Israel to Grant West Bank Entry to Iraqi Palestinians

Entry of 41 Iraqi refugees of Palestinian origin approved in gesture to PA's Fayad; Gaza request denied.

Israel has recently agreed to allow a group of 41 Iraqi refugees of Palestinian origin to enter the West Bank and reunite with relatives there, as a goodwill gesture to the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad.

A request by another group of 10 refugees seeking to join their relatives in the Gaza Strip was, however, denied.

The Prime Minister's Bureau confirmed Sunday night that Israeli officials were in the process of completing the necessary measures, in coordination with the Foreign Ministry and the relevant defense authorities.

The Foreign Ministry clarified to the relevant parties involved, primarily the United Nations, that Israel does not consider granting entry to Iraqi refugees a precedent heralding the return of Palestinians to the territories - and certainly not to Israel.

After discussion with the UN, it was agreed that the Palestinian Iraqis, who will enter the West Bank, will not receive refugee status and will be registered as regular citizens of the Palestinian Authority.

Prior to being allowed into the West Bank, they will undergo a detailed security check to ensure that they are not involved in terrorist activities.

Most of the refugees had been living in a camp on the border of Syria and Iraq, but a few escaped to Jordan, along with 750,000 other Iraqis, following the United States' 2003 invasion. Another 1.5 million Iraqi refugees fled to Syria.

Thousands of other refugees were stranded on the border with Syria after it was closed, with Damascus claiming that it could not longer support the massive influx of civilians fleeing Iraq.

The refugees are being supported solely by the Red Cross in refugee camps along the borders of Syria and Jordan. Arab states have rejected repeated requests by the UN and the United States to absorb refugees.

Two and a half years ago, the representative of the UN High Commission on Refugees in Israel, Michael Bavli, asked the Foreign Ministry to allow refugees to enter the territories. The request was turned down on political and security-related grounds.

Eight months ago, Bavli reiterated the request, emphasizing that the UN recognizes that there is no connection between the entry of the refugees into the territories and politics.

Dr. Riad Malchi, who is now justice minister in the Palestinian Authority, and Jamal Zakut, a confidant of Salam Fayad, raised the problem of the refugees at a meeting held between Israelis and Palestinians in Italy last April, under the auspices of an Italian peace institute.

The two Palestinian representatives to the talks suggested that Israel should allow refugees to reunite with their families in the territories, a practice that came to a halt since the start of the second intifada in September 2000.

MK Amira Dotan (Kadima), who participated in the meeting in Italy, passed on the request to the Prime Minister's Bureau and to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The decision to agree to the request came following the collapse of the Palestinian unity government under Ismail Haniyeh, and because of Israel's efforts to bolster the standing of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

The 30,000-strong Palestinian community in Iraq suffered a great deal in the years that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, at the hands of Shi'ite militants who consider them to be strong supporters of the former Iraqi dictator.

The vast majority of the Palestinians living in Iraq are originally from villages in the foothills of the Carmel Mountains of Haifa. In 1948, Iraqi officers stationed in the northern West Bank forcibly conscripted men from those villages, and then allowed them and their families to enter Iraq - but never offered them citizenship.