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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Conditions improve slightly in Syrian prison camps for PalArabs

For reasons only known to Syria and the UNRWA, there are still tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs living in so-called "refugee camps" in Syria, in very poor conditions. Every once in a while a token gesture is made to make it appear that Syria actually cares about its resident Palestinian Arabs, and today was one of those days:
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East, (UNRWA) has appealed for US$26 million to improve the living conditions of some 18,000 Palestinian refugees living in Neirab camp near Aleppo, Syria.

Launching the appeal in Amman on Sunday morning at a regular meeting of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, Commissioner-General, Karen Koning Abu Zayd, said: “The Neirab project represents a prototype that will empower Palestinians to secure their livelihoods, meet their needs and address their concerns”.

Neirab camp originally housed World War II troops. Six decades later, Palestinian refugees still live in the original barracks and no renovations or rebuilding has been conducted to accommodate the refugee population that has expanded over the years. This has led to overcrowding and unsafe building structures that pose health and safety hazards.

In 2003, UNRWA started a project to relocate 300 families from Neirab to new houses constructed on a plot of land made available by the Syrian government in the nearby camp of Ein Al-Tal. This represented Phase I of the project, but it remains necessary to improve the conditions in Neirab camp.

Phase II will utilize the newly available space in Neirab to reconstruct the camp and develop housing units and community facilities.

The project reflects the co-operation between the Syrian Arab Republic, UNRWA and donor countries, to provide better services to Palestinian refugees. So far, the Syrian Government has been the biggest contributor to the project, donating US$6.5 million.
Hidden from this self-congratulatory claptrap are a few salient facts:
  • Palestinian Arabs who have been born and raised in Syrian territory over the past six decades are not allowed to become Syrian citizens - by law. The Syrian Citizenship Law #276 of 1969 states that any Arab who lives in Syria and demonstrates financial independence can become a citizen of Syria - with the exception of Palestinian Arabs. (This is true of almost all Arab countries who adopted the 1965 Casablanca Protocol.)
  • Palestinian Arab men must enter the "Palestine Liberation Army" under Syrian command.
  • Palestinian Arabs are not allowed to own farm land in Syria.
While there is freedom of movement, clearly Palestinian Arabs are treated in a discriminatory way in Syria and Syria is the major party responsible for the fact that so many still live in camps that have not been updated in decades. So while Syria tries to score political points by saying that they built a few hundred houses over the past four years, it is barely a ripple in the ocean of discrimination that PalArabs suffer in the lands of their supposed defenders and brethren.

The Casablanca Protocol explicitly says that the reason that Palestinian Arabs cannot become citizens of their host countries is to ensure that they "maintain their Palestinian nationality." Even though for centuries, Arabs did not have any national identity and freely moved between areas of the Middle East without any real hindrance, in this one special case the Arab nations got together and said to this one class of Arabs who might want to immigrate to their states - tough luck.

The value of keeping Palestinian Arabs languishing in these camps was unconsciously betrayed by a principal of a Palestinian Arab school in Lebanon, when talking about the need to balance the students' identities as "Palestinian" as well as Lebanese:
"The camps, although they are misery, they keep the identity of the Palestinians," he says.
The Arab states are telling the PalArabs: You, the Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, are more valuable to us as outsiders, as "refugees," as people that we can use as pawns in our war against the Jewish state. If you would become one of us, we have fewer propaganda points. If we allow you to become citizens - even though from all accounts, Palestinian Arabs are harder workers and better educated than most other Arabs - then it means that we may have to concede that we actually lost the war in 1948 and that we have to accept Israel as a reality.

Much better to keep you suffering. Forever.