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.The comparison to Jews is offensive, of course. The Jews of medieval Europe didn't have the political voice that the Palestinian Arabs enjoy; they didn't have the ability to turn international pressure on their enemies at will, and they didn't have an international agency with billions of dollars at their disposal to help them out and provide a security blanket no matter what they did.
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. "Marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines," a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Lebanon recently observed, "the refugee population constitutes a time bomb."
The fact that the divided Palestinian political leadership is silent about the mistreatment of the refugees by Arab states does not make such behaviour any less reprehensible – or less dangerous. Some 250,000 Palestinians were chased out of Kuwait and other Gulf States to punish the Palestinian political leadership for supporting Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of Iraq were similarly dispossessed after the second Gulf war.
In 2001, Palestinians in Lebanon were stripped of the right to own property, or to pass on the property that they already owned to their children – and banned from working as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists or in 20 other professions. Even the Palestinian refugee community in Jordan, historically the most welcoming Arab state, has reason to feel insecure in the face of official threats to revoke their citizenship. The systematic refusal of Arab governments to grant basic human rights to Palestinians who are born and die in their countries – combined with periodic mass expulsions of entire Palestinian communities – recalls the treatment of Jews in medieval Europe. Along with dispossession and marginalisation has come a new and frightening turn away from the traditional forms of nationalism that once dominated the refugee camps towards the radical pan-Islamic ideology of al-Qa'ida.
...Read the whole thing.
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. For all the easy criticism that can be levelled at UNRWA, it is hard to see how many Palestinian refugees would have survived without the agency's help.
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?
A practical solution to the crisis of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries will focus on Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, which together play host to approximately 3 million of the estimated 4.6 million Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza. While each of these countries has chosen different legal and political approaches to the 1948 refugees and their descendants, they share a political desire to sublimate the rights of Palestinian residents, treating them as unwanted guests or as tools to be used in pursuing wider political interests – but rarely as fully-fledged members of society. Lebanon, where Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat are widely blamed for having sparked the 1975 civil war, is the worst offender against international norms. Yet even 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".
...For many of these refugees at the bottom of Jordan's social and economic pecking order, life without papers means hiding from the police who constantly patrol their camp's streets, being too poor to send any of your eight to 10 children to college, a lifetime of menial labour, and only a threadbare dream of returning to a homeland that most of them have never seen. There is strong suspicion of the state, but also of their neighbours, who are divided into "'48 people" and "'67 people". "Some of the newcomers would give away Al Aqsa for a Jordanian identity card," says Heba, a mother of eight, mentioning Islam's celebrated mosque in Jerusalem, one of its holiest shrines.
"We're Jordanians," says her son, Mustapha, a slender, 20-year-old in a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with meaningless words in unknown languages. "This is the best place in the world," he says, pointing around the bare living room whose worn rugs and threadbare pillows cover the floor on which he and all his siblings sleep. "We would never leave here. But I'm loyal to my country, and I would like to visit it one day."
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."
That determination, echoed repeatedly through the dilapidated cement homes that line Baqa'a's gravelly streets and dust-filled shops, is precisely what terrifies Jordan's East Bank establishment. Jordanians have reason to fear their Palestinian guests. Many Jordanians have not forgotten "Black September", the civil war launched by Arafat's Fatah organisation in 1970 which nearly toppled King Hussein's kingdom.
I don't know how long the authors worked on this article, but I would suspect that it would never have seen the light of day had not American senators brought up the issue of redefining Palestinian Arab refugees. That is all it takes to allow the world to start seeing the truth, or at least being informed about basic facts of the Middle East that have been suppressed - overtly or covertly - by so many for so long for their own selfish political purposes.
UPDATE: I didn't realize that this article was from October, 2009. (h/t Brad)
More embarrassingly - I had blogged it then.