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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Must read: The tragedy of the Palestinian Arab diaspora

The Independent has an excellent, and lengthy, article about the plight of Palestinian Arab "refugees" stuck in Arab countries and how they are treated. It starkly brings up points that this blog has been emphasizing for years about how Arab leaders have used them as pawns and how their definition of "refugees" has allowed these nations to flout their legal responsibilities. Here are some highlights:
It is a cynical but time-honoured practice in Middle Eastern politics: the statesmen who decry the political and humanitarian crisis of the approximately 3.9 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza ignore the plight of an estimated 4.6 million Palestinians who live in Arab countries. For decades, Arab governments have justified their decision to maintain millions of stateless Palestinians as refugees in squalid camps as a means of applying pressure to Israel. The refugee problem will be solved, they say, when Israel agrees to let the Palestinians have their own state.

Yet in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, after two Gulf wars, and the rise and fall of the Oslo peace process, not a single Palestinian refugee has returned to Israel – and only a handful of ageing political functionaries have returned from neighbouring Arab countries to the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, failed peace plans and shifting political priorities have resulted in a second Palestinian "Nakba", or catastrophe – this one at hands of the Arab governments.

The inclusion of the descendants of Palestinian refugees as refugees in UNRWA's mandate has no parallel in international humanitarian law and is responsible for the growth of the official numbers of Palestinian refugees in foreign countries from 711,000 to 4.6 million during decades when the number of ageing refugees from the 1948 Israeli war of independence in was in fact declining. UNRWA's grant of refugee status to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees according to the principle of patrilineal descent, with no limit on the generations that can obtain refugee status, has made it easy for host countries to flout their obligations under international law. According to Article 34 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, "The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees," and must "make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings"the opposite of what happened to the Palestinians in every Arab country in which they settled, save Jordan.

[T]he doveish former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who negotiated directly with Yasser Arafat at the failed Camp David meetings in 2000, asserted that...[i]ndifference to the refugees' plight was shared by Israel's negotiating partner in the Oslo years – Yasser Arafat. "He was not a refugee man," Ben Ami said flatly. "He was much more centred on the question of Jerusalem. I heard him say to [Mahmood Abbas] in my presence, 'leave me alone with your refugees'."

[T]he record of Arafat's Palestinian Authority in its territories during the 1990s attests to the truth of Ben Ami's observation, which applies both to Arafat's Fatah and to Hamas. Despite $10bn in foreign aid, not one refugee camp in the West Bank or Gaza has been replaced by modern housing.

After 60 years of failed wars, and failed peace, it is time to put politics aside and to insist that the basic rights of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries be respected – whether or not their children's children return to Haifa anytime soon. While Saudi Arabia may not wish to host Israeli tourists, it can easily afford to integrate the estimated 240,000 Palestinian refugees who already live in the kingdom – just as Egypt, which has received close to $60bn in US aid, and has a population of 81 million, can grant legal rights to an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One can only imagine the outrage that the world community would rightly visit upon Israel if Israeli Arabs were subject to the vile discriminatory laws applied to Palestinians living in Arab countries. Surely, Palestinian Arabs can keep their own national dream alive in the countries where they were born, while also enjoying the freedom to work, vote and own property?

...[E]ven in Jordan, which is in many ways a model for the humane treatment of a large refugee population, Palestinians today feel markedly less secure than they did two decades ago, or even five years ago.

The fact that the living standard of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has been deemed "catastrophic" by both UNRWA and by the Lebanese government can therefore be understood as a deliberate result of official state policy that is supported by all parties across Lebanon's divided confessional spectrum. As a member of the Lebanese parliament, Ghassan Moukheiber, explained in an interview with the ICG, "our official policy is to maintain Palestinians in a vulnerable, precarious situation to diminish prospects for their naturalisation or permanent settlement".
The article emphasizes the political reasons that Arab countries do not want to integrate millions of people who were born and live their entire lives there, but it only touches upon (as I quoted above) how the Palestinian Arab leadership has encouraged this decades-long abuse of their brethren. The fact is that the PalArab leaders are afraid that their nationalism, carefully and artificially nutured by misery, would disappear if Palestinian Arabs would have full rights in Arab countries. This passage illustrates what would happen:
He seems perplexed when asked which is his country – Jordan or Palestine. "We have no security here, but we are Jordanians," replies Mustapha, who lounges on a mattress in a two-storey cement house down the road while one of his five daughters offers tiny glasses of steaming herbal tea and cardamom-scented coffee. "Everything I have is here. This house. My car. My job. What would I have in Nablus or Be'ersheba?" he declares. "My children know nothing but Jordan. And we will stay here."
So would millions of others, if given the chance. And the sixty-year old fear is that if that happens, the world will realize that Palestinian nationalism and identity is a purely 20th century phenomenon, artificially nurtured by twin policies of demonization of Israel and purposeful abuse of millions of people.

This article is way overdue and will hopefully be followed by others in other outlets.
(h/t Media Backspin)