasonable one, and one that has improved over time. He pointed out that refugees were never prevented from holding prestigious positions or competing with non-refugees.

“The national project was based in part on strengthening the individual’s sense of belonging to their village or town in order to preserve the Palestinian memory and the Palestinian right of return,” Abdu said. “From that angle, any negative effect is minimal.”

Class and tribe

Abdu acknowledges that there are distinctions between the refugee and non-refugee communities, but not to the extent that these have formed a threat to communal peace or social cohesion. This he credits to a sense of common purpose.

“The Palestinian people have to stand for their rights against the Israeli occupation as one united nation.”

Ghassan Weshah, head of the history and archaeology department at the Islamic University of Gaza, says the role of institutions supporting refugees should not be reduced to simply providing relief. UNRWA, he notes as an example, plays an important relief role, especially as the general economic situation has deteriorated in Palestine. But its function is more than economic.

“The responsibility of UNRWA is to help refugees, but it must also continue this work to remind the world of the refugee issue and the right of return. If UNRWA goes, the refugee issue is over.”

Additionally, Weshah asserts the issue of who is or isn’t acceptable to marry is not a problem exclusive to Palestinian society, nor one that arose with the creation of the refugees.

“Palestine had these class perspectives even before the Nakba. People of some cities and villages used to refuse marriage proposals from other villages depending on class criteria,” said Weshah.

Waad Abu Zaher, 24, agrees that in the matter of marriage, family support depends on more than just the issue of whether or not a person is a refugee. She herself saw a marriage proposal from a colleague at a training course center rejected by his family on the basis that she was a refugee and he native to Gaza, but she said this is all mixed in with traditional tribal and class distinctions.

“Despite all the intellectual, educational and cultural development we have achieved,” said Abu Zaher, “a young man must still marry a girl of the same tribe or at least of the same class, whatever the refugee status.”

Nesma Seyam is an interpreter, journalist and fixer based in Gaza. Twitter: @Nesma_Seyam