ARAB DISCRIMINATION AND ABUSE AGAINST PALESTINIANS SINCE 1948 Elder of Zion
ALL ARAB COUNTRIES EXCEPT JORDAN:
Palestinians are not allowed to become citizens of Arab countries, in accordance with Arab League Decree 1547 for 1959, "in order to preserve the Palestinian entity and Palestinian identity." Even in Jordan they can no longer become citizens. (There have been some exceptions: Palestinian Christians in Lebanon in the 1950s, Palestinians born from Egyptian mothers in 2011.)
Palestinians face severe travel restrictions throughout the Arab world. They do not receive passports and their travel documents are only accepted by a few countries.
Palestinians cannot vote or run for office in national elections.
1988: Jordan revoked citizenship for millions of West Bank Palestinians as they declared "independence." As usual, this move was justified as being for their own good.
(In 1988 King Hussein made a speech which would come to drastically change the lives of many Palestinian-Jordanians with heritage from the West Bank. King Hussein indicated that in recognition of the increasing authority of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as representative of the national ambitions of the Palestinian people, Jordan would cede administrative control over the West Bank (HRW 2010; Identity Centre 2013). With this announcement, an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians-Jordanians lost their citizenship and became stateless Palestinians living under Israeli occupation (Identity Centre 2013) (Mapping the Legal Obstacles Palestinians Face in Jordan.)
2010: Jordan continued to revoke citizenship for thousands more Palestinians
2012: Jordan passed an electoral law that effectively limits the number of Palestinian members of Parliament to less than 10%
1948: Placed all Palestine refugees that reached Egypt into camps, forced men to go back to Palestine to fight.
1949: Expelled all Palestinian from Egyptian camps into Gaza. Very few Palestinian Arabs were left in Egypt.
1950: Egypt refused any UNRWA presence on its territory, relegating it to Gaza.
1949 - 1956: Any Palestinians in Egypt were barred from schooling and employment.
1970s: Palestinians who were treated equally under Nasser are officially classified as "foreigners" and lose access to Egyptian social and food subsidy programs. Most jobs are closed off to them along with university education.
2013: Hundreds of Palestinian refugees from Syria placed into jail as they try to enter Egypt
2013-now: Egypt has effectively closed the Rafah border with Gaza, even limiting hospital patients from traveling, effectively imprisoning 1.7 million Gazans.
2015: Egypt refuses to allow Syrian Palestinians to register with UNHCR, meaning that any who manage to make it to Egypt cannot get any services or residency permits. There have also been deportations of Palestinians from Syria.
1950-58: Would only issue one-way travel documents for Palestinians to leave the country
Arab countries refused to take in the new refugees. Hundreds were stranded in the desert or the sea. Eventually Libya allowed some to stay but kept threatening to expel them again. In the end about 15,000 were forced to go to Arab countries they had documents for, Gulf countries, and Western nations.
Early 1950s: Expelled striking Palestinian workers, along with Saudi Arabia and Libya..
2005: After Saddam Hussein lost power, Palestinians in Iraq were subjected to abduction, hostage-taking, killing and torture from armed groups. Politicians derided them. About 15,000 were forced to leave Iraq. Thousands were stranded in camps in the desert between Iraq and Syria, where no Arab country would allow them to enter.
Hassan Salem, 12, works at a mechanic's shop seven days a week, 10 hours a day, to help his family survive [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]
Mashwra, whose family fled Israeli oppression in the Palestinian territories years ago in hopes of a better life in Lebanon, instead found a dismal economy, international aid shortages and discrimination against Palestinians. He began working full-time to help his family survive.
"I thought, I'll go back to school when I go back to Palestine," Mashwra, now 16, told Al Jazeera.
But that hope has dimmed in the wake of US President Donald Trump's statement this month recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the US proclamation - despite being roundly condemned by the international community - has dealt a blow to the estimated 280,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of whom hope to one day return home to Palestine.
STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are treated as second-class residents, restricted from working in most fields, banned from owning property, forced to live in run-down camps and barred from formal ed
Mohamad Jabbar makes $10 a day at his butcher shop, just a tenth of what he could earn if Lebanese authorities allowed him to operate outside the military-guarded camp in Beddawi.
"It's like living in a prison," Jabbar said. "The government controls where I live and where I work."
Palestinians cannot own businesses in Lebanon and are banned from most decent-paying professions, including medicine and law. An estimated two-thirds live in poverty. The government will not give citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees, for fear it could make them stay forever.
