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It must have been 2007, although I cannot remember the exact date. I do recall getting lost in what seemed like a futile search for the headquarters of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Rome. There was a meeting of NGOs and some General Assembly body, consisting of several UN ambassadors, dedicated to the ‘Question of Palestine’. I was asked to attend on behalf of one NGO. Timidly, I agreed.
Knowing in advance how such meetings often conclude – reiterating old statements, rehashing old text, reaffirming this and reasserting that – I still attended. The subject of the discussion was the Palestinian refugees, who, for most Palestinians, aside from Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, still represent the core of any just solution to a decades-long Palestinian struggle for freedom and rights. I was compelled by a greater sense of urgency than the need to restate and reconfirm official UN text. A few days earlier in London, I had received a worrying call.
The caller was a young Palestinian man named Hossam who was stranded at the Jordan-Iraq border. Two of his brothers had been killed in Iraq in recent months. One was executed in the Baladiat neighborhood in Baghdad, which then hosted mostly Palestinian refugees. The other was killed by US forces.
Before the US invasion of 2003, a small community of 35,000 Palestinians resided in Iraq. They were intentionally shielded from any political involvement in the country and unlike Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were treated well. But when the US invaded, they became an easy target for various militias, US forces and criminal gangs. Many were killed, especially those who couldn’t afford paying heavy ransoms haphazardly imposed by gunmen. Most of the refugees fled, seeking safe havens in Iraq and when that was no longer possible, they sought shelter in neighboring countries.
Allowing Palestinians entry into Arab countries is not so simple. For this reason thousands were stranded in newly constructed refugee camps at the Jordanian and Syrian borders. They subsisted, some for years, fighting the elements in punishing deserts and surviving on UN handouts. Finally, many of them were sent to various non-Arab countries. It was a pitiful spectacle of an Arab betrayal of Palestinians. The more passionate Arab regimes seem to speak of Palestine, the more inconsiderate they actually are of the plight of Palestinians. History has been consistently cruel this way.
Hossam simply wanted to cross back to Jordan. He was born and raised there, but his residence was capriciously terminated as often is the case when Palestinian refugees grow in number to pose a demographic concern to the host country. He asked me to help, pleading that his mother was old and that he was the only remaining son.
Of course, I was, and remain powerless. However, when I was asked to attend the Rome meeting on the plight of Palestinian refugees, I thought it would be a suitable platform for Hossam’s hardship to be placed within an urgent political context. It turned out not to be because the old textbook prevailed over seemingly trivial present concerns.
Iraq’s Palestinian refugees belonged in Palestine. Those with the moral courage to say so, such as the UN ambassadors in Rome, have no power except for giving fervent speeches. Those capable of enacting long-neglected UN resolutions that insist on the Right for Return for Palestinian refugees are submissive before US domineering pressure and Israel’s resolve in denying entry to the land’s native population. UN Resolution 194 of Dec. 11, 1948 remains ink on paper.
As long as Israel continues to flout international law, millions of Palestinian refugees will remain captive in regional struggles that use them as political fodder or see them as a demographic problem, or even worse, a threat. And with the US ensuring that no meaningful action is ever taken to alleviate the suffering of the refugees, thousands will continue to find themselves at some border, queuing for food and pleading their cases to anyone willing to listen.
Syria is now the latest episode of that long drawn tragedy, which is being manifested in unprecedented ways since the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and the Israeli invasions of Lebanon (1978 and 1982). There are twelve refugee camps in Syria. Nine of them are registered as official camps by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and have a population of more than 496,000 refugees. Yarmouk alone, near Damascus, hosts an estimated 150,000 refugees. This camp has been a recurring target for various militant groups and Syrian forces. Other camps have also been targeted in the brutal conflict, including Dera’a, Husseinieh and Neirab among others.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in Syria. They were either caught in the bloody conflict between the Syrian government and the opposition, or were purposely targeted for one pretext or another. The most recent violence, which nearly emptied Yarmouk, began on Dec. 14 when Islamist militants reportedly attacked Palestinian fighters loyal to the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. A counterattack involving an airstrike left Yarmouk littered with many dead and wounded. An exodus followed and a new chapter of the Palestinian odyssey was being forcefully written, draped with blood and more atrocious memories. Tens of thousands fled. Some made it to the very crowded Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Others were refused entry, only to camp in Damascus parks, once more queuing for UN handouts. The World Food Programs seems to be in charge of feeding the refugees. According to a recent statement, the UN group is coordinating its effort with UNRWA, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), UN Children’s Agency UNICEF, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
No words can adequately describe the plight of millions of innocent Syrian refugees caught in a regional power play that has no regard whatsoever for three million refugees displaced internally or in neighboring countries. But the situation for Palestinians, in Syria and elsewhere, continues to be a sheer side note whenever conflicts ensue in Arab countries – as it was in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. It is the same old story which is yet to be decisively dealt with as a political humanitarian crisis and not just a transitory one.
Palestinian leadership bears much responsibility, as it downgraded the urgency of the refugee crisis, thus The Right of Return, into something like an enigma that would be unraveled in one way or another during the final status talks between it and Israel. There were no such talks, of course, and per the leaked Palestine Papers, it appears that the PA had completely disowned the refugees in secret talks with Israeli officials.
Most of the Syrian Palestinian refugees were driven from their homes in Palestine in stages. The first wave arrived in 1948, mostly from Safad, Haifa and Yaffa. The second after Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 and the third during Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s wars on Lebanon. It is multilayered, protracted tragedy. True, it requires doubling efforts to protect and care for the refugees, but it also demands a serious reexamination of the international community’s dismissive attitude towards the refugees. Palestinian refugees are not simply fleeing multitudes caught in Arab conflicts, but they represent a grave political and moral crisis in their own right which requires immediate action guided by Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law.
Paradoxically, it was Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor who placed the Right of Return in a political context in his response to Security Council members’ disapproval of Israel’s planned expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. On Dec. 20, Prosor argued that it was not the expansion of the illegal settlements that should be considered a hurdle to peace, but Palestinians’ insistent on their Right of Return. It was both odd and expectedly insensitive. While Israel continues to ethnically cleanse Palestinians to make room for Jewish settlers, refugees in Syria and Lebanon are fighting for survival as three generations of refugees have done in the last 64 years. Somehow, demanding the rights of frightened children and pleading mothers according to international law pose further threat to Israel’s version of ‘peace’.
If the tragedy of the refugees in Iraq seemed insufficient to iterate the centrality of the Palestinian refugee crisis, and the inalienable right of those refugees, the unfolding calamity that has befallen them in Syria should leave no doubt that the refugee issue is an integral part of the Palestinian narrative as it should in any serious political discourse.
The Right of Return is not simply a reminiscent discussion of sentimental history and memories of a dying generation. It deserves to be treated as an extremely urgent political priority with an equally pressing humanitarian dimension. Palestinians are once more dying and on the run and all sincere actions have to be geared towards helping those refugees cope with the conflict in Syria and return to their homeland in Palestine.