Regional Outlook : Palestinian Hopes for Home Fading : * The peace talks in Washington have little relevance for hundreds of thousands of refugees living in squalid camps in Arab states.
The rows of huts and tents have given way to boulevards of shops and cafes and crowded dirt alleys where untamed armies of young boys kick soccer balls between the cramped concrete block houses.
Yarmouk, Syria’s largest quarter for Palestinian refugees, is more a city than a refugee camp--except for the disconcerting sense that it is a city on the run. Almost no one here owns the house they live in. Many weren’t born here, and most never intended to stay. The schools fly Palestinian flags next to the Syrian banner. The schoolchildren draw pictures of their families and then color in a tent for a house.
Here, miles away from the Israeli-occupied territories that are the focus of this month’s peace talks in Washington, is the Palestine that hope has suddenly left behind.
The crowded refugee camps of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are home to about 500,000 Palestinians who either fled Israel when it was created in 1948 or who are descended from those who left. More than a million additional Palestinians in those countries are still considered refugees, even though they no longer live in camps.
And while the Mideast peace talks have raised hopes among those Palestinians--refugees from 1948 and others--still living under Israeli control on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there is a growing realization among these others in the Palestinian diaspora that whatever happens in Washington or subsequent negotiations, they’re not likely to be going home.
United Nations and government officials say the majority will likely never have the opportunity to move to whatever self-governing territory or state is created for Palestine. And if they don’t go to Palestine, where will they go? With many Arab governments eager to rid themselves of the refugees after more than 40 years of waiting, the future of more than half the world’s Palestinians is more in doubt than ever.
“Honestly, we are confused. We don’t know what to think. Even if there is peace, will it be for us? I don’t think so,” said a young man in Yarmouk who was born in Syria after his father fled Jaffa in 1948.
“How can we go back?” shrugged Mahmoud Mawed, a prominent Palestinian writer who also lives in Yarmouk. “It’s just a very small land, with very limited economic potentiality, and without any real Palestinian authority. What am I going to do in Nablus (a Palestinian city on the West Bank)? I need someplace to live, to work. In this land, there will be no place for me. Peace, autonomy--these are just abstract and empty words, and it’s our own destruction if we accept them.”
It was not without design that Israel insisted on talking only to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Left out of the equation are the more than 2.8 million Palestinians who live outside of Israeli controlled territory.
The half million who live in the Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese refugee camps are cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees. (UNRWA also operates camps in the Israeli-occupied territories for refugees from 1948) The rest of the Palestinian diaspora lives in unofficial camps that have sprung up near UNRWA facilities or in cities around the world which have allowed them to come as temporary workers or, much less frequently, permanent residents.
When multilateral peace talks get under way in Moscow next month, the refugee issue is one of a dozen or more regional problems on the agenda. But many suspect that, with the peace process itself in doubt and the complexity of issues involved, it will be one of the last to be addressed.
“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Where are they going to go, and who is going to take them, and how are they going to get there? I can understand why people won’t want to rush into that,” said Ron Wilkinson, head of the UNRWA office in Cairo, which oversees a camp of 4,000 refugees from the Gaza Strip on the Egyptian-Israeli border.
The issues facing Palestinians outside the occupied territories are multiple and complex. Overriding most of them is the fact that they are citizens without a national identity--with all the problems that entails.
Of all the Arab countries which have professed brotherhood with the Palestinians, only Jordan has offered them passports. Most other Palestinians travel with murky “laissez-passer” travel documents issued by Egypt, Lebanon or Syria--documents which in many cases aren’t honored by other Arab countries, or in some cases, by even the country which issued them.
Palestinians in Syria, for example, must apply two months in advance for permission to travel to Jordan. Palestinians in Lebanon have difficulty obtaining visas to go anywhere, and tens of thousands of Palestinians working in the Persian Gulf countries have been stranded in the wake of the Gulf War because they hold Egyptian travel documents which do not seem to admit them anywhere--even into Egypt.
The U.N. estimates there are 20,000 Palestinians in Kuwait holding Egyptian travel documents who have been unable to leave because there is nowhere for them to go. Many have lost their jobs.
