The Palestinian Refugees From Iraq

A senior Gaza official has raised the idea of a dramatic act on Israel's part: assistance to the Palestinian refugees in Iraq.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's call for a regional peace conference with the participation of Israel and the Arab states, made on the eve of the Passover holiday, received a flood of Arab responses. Spokesmen from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority as well as journalists and analysts in the media responded, as could be expected, with suspicion and doubt.

"Olmert is trying to run away from the subject. First and foremost, he must announce that he is accepting the Arab initiative" (a Saudi diplomat); "Olmert is being deceptive and evasive" (Nimmer Hamad, an adviser to the Palestinian chairman); "Olmert is confusing; he is trying to replace full peace with steps toward normalization with the Arab states" (Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian information minister); "Olmert is trying to digress from the subject" (editorial in Al-Kuds).

"The empty words of a politician in trouble," senior Palestinian officials said. One of them, Jamal Zakut from Gaza, speaking at a conference in Italy, headed by Dr. Janiki Cingoli of Milan, raised the idea of actions on Israel's part. Not in the familiar vein of requests for leniency at the road blocks, freeing prisoners or dismantling outposts, but in a more dramatic and important direction: assistance to the Palestinian refugees in Iraq.

This is a prolonged and complicated case of suffering that reveals the ugly aspects of the Arab regimes. On the eve of the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were some 30,000 Palestinians in Iraq, almost all of them descendants of refugee families who had arrived there in 1948 from Arab villages on the slopes of the Carmel range: Ajazim (Kerem Maharal), Jaba, Umm Zinat and Ein Hud. Officers from the Iraqi army, which held the Samaria zone, demanded at that time that the villagers be recruited. The families of those who were conscripted were allowed to go to Iraq.

The Palestinians in Iraq did not get citizenship and also did not enjoy assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, but the Iraqi regime allowed them to live in almost total equality.

They did not have the right to hold a passport but were granted a laissez-passer. They were considered loyal to the Baath regime and to Saddam Hussein.

When the incidents and fighting in Iraq grew worse, the refugees became victims of the new reality. They are a weak population without ethnic or tribal backing and they came under attack - particularly from the Shiites but also from others who had suffered under Hussein and wanted to take revenge on his Palestinian loyalists.

They were expelled from their homes and places of work. In the past few years, there have been reports in the Palestinian media almost every week of robberies, arrests, abductions, tortures and murders of the Palestinians in Iraq.

Thousands of them fled, hundreds reached the borders with Jordan and Syria and were put up in tent encampments: the El Hul camp in Syria and the Ruweished camp in Jordan.

Only a few of them were allowed to enter these countries and most of them remained in the camps which have in effect turned into internment camps. The camps received some help from the Red Cross but they did not have organized health or educational services.

Jordan announced that it did not have the strength to deal with the problem. Tens of thousands of Iraqis had come to Jordan in the past few years and that country, like Syria, has been suffering from economic woes and growing inflation.

The refugees appealed to the Arab countries for assistance but did not get it. Only the Palestinian Authority announced it was prepared to absorb them; but there is border control on the part of Israel, making their absorption impossible.

A short while ago, Canada agreed to accept several dozen sick and elderly people from among these refugees. There are at least several hundred people in the camps and according to Zakut's proposal, Israel could allow them to enter the West Bank and be reunited with their families in Samaria.

This step does not have demographic implications since more than 50,000 Palestinians have left the areas in the West Bank under discussion since the outbreak of the intifada.

This is also not a step toward implementation of the right of return; there is not even a hint of this. This is merely a humanitarian step of political importance.