Friday, 21 September 2012
Justice for Palestinians
At around the time the state of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes – on good advice or bad. Officially designated “refugees”, they and their families have been shamefully treated ever since.
A highly relevant factor in their unhappy history is that the UN body established to assist them (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA) began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result, Palestine refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees, the world over, ever since.
For whereas a main function of UNHCR has been to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years (voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement are UNHCR’s three key solutions). a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation. The number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5 million today, since it was UNRWA that bestowed refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," regardless of how much time had elapsed. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.
Refugees who take up citizenship in another country lose their refugee status. As a matter of historic fact, the term “Palestine refugees” was defined by UN Resolution 194 to include Jews who fled from their homes after the 1948 conflict, such as the those who had lived in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. They, together with some 600,000 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Arab lands, were quickly resettled in Israel, and took up Israeli citizenship, thus officially ceasing to be refugees (which, of course, does not affect their claims for reimbursement of property, businesses, money and possessions seized by the governments of the countries in which they resided).
Not so the unfortunate Arab refugees who made their way to nearby Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, for example, where today some three million of them and their descendants are living as “registered refugees”, (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps. For, from the moment that the State of Israel came into being, Arab leaders determined to use the Palestine refugees as a pawn in the deadly game of trying to eradicate the Jewish state from the map of the Middle East. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would remove a formidable bargaining chip from the table, and have the effect of legitimising Israel. For its part, UNRWA went along with this policy, washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations.
The result? Jordan today contains nearly two million Palestine refugees, of whom 338,000 are still living in camps. When Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1950, it granted Jordanian citizenship to all who were resident in those areas. However, most of the original refugees continued to live in camps in Jordan, relying on UNRWA assistance for sustenance and constituting more than a third of the kingdom's population of 1.5 million. As for Arab Palestinians who moved to Jordan from the West Bank, they were issued yellow ID cards to distinguish them from the those living in Jordan’s "official 10 refugee camps". Since 1988, thousands of those yellow-ID card Palestinians have had their Jordanian citizenship revoked. The official reason? To prevent them losing their status as “Palestine refugees”.
In Lebanon an Amnesty International study has described registered Palestine refugees as living in "appalling social and economic conditions".
Following Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the 400,000 Palestine refugees living there were systematically deprived of basic human rights. They were barred from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They were not allowed to own property, were denied access to the healthcare system and even needed a special permit to leave their refugee camps. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they were denied access to the Lebanese health care system. Refusing to grant them work permits or permission to own land, the Lebanese government said repeatedly that it would not allow Palestine refugees to settle.
A very partial relaxation of these harsh conditions was granted In June 2005, when the government removed some work restrictions for a few Lebanese-born Palestinians, enabling them to apply for work permits and work in the private sector.
As regards Syria, there are nearly half a million Palestinian refugees in that benighted country, and they have become totally embroiled in the civil war. Many have been on the run for nearly a year and a half. While there is no question that Syrian refugees are going through a truly horrific experience, the fate of Palestinian refugees is markedly worse. Palestinians are without the basic rights of passport-holding Syrian citizens – they are stateless and in legal and political limbo. "Stuck", "stranded" and "imprisoned" are some of the terms used to describe the condition of Palestinian refugees, ill-treated and subjugated by their "Arab brethren".
As for the hundreds of Palestinian refugees who have fled Syria to Jordan, they have been crammed into a poorly equipped facility known as Cyber City, about 90 kilometres north of the capital, Amman. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have condemned the mistreatment of refugees in Cyber City, reporting forced deportations back to Syria, and the prisoner-like status of those who have remained in Jordan.
All in all, the “Palestine refugee” story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, without any regard to their welfare or human rights. This inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” unto the third and fourth generation must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for up to fifty years, to settle and become full citizens.
Published in shortened form in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 27 September 2012: