Few Iraqis know the situation of the Palestinians in Iraq, and even fewer from the other Arab societies and the international community know the reality of the situation. Those Palestinians who were labeled by a Western journalist “Palestinians of Saddam” are the ones forgotten by the United Nations, international organizations, the Arab League and successive Iraqi regimes. More troubling is that there are those who envy the situation of these Palestinians on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s speeches, which would continuously proclaim that Palestinians are the closest of people to the regime, thereby giving the impression that Palestinians must have lived plentiful and privileged lives that have no limits.
In truth, when I discussed with an Iraqi Opposition political leader my intention to examine the situation of the Palestinians in Iraq during my visit to Baghdad, he responded by saying: “Beware that this milieu is full of Saddam supporters and spies.” When I returned and told the same person what I witnessed, his eyes welled up with tears, and he said: “Is it not curious that the ordinary citizen would fall victim to propaganda. And I myself did not know the reality of the situation.” Moreover, the Jordanian newspaper El Majdreported that: “Baghdad provided all the rights except ownership of land and houses,” and no other Arab newspaper refrained from comparing the post-April 11 change for Palestinians in Iraq to a shift from blessing to indignation.
It is for this reason that this summary report aims to clarify the reality of the situation since 1948 for Palestinians in Iraq. Perhaps these victims can finally regain the minimal rights of dignity that are granted to other refugees under International law so that the new political situation does not make them victims again.
The Iraqi Army, which was in Palestine at the time of al-Nakba, formed the Kermal Palestinian Brigade from the residents of several villages south of Haifa and what is referred to as The Triangle. The families of the Brigade were transported to Iraq during the summer of 1948. They were from the areas of: Ijzim, Ain Ghazal, Jaba’, Sarafund, al-Mazar, ‘Arat, ‘Arara, Tuntura, Teira, Kafarland, ‘Atlit, Um al-Zienat, Um al-Faham and Ain al-Howd. It is estimated that in 1948, between 3000 and 4000 people went to Iraq.
From the arrival of the Palestinians in Iraq and until 1950, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense protected and administered their affairs in the country, where their settlement in military bases in Sha’bia, al-Basra, in several organizations in Al-Mosul and in the Iraqi provinces of Abu ‘Arib and al-
Howeishi and in some schools and government buildings was completed. The situation remained like this until 1958. There was an agreement between the Iraqi government and UNWRA on the appointment of the Iraqi government as guardian of Palestinians in Iraq in exchange for forgiving Iraq’s UN dues.
After 1950, the Iraqi Ministry of Employment and Social Work became responsible for administering the affairs of the refugees; a special department was established within the Ministry to care for Palestinian. But this was not accompanied by any law specifying the type of residency of the Palestinians.
The population growth
After 1950, and the transfer of responsibility to the Ministry of Social Work, the Palestinians were redistributed, and the system of collective living in the shelters and the areas owned by the Iraqi government were consolidated. The Palestinian refugee population increased at the same average rate as the Iraqi population. So in 10/04/1969, it was estimated that 13,243 refugees were registered in the Bureau of Refugees Affairs: 13,208 persons in Baghdad, 355 persons in Mosul, and 200 persons in Basra. After 10 years, the PLO estimated the total number of refugees to be 19,184. In 1986, the Census Bureau of the Iraqi Ministry of Planning gave a figure of 27,000 refugees. And in 2000, most estimates placed the number Palestinian refugees at 35,000.
Also, if one counts those Palestinians who entered Iraq after 1967, 1970 and the second Gulf War (1991), it is possible to say that, in addition to the registered Palestinian refugees mentioned above, there are approximately 35,000 Palestinians who carry various Arab passports and documents. In order for a Palestinian in this group to be included in the definition of “refugee”, he/she must satisfy the following conditions:
He/she must be from territory occupied since 1948; and
He/she must have entered and resided in Iraq prior to 25/09/1958. For the purpose of family reunification, it is permitted for a woman to go to Iraq to join her Palestinian husband who was registered before 1961, but it is not permitted for a man to go to Iraq to join his Palestinian wife.
The budget of the Bureau of Palestinian Affairs within the Ministry of Employment and Social Work allocated 200 thousand Iraqi Dinar; this budget remained stable from 1950 to after 1970 despite multiple increases in the number of refugees.
