Palestinians in Iraq Face a Second Exile

Threatened in Iraq, these refugees have no country to return to.

Robert S. Eshelman August 14, 2007

Palestinian refugees arrive in Syria from Iraq at the al-Tanf border crossing on May 9, 2006.

With­in the nar­row strip of no man’s land sep­a­rat­ing Iraq and Syr­ia, near­ly 400 Pales­tin­ian refugees have been forced into an impos­si­ble exis­tence at the al-Tanf refugee camp. Aid orga­ni­za­tions peri­od­i­cal­ly deliv­er water, pre-cooked meals and mea­ger sup­plies of med­i­cine to the marooned inhab­i­tants. Tents are their only pro­tec­tion from the sand­storms and the intense desert sun. 

The sit­u­a­tion of these Pales­tini­ans, who fled vio­lence against them in Iraq, where they had lived for decades, is anoth­er con­se­quence of the U.S. occu­pa­tion and the bit­ter civ­il war grip­ping much of cen­tral Iraq. Worse, they are now refugees twice over. They can nei­ther return to Iraq nor their own homes, for they have no nation to return to. 

What is hap­pen­ing there is one of the great­est tragedies brought about by the Iraq war,” says Kris­tele Younes of Refugees Inter­na­tion­al, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based orga­ni­za­tion advo­cat­ing on behalf of dis­placed peo­ple around the world. 

Um Rafat arrived at al-Tanf a year ago. I was threat­ened by [Shi’a] mili­tias, who said that one of my sons would be killed or kid­napped unless we left,” she says. I left with my two daugh­ters and one of my sons and left behind my hus­band and my old­er son.” The two men have since fled the family’s Bagh­dad home, she says, and are now liv­ing elsewhere.

Iraq has long host­ed dis­placed Pales­tini­ans, who first set­tled there fol­low­ing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Sub­se­quent groups arrived after the Six Day War in 1967 and the Gulf War of 1991, when Yass­er Arafat’s sup­port for the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait trig­gered anti-Pales­tin­ian sen­ti­ments in the Gulf. Over the years, oth­ers set­tled in Iraq seek­ing work. By 2003, the Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion was an esti­mat­ed 34,000.

Not all Iraqis accept­ed the refugees and Sad­dam Hussein’s past poli­cies helped to foment ani­mos­i­ty toward the Pales­tini­ans. By pro­vid­ing the refugees finan­cial sup­port, Hus­sein sought to boost his pan-Arab cre­den­tials, but it also kin­dled acri­mo­ny among some Iraqis, espe­cial­ly after U.N. sanc­tions crip­pled Iraq’s economy.

With Hussein’s ouster and the out­break of full-throt­tled sec­tar­i­an­ism fol­low­ing the Feb­ru­ary 2006 bomb­ing of Samarra’s al-Askariyya shrine, Pales­tini­ans have increas­ing­ly become tar­gets for killings and kid­nap­pings. Accord­ing to a Sep­tem­ber 2006 Human Rights Watch report, in March 2006, mil­i­tants dis­trib­uted fly­ers in Pales­tin­ian neigh­bor­hoods of Bagh­dad call­ing them taq­firis,” or unbe­liev­ers, Wah­habis, and usurpers” and warned them to leave or be elim­i­nat­ed.” The report pro­files numer­ous threat­ened and ter­ri­fied Pales­tini­ans, whose num­bers have since dwin­dled to an esti­mat­ed 15,000 in Iraq.

As Pales­tini­ans such as Um Rafat and her fam­i­ly flee, they encounter closed bor­ders, with few excep­tions. Israel will not allow them to return to the West Bank or Gaza, much less set­tle with­in its own bor­ders; Jor­dan and Syr­ia argue that they each have a mas­sive Pales­tin­ian refugee pop­u­la­tion already. Few gov­ern­ments out­side the region have offered assistance. 

So they remain at al-Tanf. It is unbear­able,” says Um Rafat. The sand­storms are very hard for us. But if we close the door of the tent it will be very hot; if we open the door, it will be dusty inside. If we leave the tent we will have to face the burn­ing sun.” 

The cli­mate isn’t the only fac­tor mak­ing life hard at the camp. We are hav­ing health prob­lems,” says Abu Alaa, spokesper­son for al-Tanf’s coor­di­nat­ing com­mit­tee. Some peo­ple have hyper­ten­sion because of kid­ney prob­lems. Some are hav­ing diges­tive prob­lems because of the pre-cooked meals. And some are hav­ing eye prob­lems from the dust storms.” Fur­ther­more, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees (UNHCR), there have been five mis­car­riages at the camp since it opened in May 2006, and two women, one preg­nant at the time, have attempt­ed sui­cide. Noth­ing in life has pre­pared them for this,” says Sybel­la Wilkes, region­al spokesper­son for the UNHCR. The con­di­tions there are total­ly unac­cept­able for extend­ed human habitation.”

Near al-Tanf, on the Iraqi side of the bor­der, Pales­tini­ans are gath­er­ing at anoth­er camp called al-Waleed, now home to more than 1,000 refugees. They endure the same harsh con­di­tions as those at al-Tanf but are with­out much of the out­side aid and face threats by Iraqi mili­tias. Al-Tanf – nobody should be liv­ing there,” says Wilkes. At al-Waleed, it is 10 times worse; it’s the most inhu­mane environment.”

The lack of polit­i­cal will on the part of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is equal­ly out­ra­geous,” says Younes. The only solu­tion for these peo­ple is resettlement.”

But the cru­cial ques­tion – where – remains unanswered.

Dur­ing a recent sur­vey of the refugee sit­u­a­tion in Jor­dan and Syr­ia, Craig John­stone, deputy head of UNHCR, told IRIN news ser­vice: We are in touch with a cou­ple of coun­tries where we have some hope, but we don’t have a yes’ yet.”

Mean­while, as the num­bers at al-Waleed con­tin­ue to grow, Um Rafat and oth­er Pales­tini­ans at al-Tanf wait out the sum­mer heat and dust, which will soon give way to rain and cer­tain floods.

Robert Eshel­man’s arti­cles have appeared in The Brook­lyn Rail, In These Times and The Nation.
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