Refugees, twice over
"Talabani wants to make Kurdistan an Arab nation. Don't let him do it," a Kurdish blogger warned early this month. His rage was provoked by a rumor that the Iraqi president had approved a plan permitting Palestinians to live in Kurdistan. Dozens of letters to the Kurdish press made it absolutely clear that Kurds object to "Arab" residents in their well-kept, protected ethnographic region. "Arabs" include anyone who is not a Kurd - Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis and Iraqis - but most of the current wrath is directed at Palestinians.
The latest uproar began when Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Palestinian Authority's Preventative Security in the West Bank, met with Jalal Talabani in early February. Rajoub's request that Talabani protect persecuted Palestinians in Kurdistan was met with a resounding Kurdish protest. After a few days, an official announcement was issued in Talabani's name stating that no promises were made to the Palestinians.
"They are certainly invited to visit the Kurdish region, but we will not let them settle there," Talabani explained. There are no clear figures indicating how many Palestinians still reside in Iraq. Some estimates state that about 35,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Iraq before the war. Current guesses indicate that 15,000-22,000 Palestinians are still there.
This is not the nation's largest minority, but it is apparently the most persecuted. Testimony by Palestinian refugees to journalists and human rights organizations paints a very grave picture: Iraqi gangs break into Palestinian homes at night and demand the residents leave within 24 hours. In isolated cases, Palestinians have been kidnapped on the street or at work, and their bodies have been found several days later, in ditches or garbage cans.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry grants Palestinians little rest - reports indicate that severe harassment of Palestinian families is a matter of course.
Unlike the 2 million Iraqi refugees who have left their homeland, Palestinians usually carry no documents bearing witness to their Iraqi citizenship, or anything that would permit them entry into neighboring Arab states, like Jordan or Syria.
Saddam Hussein absorbed Palestinian refugees and granted them excellent conditions: free medical care and education, choice employment options, and mainly, relatively upscale housing in the former homes of Shi'ites, who were expelled from central Baghdad, or Jews, who lived in the Bataween neighborhood. (Palestinians paid a nominal rent of $2 a month for these homes.) But Saddam blocked them from obtaining citizenship or any other permanent residence documents. As far as he was concerned, the shelter he provided via oral agreements was more than enough.
Target for hatred
Saddam's overtures made the Palestinian community the target of Iraqi hatred, and the backlash came swiftly after the end of the war. First, the Shi'ite homeowners came to expel Palestinians from their homes. Later, when major terror attacks became common, Palestinians were fingered as collaborators with terror organizations, particularly Al-Qaida in Iraq. This month, Sheikh Nasser al-Saidi, a Shi'ite cleric who lives in Sadr City, Baghdad, called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Iraq. "Go to your own Palestine. Fight the occupation there," he told them.
The Iraqi minister of displaced persons and immigration also has failed to reassure Palestinians. He explained in an interview, "Palestinians are not wanted now in Iraq, because they are suspected of committing acts of terror."
Palestinians who want to renounce this sweeping accusation find themselves trapped between the government and Sunni terror groups. Last week, an organization that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq, and apparently includes a number of terror organizations and Al-Qaida representatives, issued a call to Palestinians: "Because of the current hardship and suffering of our Palestinian brothers in Iraq, we call on them to come and live in the cities of the Islamic State of Iraq, where they will be protected ... In the cities of Anbar, Diyala and Salah al-Din, homes await them surrounded by rivers, specially prepared for them by members of the Islamic State. These homes were taken, with the help of Allah, from the Shi'ites. Be glad, dear brothers. Allah will replace your suffering with an easy life, with the help of his power and the blood of the martyrs."
Later in the proclamation, the group promises to avenge the blood of every Palestinian killed. This is the last encouragement Palestinians need. It is not only considered "proof" of Palestinian terror ties, it gives Shi'ite gangs and the government an excellent excuse to promote Palestinian expulsion.
The Palestinians' status did not change overnight. Three years ago, at the Al-Awda tent city on Baghdad's outskirts, home to many Palestinians expelled from Bataween, a refugee told me that he feared Shi'ites would take revenge against him and his family for living in the home of a Shi'ite family.
"Did you know the family whose home you received?" I asked him. "No, no," he answered. "But they told me that after the owners were expelled, the father of the family was murdered - apparently by Saddam Hussein's men."
Camp director Mohammed Salah once had a picture of Saddam Hussein hanging on his wall, but this was quickly replaced by a picture of the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy mosques. He was not afraid to speak of Saddam's assistance to Palestinian refugees. Salah's only dream was "to go home." To Palestine? "No, no; to the Bataween neighborhood." But Shi'ite revenge was only a matter of time.
Palestinians know Iraq is not the only nation that does not want them. There are now 700 refugees stuck on the Syrian border, blocked from entering, and another 200 are living in a miserable encampment on the Jordanian border. It is not that Syria and Jordan do not take in refugees. Jordan has about 700,000 Iraqi refugees, and Syria has an estimated 1 million. Buses and cabs leave Syria daily for Iraq, and passengers pay $40 for a bus ride or $80 for a luxury cab. But Palestinians are abandoned at the border, due to their problematic documents. Authorities are afraid to permit them entry because they may not be able to supervise their movement.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees, cannot help. Not only does UNRWA need an additional $60 million to support the refugee population in Iraq - the cost of five hours of fighting - the UN agency is not authorized to change Jordanian or Syrian regulations on refugee status. Jordan has yet to consent to the agency's request that it grant Iraqis refugee status, and its laws are particularly firm regarding Palestinians, some of whom are finding themselves living in refugee camps for the second or third time in their lives. They apparently will not be able to exercise their "right to return" to their Baghdad homes.
Iraqi refugees have begun purchasing pendants bearing the map of Iraq as a symbol of their loyalty to their homeland. Palestinians are taking part in the trend, either to express their solidarity with the nation or to persuade others that they are loyal citizens. But this effort apparently is failing to improve their plight.
"Gang members notice our accents - not what we wear around our necks," a Palestinian recently told a reporter from the London-based Al-Hayat. "As soon as they notice that one's accent is not Iraqi - and, even worse, is Palestinian - the victim has no choice but to leave his home - that is, if they let him leave in peace."