The population distribution
Abu Anas, a Palestinian Iraqi, said in his testimony to us that:
The policy that was pursued in dealing with the settlement of Palestinians in Iraq was the wrong policy. It was missing the compensation and the search for a lasting and just solution. The administrative and political approach would continuously search for a partial and short-sighted solution. Despite
the limited number of refugees in comparison to other countries, the shelter system, with all its moral, health, psychological and social dangers, was maintained.
Successive Iraqi governments pursued the shelters as a temporary solution for the refugees. The extent of the tragedies experienced by the refugees is indicated by Issam Sa’nim in “The Palestinians in Iraq”, his study of the policy and shelters 32 years ago. He states that:
It is a unique type of collective dwelling; I would not have thought that a society in the final third of the twentieth century would contain this lowest type.
The shelter, which is a big house that sometimes consists of eighty rooms or more, was originally a school or perhaps an old building that used to be a hotel that has been abandoned because it is old. The Palestinian Bureau would rent it and poor families would crowd in it in an inhumane way.
- a) The shelter would include at least 24 families or a maximum of 61 families.
- b) The garbage is piled at the entrances of the shelters, which, in the extreme heat of Baghdad, would turn into an environment for diseases rarely seen. And the dirty water has no outlet except the public street and the entrance of the shelters because there are no storm sewers or sewers, making walking difficult.
- c) Inside, where the walls are crumbling and the ceiling is collapsing, the refugee families crowd within one room. For every family of six, there is one room, and for a larger family, the rules require that two rooms be provided. But in reality, most of the time the rules are not applied. The family is forced (which I witnessed) into dividing the room that is no more than 12 meters squared into two using a blanket or sheet.
- d) The majority of these shelters are dilapidated; they are very old buildings that were not demolished only because the refugees are residing in them.
- e) There are few or no washroom facilities. In a shelter that accommodates sometimes more than thirty families, you can find no more than two washroom facilities or three, if its residents are lucky.
- f) The common hallways, which are dark, humid, and narrow, and serve as the playground for the children, become crowded and filled with the children’s screams.
g)Because of the extreme heat in Baghdad, the residents are forced to sleep on the roofs of their homes. All the families in the shelter go up to the shelter’s only roof in summer nights. The miseries become evident when the sheet that divides the roof gets blown in the wind; the women sleep on one side and the men on the other side. It is possible for the reader to imagine the scene, with the shelter surrounded by rooms made of corrugated tin in an attempt to accommodate the population increase in the area over the past three decades.
In 1977, Unise Taha submitted a Masters thesis in Baghdad University that included a list of the shelters in which an estimated 11.97% of Palestinian refugees reside. As a result, the Palestinian Bureau “decided to empty the shelters completely and to move the refugees to new buildings”.
It is possible to verify the Bureau’s execution of its decision. We visited two al-Zafarani shelters (shown in the pictures accompanying this report), where we conducted a visit to the area and the homes.
In addition to the shelters, there is another type of housing, know as ‘frozen property’, which is the property of Iraqi Jews who have immigrated to Palestine. These houses were distributed to Iraqis and Palestinians. The buildings are also old and have not been renovated. The people refer to them ironically “the six palaces” because they are considered to be much better than other places. They have the same organizational structure as the shelters.
We visited them; it became obvious to us that they do not meet the minimal international standards of human habitation. Corrugated tin rooms, which were built to accommodate the increasing population pressure, surrounded the houses. When they were given to refugees in 1960, five families used to live in each house. Today, in every house there are twenty families. We counted in the “five palaces” (and not six as they are called) more than 110 families. Therefore, there are 20 families in every house (please refer to the accompanying picture).
There is also the rented property; it is ordinary property that is rented by the Bureau of Palestinians in Iraq for the purpose of housing refugees in it. In the eighties, the Bureau used to pay approximately 24000 Dinar in annual rent. These properties are the ones that brought back the memories of the tents to the Palestinian people. Following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the owners of these properties demanded their return because the government used to pay low rent and did not increase the rent over the years. So in the absence of authority, there was an opportunity to get rid of the Palestinians residing in them.
