Iraq’s Palestinian refugees face new exile

Talk about hideous historical ironies. Ammar Alwan writes for Reuters, March 16:

TANAF, Iraq – Hameda Um Firas has lived most of her 70-odd years as a refugee — now she is stranded in a tent again at Iraq’s border with Syria where hundreds of Palestinians have fled to escape violence in Baghdad.

“We escaped in fear of our lives. My granddaughter was decapitated by a missile attack and our sons were killed, we fled Iraq to spare our lives,” she said, barely able to contain tears of anger at Arab countries she said should be helping.

“We are living in a miserable state in this camp,” she said as children played in dusty lanes between white tents with clothes hanging to dry on the guy ropes.

A 25-year-old who gave only his first name, Alaa, fled to the camp at the Tanaf border crossing after gunmen killed one of his brothers. “All my family are separated now, I know nothing about my brothers and where they are,” he said.

Sectarian violence and bomb attacks are driving up to 50,000 Iraqis a month from their homes, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which says close to 2 million Iraqis are displaced within Iraq and another 2 million abroad.

UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort said there were around 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq in 2003, before the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and around 15,000 remain.

The Palestinians came in three waves in 1948, 1967 and in the 1990s, and were given subsidised housing and the right to work — privileges compared to other refugees and a source of tension with some Iraqis forced out to make way for them.

Saddam gave them assistance and portrayed himself as a defender of the Palestinian cause.

While the numbers are relatively small, van Genderen Stort said the Palestinians were in a uniquely difficult situation because without passports they can not go to Syria, Jordan or other neighbouring countries where many Iraqis have fled.

“The difference with Palestinians is they have nowhere to go,” she said. “A lot of them have expired identity papers which the Iraqis are not extending because it’s not their priority.”

“They’re in a Catch-22. They’re targeted, they have death threats, they have these raids, but they can’t flee and when they flee they either have to do it illegally or they are stuck at the border,” she said.

Sunni Arab militant groups including al Qaeda have claimed some of the worst bomb attacks in Iraq, including many targeting Shi’ites, and foreign Arabs are viewed with deep suspicion by many Iraqis, particularly in Shi’ite areas.

“Palestinians are seen as insurgents or trouble makers … because they’re Sunnis,” said van Genderen Stort.

Baghdad raid

The UNHCR said on Friday it was “deeply disturbed” by a raid on Wednesday on a Baghdad compound housing Palestinians in which at least one Palestinian was killed and several more detained.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf said the raid was in response to information a car bomb was in the complex. He said shooting broke out and three gunmen were killed and 25 arrested, including Iraqis and Palestinians.

Speaking on Al Hurra television, he rejected charges that Palestinians were deliberately targeted because of their nationality, saying that violence in Iraq was effecting everybody and the raid was based on specific intelligence.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said at a briefing in Geneva on Friday the Palestinians resisted the raid out of fear after months of being targeted by militias and other groups.

He said the UNCHR had reports of Palestinians forced to pay thousands of dollars to Iraqi security forces for protection from torture of family members in detention.

Iraq’s police force has been plagued by reports of infiltration by Shi’ite militias, though the Interior Ministry says it has recently taken steps to purge such elements.

The UNHCR said it was also concerned about non-governmental organisations working with Palestinians after a staff member of one group was abducted on Tuesday and found dead the next day.

Wednesday’s raid prompted at least 41 Palestinians to flee the capital to join around 850 others who have been stranded at the Syrian border since last May, the UNHCR said.

Abu Rami, who runs the refugee camp there, said tribal leaders in the mostly Sunni Arab western province of Anbar were helping support the refugees but they needed a place to go.

“We lived in Iraq as refugees and now we’re seeking a refuge in any country,” he said. “It’s difficult moving from refuge to refuge … we are just stuck here waiting for Arab states and the United Nations to help us.”

See our last posts on Iraq, Iraq’s minorities, and the refugee crisis.

  1. US involved in attack: Palestinian ambassador
    Envoy says US/Iraq forces attack Palestinian refugees in Baghdad

    14 March 2007
    al-Jazeera (via BBC Monitoring)

    Text of live telephone interview with Dalil Qassus, Palestinian ambassador to Iraq, in Baghdad, conducted by Al-Jazeera anchorwoman Layla al-Shaykhali, in the Doha studio, carried by Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite TV on 14 March

    [Al-Shaykhali] The Palestinian ambassador to Iraq has said that US and Iraqi forces have for two days been attacking the Palestinians’ complex in Al-Baladiyat area, killing, wounding, and arresting a number of them.

    In a related development, 50 Palestinian refugees, including women and children, left Iraq today for Al-Walid border post on the Iraqi-Syrian borders. It is noteworthy that scores of Palestinians fled to Al-Walid border post and could not enter Syria for lacking travel documents.

    Dalil al-Qassus, Palestinian ambassador to Iraq, joins us from Baghdad now. Mr Qassus, how do you explain this targeting of Palestinians in Baghdad?

    [Al-Qassus] In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate. Say: Nothing will happen to us except what Allah has decreed for us. [Koranic verses]. Yesterday, the Interior Ministry’s forces attacked the Palestinians’ complex in Al-Baladiyat area and opened gunfire on innocent civilian residents. Palestinian citizen Abu-Abd-al-Aziz, a mosque guard, was killed today, and eight others have been arrested so far. The Interior Ministry’s special forces and the US occupation forces are still present inside the Palestinian complex in Al-Baladiyat area, and they are practicing all sorts of unbelievable things against the sons of our Palestinian people. I send an urgent appeal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and to the interior minister to intervene immediately to stop the massacre that is being perpetrated against our Palestinian people.

    [Al-Shaykhali] Have you received any explanation, or at least any warning, from the Iraqi authorities that some suspects might be present in these buildings or within that area?

    [Al-Qassus] I challenge anybody to prove that there are suspects there. They should ask me to hand over any suspect to them, and I will immediately hand him over to them. There are no suspects whatsoever among our innocent people and refugees. I called the Interior Ministry, but I could not reach the minister’s or the undersecretary’s office. I could only reach the operations room and they promised me to act. I called the Foreign Ministry and they promised me to act. Four hours have passed so far, and nobody responded to my appeal. Whose help shall I seek? I seek God’s help over the unjust ones. Our people are innocent and are not guilty of anything. I appeal to the Palestinian national unity government in Palestine to intervene immediately.

    [Al-Shaykhali] Dalil Qassus, Palestinian ambassador to Iraq, thank you very much.

    Source: Al-Jazeera TV, Doha, in Arabic 1015 gmt 14 Mar 07