Palestinian refugees: championed by Arab world yet treated like outcasts
As the foreign minister of Egypt, the largest Arab country, Ahmed Maher might have expected a warmer welcome from Palestinians when he joined their worshippers in Jerusalem.
But the scuffles that erupted at Al Aqsa Mosque last month, with Islamic extremists yelling “You are collaborating with the killers of Muslims,” underscored a strong current of discontent among many Palestinians toward Arab states.
The anger is focused chiefly on Egypt and Jordan for having signed peace treaties with Israel, but it goes further, to the frustration of having lived as second-class citizens in neighboring Middle Eastern states for 55 years since fleeing their homes when Israel became a state.
Arab states, which have fought four wars against Israel in the name of Palestine, maintain that to grant them citizenship would be to give up on their dream of returning to the homes they lost when the Jewish state was created.
But to the Palestinians, the wars were fought as much out of self-interest as concern for the Palestinians, that the verbal championing of their cause is rhetoric to rally the Arab states’ own masses, and that it isn’t matched by decent treatment of the refugees.
“There is always a political motive behind the Arab states’ positions toward the refugees in their countries,” says Tayseer Nasrallah, who heads the Palestinian Refugee Rights Committee in the West Bank, home to 650,000 refugees. “They consider us an unstable element so they always oppress the refugees and try to get rid of them.”
Hundreds of thousands of 1948 refugees and their descendants are crammed into impoverished and often violent camps, some of which have grown into urban slums.
UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency set up in 1948, has 4 million refugees on its books in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many more are scattered farther afield in the Arab world — 70,000 in Egypt, for instance.
Palestinians in Egypt suffer restrictions on employment, education and owning property. When Egypt announced in September it would grant nationality to children of Egyptian mothers married to foreigners, it did not include Palestinians.
In Lebanon, nearly 400,000 Palestinians live in 12 refugee camps, where crime is rife and clashes between rival Palestinian factions are common. Palestinians cannot own property or get state health care.
According to Nasrallah, Lebanon bans refugees from 72 areas of employment, including medicine and engineering.
Things are better for Jordan’s 1.7 million Palestinians, who are nearly one-third of the population and enjoy Jordanian citizenship. But relations have a tumultuous history. A Palestinian assassinated Jordan’s king in 1951, and two decades later Jordan fought a war against Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization. In recent times the government has steadily moved to “Jordanize” jobs in the army and other sensitive areas like state radio and television and the Interior Ministry.
The result, say Palestinians, is that they are discriminated against in getting such jobs, even though no law officially bans their employment.
Awni Shatarat, who lives in the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp, said, “some Jordanians think that Jordan is not home for the Palestinians, that we are only guests.”
Syria, with a population of 18 million, is a strong verbal supporter of the Palestinian cause, and refuses citizenship to its 410,000 Palestinian refugees.
Hisham Youssef, spokesman for the 22-nation Arab League, acknowledged that Palestinians live “in very bad conditions,” but said the policy is meant “to preserve their Palestinian identity.”
“If every Palestinian who sought refuge in a certain country was integrated and accommodated into that country, there won’t be any reason for them to return to Palestine,” he said.
The PLO tends to agree with that line, while adding its voice to demands for better treatment of the refugees.
“Palestine is the national home for the Palestinian people wherever they are now,” Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, a West Bank Palestinian, told the AP. How they achieve that right is a matter for negotiation with Israel, he said, but added:
“We are against the settlement of the refugees in any country, but the host countries should provide the refugees with a dignified living. … The host countries should allow the refugees to work, to live and to move in dignity until they achieve their right of return.”
In el-Arish, an Egyptian town 25 miles from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip with its 900,000 U.N.-registered refugees, 35-year-old Ahmed Mahmoud Zahar says he considers Egypt his home and has no desire to return to his Palestinian father’s birthplace.
Zahar was born in Egypt to an Egyptian mother, married an Egyptian and has 10 children. Yet he and the children are Palestinians under Egyptian law.
“We can’t own a house, land or get a loan from the bank, despite the fact that I was born here and have no idea what is Palestine,” Zahar told the AP.
“It is an evil hypocrisy,” said prominent Palestinian writer Mureed al-Barghouti, who lives in Cairo. “The language of the (Arab) governments and media is in one direction and the real practices on the ground are totally the opposite.”
Al-Barghouti is married to an Egyptian but he and his Egyptian-born son can’t have Egyptian nationality.
The Arab media, particularly state-run newspapers, constantly denounce Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but the refugees say it doesn’t give them any concrete help.
“All the Arab countries want to keep this problem looking like an open wound” to keep world attention focused on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, said Ana Liria-Franch, regional representative in Cairo for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Some Palestinians in Egypt have endured two bouts of exile.
Libya deported around 30,000 in 1995-96 because its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, opposed peace accords signed between Israel and Arafat. Kuwait expelled hundreds because Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“Arab countries deal with Palestinian refugees as a political issue,” said Oroub El-Abed, a Palestinian who researched the Kuwait expulsion. “Any humanitarian solutions, in their point of view, will lead to marginalizing the Palestinian cause.”
Lebanon holds a grudge against its 10 percent Palestinian minority for taking sides in the country’s devastating 1975-90 civil war between Muslims and Christians. Most Palestinians are Muslim, so Palestinians are refused legal status so as not to upset the country’s delicate religious balance.
“For 55 years now, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been oppressed and robbed of their most basic civil rights,” said Ibrahim al-Shayeb, who lives in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp — Lebanon’s largest — and works for the PLO’s media office.
He complained that the Palestinians’ degrading life in Lebanon “causes extremist and fanatical ideas to grow and take root.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Laurie Copans in Jerusalem contributed to this report.