Finally, there is the individual housing. It consists of a collection of subsidized housing units that have social services. It is considered the best form of housing available to the Palestinians. There were 16 residential buildings in al-Baladiat neighbourhood and one building in Mosul in al-Karamat neighbourhood. These residential buildings consisted of three stories and four entrances, with each entrance leading to 12 apartments, and every apartment housing two or three families from one extended family. There are two types of apartments: a big type that includes two rooms, a hall, a kitchen, washroom facilities and shower, and a small type that includes one bedroom, a hall, a kitchen, washroom facilities and shower. No additional residential buildings have been built since 1980.
It is possible to describe, as follows, the areas that we saw where the Palestinians reside in Baghdad in 2003:
Al-Baldiat: It is the biggest bloc; there are approximately 1600 families distributed among 768 apartments in 16 residential buildings.
Six medium shelters in Baghdad al-Jadida that used to be veterinarian clinics.
24 small government subsidized houses in Tel-Muhammad.
3 shelters, one of them almost collapsing, in the Amin neighbourhood; they have 45 apartments.
3 shelters in al-Zafarania and 8 government subsidized houses that are in inhumane condition.
3 shelters in the Horia neighbourhood, one of them big and the others medium sized, containing a total of 129 small government subsidized houses.
The houses in the Saddam neighbourhood, whose construction has been frozen, as referred to earlier, and 68 small government subsidized houses.
- There are a total of 68 scattered houses of different types in al-Batawin, al-Jihad neighbourhood, Abu Tsheer and other areas.
Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, there were 706 families forced out of their homes, some of whom, along with their belongings, have been able to move in with their relatives into quarters crowded with people and belongings. As a result, the camp al-Awada was set up in the Palestinian facilities in Baladiat to accommodate the majority of them in harsh conditions. This is a picture of 295 families who were unable to find anyone or help.
|Place||Number of Families||Number of people|
|School in al-Baladiat||18||85|
|Factory in al-Baladiat||18||73|
|Jerusalem Military base in Salam Neighbourhood||17||82|
|City Hall in al-Baladiat||1||3|
|Charitable Organization – al-Baladiat||1||7|
|Total as of evening of Wednesday 11/06/2003 1376|
Finally, it is necessary to note that 1018 Palestinians have left Iraq towards Jordan, which, even until now, refuses entry to some of them at the border (approximately 900 persons). Now they reside in a camp in the open air near al-Rouweishid.
Review of the legal situation
The blundered legal status for the Palestinians may give some indication of the degree to which there was an absence of state of law within the Iraqi authority. In public political speeches over forty years, its claims of limitless support for the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people have made it possible to imagine Iraq as the paradise for the Palestinians. We can see that the reality for the Palestinian is that of restrictions in work, housing, and traveling, and discrimination. The Palestinian worker’s situation can be compared to that of the foreigner in its negative aspects, but the Palestinian is treated as an Iraqi by every oppressive mechanism of the state. There is a policy for which we cannot find a rationale: the Palestinian is permitted to travel only once a year (this policy was in place before the wars and sanctions and remains), and has no right to a savings deposit account.
Several decisions had resulted in the Palestinians’ right to ownership, but the reality was the worst possible. We acquired a document signed by the Minister of Employment and Social Services, Ahmed al-Haboubi, eighty days after the June War of 1967 that documents the situation of the Palestinian in Iraq at that time. He says in it:
I visited the shelters where our Palestinian brothers live; what I saw pained me and I am not exaggerating if I compare it to graves inhabited by the living. The shelters are identical to graves in that there is no sunlight or clean air. The building is old and dilapidated, threatening the lives of its inhabitants, who live in constant fear. In one room, whose dimensions are 3 by 3.25 meters, resides a family of between 7 to 12 individuals. It is the place for cooking, doing laundry and dishes, washing, sleeping and eating. It is also the playground for the children. There is no barrier between families, which gives rise to danger, concern and problems resulting from the mixing of girls and boys. Also, health is threatened by the spread of disease, especially since cleanliness in these places is poor. The problem is bigger than can be described, and as the saying goes, (the one who hears is not like the one who sees). The person in these places loses his humanity and his life is like that of an animal. I say this with every pain, and I am certain that your honourable Council (meaning the Iraqi Council) will give this problem the necessary care to rescue these poor individuals from the miserable situation in which they live. The despair in their spirit has begun and they question even the hope of their rescue from their situation; so they have given in to despair. And I cannot hide from you the depth of bitterness that accompanied me as I looked into the eyes of the children, women and elderly, and their pale faces, which have lost their vitality, penetrate me in total blame and say ‘Is this the way those who are returning live?’