Ala’a Akkila, a young Palestinian with an Egyptian mother who was expelled from Saudi Arabia after his work permit expired, has been held in the security area at Cairo International Airport since July 29, denied visas to any other country and refused permission to enter Egypt because he faces charges in Saudi Arabia for overstaying his work permit, according to the United Nations in Cairo. He has been unable even to check into the transit hotel at the airport.
Two other Palestinians have been at the airport since Aug. 16, according to the United Nations, one because he faced a four-month sentence in Saudi Arabia for getting into a dispute with a Saudi, another because he faces a manslaughter charge in connection with an automobile accident.
A 27-year-old Palestinian who lived in Egypt until 1988 overstayed his residence permit and was not allowed to reenter the country when he left briefly in July. Denied entry to Egypt, he went to Moscow for 20 days, then was sent to Oslo, where he stayed at the airport for eight days. He was then sent back to Moscow on Aug. 3, shipped to Cairo the next day, returned to Moscow three days later, sent back to Cairo four days after that and was sent again to Moscow two weeks later. When last heard from, he had not been out of an airport since July and was being held at the airport in Algiers.
“We keep saying, if these are criminals, put them in jail, don’t just leave them at the airport,” said UNRWA’s Wilkinson. “We occasionally give them some money so they can feed themselves.”
U.N. officials and Palestinian representatives say the issue of nationality must be one of the first to be addressed in any refugee talks. If there is a resolution that grants autonomy or independence to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, will Palestinians outside the territories be granted Palestinian passports with which they can travel?
And if not, an even more difficult issue arises: Will the Arab countries which have been hosts, sometimes reluctant hosts, to the Palestinians since 1948 be willing to grant them citizenship?
Only in Jordan, where Palestinians are believed to make up more than half the population, are Palestinians eligible for full citizenship. Syria allows them to own businesses and property, even pays for medical care and university schooling, but doesn’t allow them to vote. Lebanon, which blames the Palestinians for the 1982 Israeli invasion and has been a reluctant host, forecloses Palestinians from most good jobs, does not allow them to vote or own property and has made it clear it would like them to leave as soon as possible. The Persian Gulf has no refugee camps, and Gulf countries have never granted citizenship to Palestinians. But large numbers of Palestinians nevertheless worked in well-paying Gulf jobs for decades--at least until many lost their positions because of Palestine Liberation Organization support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.
For most of the Palestinians living abroad, the fabled “right of return” has been a rallying cry for decades--the 1948 U.N. resolution which specifies that Palestinians displaced from their homes by the creation of Israel have the right either to return to their homes or receive compensation.
“I don’t want to be a refugee for all of my life, and I think this is the impression of all the refugees who left in ’48,” said Yahia Rashdan, services officer at Damascus’ Jaramana refugee camp. “I don’t want money. I don’t want to be compensated. I want to go home.
“If the peace process will give us the right to return to our homeland, OK,” he said. “If not, it’s not our peace process.”
Others are more philosophical. “It’s gone. Khalas . Finished,” said Talel Afghani, whose family has operated a trinket shop in Amman for the 43 years since they left Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. “I don’t think we’ll ever return. But maybe we’ll be compensated.”
Both of them are probably dreaming, said Dennis Brown, deputy director of UNRWA’s office in Damascus.
With Israel uneasy about the 650,000 Palestinian Arabs who already live as citizens within its pre-1967 borders, talking about the right of return “is a non-starter . . . I don’t think anybody but the most optimistic dreamer is talking about going back to Israel proper,” he said.
As for compensation, U.N. estimates of Palestinian property loss from 1948 were upward of $400 billion several decades ago--and nobody has even bothered to estimate since.
The real issues, Brown said, will be first to define which refugees will be discussed during the talks. Israel, he said, is likely to oppose talking about anyone other than the roughly 200,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled the West Bank after the 1967 war. And Jordan has made signals recently that it agrees.
But that leaves other questions. If a limited period of autonomy is granted to residents of the West Bank and Gaza, will Palestinians from outside--refugees from either 1948 or 1967--be allowed to return to those territories? What about those whose property was taken over since 1967? Even if negotiations result in a Palestinian homeland--either independent or confederated with Jordan--given its small size and limited economic resources, how will it be decided which Palestinians can live in this Palestine? And how, and where, will the millions who remain outside be resettled?
“That’s the problem the Palestinian community faces now, that those in the West Bank and Gaza seem to hold all the cards, and the diaspora is excluded from the process,” Brown said.
The Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the PLO’s member factions, suspended its membership on the PLO executive committee when the PLO decided to proceed with the peace process--largely in recognition of the fact that the needs of its primary constituency, the Palestinian diaspora, would not be addressed.
Abu Ali Mustafa, deputy secretary general of the PFLP, said the PLO’s exclusion from official participation in the peace conference is testimony to that concern.
“The exclusion of the PLO is meant to cancel (U.N.) Resolution 194 (the right of return), and the U.S. is planning for a Marshall Plan in this area which requires the settling of the Palestinians in the Arab countries,” he declared.
In Yarmouk, a small group of aging men who were among the 1948 refugees gathered to talk about what happens next. No one was sure. Mahmoud Youssef, who became wealthy after working in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade, seems no longer sure about where he would end up if the peace talks succeed. In the West Bank--in a tent even, he says--if he gets the chance. But at least, he said, he wants a right to decide.
“The real problem in the Middle East is sitting idle now before your face,” he said, pointing to his teenage son, Youssef.
“This boy is my son. He was born in Saudi Arabia. But how can he touch the border of Saudi Arabia? Can he go to the Saudi embassy and say, ‘I want a visa?’ Maybe he will be shot at the border. What kind of a nationality do I have to give now to this boy?
“I have two choices. One choice is to stay in this refugee camp forever, which is not acceptable to any human being, or I have to send him to be a commando or hijack a plane. I don’t like to hijack a plane, but at least I can say I am a Palestinian, I have a program.”
In fact, many Palestinians already are slowly becoming more resigned, in many small ways. Some talk about compensation. Some talk about at least getting the chance to visit their old homes, or the lands their parents have told them about--even just as tourists.
“Why not? If there is peace, we should be able to travel anywhere, shouldn’t we? The Israelis could come to Jordan, and we could come to Israel,” said Rebhy al Mousa, who left his home outside the West Bank city of Hebron 24 years ago.
A 34-year-old Yarmouk resident who for years heard his father talk about the lovely oranges in Jaffa and its turquoise beaches said he has accepted the fact that he will never himself live in Jaffa, or perhaps even visit there. But at least, he said, there is the chance that there will be a homeland for the Palestinians somewhere.
“I would like to know there is a country on the map that is called Palestine, whether or not I go there,” he said.
PALESTINIANS AROUND THE WORLD
Country/Region Estimated Population* Israel 650,000 The Occupied Territories West Bank 1,000,000 Gaza Strip 700,000 East Jerusalem 125,000 Jordan 1,500,000 Lebanon 325,000 Syria 300,000 Kuwait 150,000 (400,000 before Gulf War) Saudi Arabia 50,000 (150,000 before Gulf War) Other Arab Countries 200,000 Europe and miscellaneous other areas 297,237 United States 150,000
Source: Compiled from estimates and projections from the Palestine Affairs Center and the United States Committee for Refugees. * Includes 4,000 refugees from Rafah camp who are now technically on Egyptian territory
Where the Refugees Are: Registered refugees: According to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian more than 2.4 million Palestinians are registered refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
country/ In camps Not in Total registered number of region camps refugees camps Jordan 227,719 732,493 960,212 10 Lebanon 157,977 152,608 310,586 13 Syria 84,972 204,951 289,923 10 Israel West Bank 114,763 315,320 430,083 20 Gaza Strip 288,582 240,102 528,684 8 TOTAL 874,013 1,645,474 2,519,488* 61
* 47% of the estimated palestinian population
To be registered, a refugee must have lived in Palestine for at least two years before theoutbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and have lost both their home and their livelihood. Descendents are counted in this classification.
Those registered refugees that do not live in the camps are most likely living in towns or in various unofficial camps that have sprung up all over the Middle East.
The Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East receive assistance from the United Nations Relief And Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, (UNWRA) an agency that was created by the General Assembly in December, 1949. It was established to provide emergency assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.
UNRWA provides essential education, health and relief services to Palestinians living throughout the region. The largest program is education, up through the 10th grade and which accounts for over half of the annual budget. Health care services in the form of clinics and special programs account for roughly 20% of the budget. Relief efforts account for another 11%.
SOURCE: Compiled from estimates and projections from the Palestine Affairs Center and the U.S. Committee for Refugees.