After this revelation, the Council met and decided to give to the returning brothers land with a loan for building materials. The Council developed specific rules for Palestinians, including decision number 1 in 1968 that guaranteed monetary help.
After these generous promises, there was a coup by the Ba’ath party in July 1968. The Revolutionary Council passed decision number 366 that decided to solve the housing crisis by building a group of subsidized housing units, complete with services, instead of giving land to Palestinians. It also gave equal opportunity to the Palestinians in Iraq in relation to
hiring, promotions, retirement, vacations, bank loans and inclusion in official delegations as an Iraqi. In return, this decision forbade Palestinians from buying land, building houses and acquiring loans.
In 1981, the Council passed decision number 1 permitting the Palestinians the rights of ownership, and granting them the right to own one house for residence upon approval by the Ministry of the Interior.
In 1983, the Council passed directives number 5 requiring the agreement of the General Institution for employment and the teaching of vocations for the purpose of attaining and changing jobs.
In 1984, it was decided to grant the Palestinians permission to own one residence at the current cost.
In 1987, Saddam Hussein passed a decision suspending implementation of the decisions mentioned above for a period of five years.
In 1997, Saddam Hussein passed a decision granting any Palestinian who is a card carrying member of the Ba’ath party a piece of residential land.
In the period of the second Intifada, several decisions were passed, granting to Iraq’s Palestinian community certain presents, about which only those who talked about it in the press knew anything.
The primary problem in dealing with the Palestinian case in Iraq is that the Palestinian cause was a commodity in the official media that the regime used for its own purposes. Consequently, except for the attempts made at the beginning of the seventies that improved the situation for some of the refugees, all of the laws were merely ink on paper. In the eighties and nineties, any improvements in the personal situation of the Palestinian depended on loyalty to the party and regime. The vast majority of Palestinians were marginalized and only a very small segment benefited from the regime.
Conclusions and recommendations
We are facing multi-faceted tragedies, the primary aspect of which is the special situation of Iraq’s Palestinian refugees, who are outside the administration of United Nations Organizations, and specifically, UNRWA. This reality has left the refugees’ social fate, and not just their political one, directly in the hands of the regime in the country. At this point, perhaps the head of the UN administration in Iraq can discuss the inclusion of the Palestinians in Iraq within the services of UNRWA, and consider agreements with the Iraqi government null and void. Such an approach would enable the establishment of a new basis for the legal situation of the Palestinian refugees that would be clearer with any future Iraqi government.
This is the proper approach for the future of the Palestinian refugees, as it places them within any future framework proceedings related to the right of return, but there are immediate measures that cannot be postponed:
The suffering of those residing in the camps must be ended; they should be moved to acceptable places of residence. There are several possibilities that would only require administrative decisions to put an end to this unacceptable situation. We received a promise of a quick response to our request, which we hope will be respected.
Emergency aid should be allocated to those living in shelters, while we find a final solution to this inhumane situation through cooperation between various humanitarian and charitable organizations and governmental departments.
Job opportunities should be offered in a normal way without differentiation, and all decisions that hinder and make the daily life of the refugees difficult should be reversed.
The newly formed Iraqi human rights organization should report on the miseries of the Palestinians, and bring together Palestinian and Iraqi neighbours, in order to stop the rumors and internal strife incited by a foreign party suggesting that the Palestinian community was in the service of Saddam Hussein. As a result of this incitement, the Iraqi public imagined Palestinians to be enjoying privileges, hiding money and aid given to them, and living fantasies publicized by dishonourable political factions and those foreign to the deep-rooted traditions of Iraqi politics. We can borrow the saying of a poet to say to the residents of the poor Iraqi and Palestinian neighborhoods: “Oh my neighbor we are both poor here / and every poor person is related to a poor person.”
I would like to thank those living in the shelters and temporary camps for their invaluable help, and to brothers Abu Ali, Abu Annas, and Abu Hazm, who provided me with access and were most helpful in my obtaining all that is related to this file, from formal documents to witness accounts and transportation.
The English version is prepared by: Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre, SHAML www.shaml.org