"This is a cruel and false hypothesis," Bassam Khawaja, a Beirut-based spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. "Nothing prevents Lebanon from respecting Palestinians' basic human rights while withholding permanent residency or citizenship. But instead, generations have grown up in limbo, without basic protections."
Mohamad Jabbar makes as little as $10 a day at his butcher shop, just a tenth of what he could earn if Palestinians were allowed to open businesses outside camps [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]
Today, Palestinians are competing with nearly two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon for jobs and aid.
"The vast majority of international humanitarian aid coming into Lebanon is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, which means we are overlooking the long-standing human rights violations that Palestinians have faced here for decades," Khawaja said.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) deals with aid for Palestinians, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) covers Syrians - and the difference in the aid provided is stark. UNHCR gives 150,000 Syrians in Lebanon $175 a month per family; UNRWA, however, can only give 61,000 Palestinians $10 for each family member every three months, spokespersons told Al Jazeera. Both agencies say they target whoever is considered the most vulnerable.
Unlike Lebanese citizens, Palestinians cannot obtain free treatment at hospitals. They are also barred from most public schools. UNRWA has opened 67 schools and 27 clinics in Lebanon, but the clinics are only for general check-ups, while refugees with serious illnesses, such as cancer, must seek help from other NGOs.
RIPPED FROM CHILDHOOD
Twelve-year-old Hassan Salem is covered in grease after finishing a 10-hour shift at the local mechanic's shop, as he does every day. At the end of the week, he will get $3.33, all of which goes to his family.
"Of course I want to send my son to school," his mother, Lena Deeb, told Al Jazeera. "But I can't. If he doesn't work, we won't eat."
Nearly 20 percent Palestinians between the ages of six and 15 - and 30 percent of those aged 16 to 18 - are out of school in Lebanon, often because they are forced to work when their parents cannot. More than 30 percent of Palestinians leave school due to low achievement.
Ali and his friends plan to attend more protests against Trump's statement on Jerusalem [Lisa Khoury/Al Jazeera]
"The schools are so bad, I didn't see a point in going any more," said Ali, a 17-year-old Palestinian refugee who asked to withhold his last name. "I was 14 when I left, and I could barely read or write."
Nineteen-year-old Mahmoud Mustafa dropped out three years ago. Asked what his dream job is, he laughs: "We're refugees, we can't dream here. We're just worried about living today."
'DEATH TO AMERICA'
Rami Saaf becomes anxious when he is at work - not because he may have to borrow food from his neighbours again to feed his family, but because his kids could be electrocuting themselves at home.
The 34-year-old lives in the Beddawi camp, where raw sewage and water leak onto wires outside his front door. The last time his nine-year-old son touched a wire, he landed in hospital.
Lebanon has 12 refugee camps to house the generations of Palestinians pushed from their homes after the 1948 founding of Israel. Many lack basic services, such as electricity, sewage and waste disposal networks. Seventy-eight percent of households complain of dampness, 62 percent suffer from water leakage, and 52 percent have poor ventilation, according to a UNRWA study.
But this camp is all Saaf knows. Growing up, his dad sold candy on the street, and Saaf never went to school. Instead, he roamed the camp looking for work, which he still does today.
He always dreamed that one day, he would be able to give his kids a better life in Palestine.
"After what Trump said, it's like we died," Saaf said. "We lost hope. I'm sad for the future of my kids. I don't want to have any more kids, because I'll just destroy their future."
Thousands of Palestinians have held demonstrations across Lebanon over the past week, including one in Beirut on Sunday that turned violent. Protesters threw rocks and set rubbish cans on fire outside of the US embassy, while Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water cannon into the crowd.
At another protest in the capital on Monday, demonstrators chanted: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"
"We don't accept Trump's decision," Ali said. "So we will fight."
NO WAY HOME: THE TRAGEDY OF THE PALESTINIAN DIASPORA
You might think Palestinian refugees would be welcomed by their Arab neighbours, yet they are denied basic rights and citizenship
It is a cynical but time-honoured practice in Middle Eastern politics: the statesmen who decry the political and humanitarian crisis of the approximately 3.9 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza ignore the plight of an estimated 4.6 million Palestinians who live in Arab countries. For decades, Arab governments have justified their decision to maintain millions of stateless Palestinians as refugees in squalid camps as a means of applying pressure to Israel. The refugee problem will be solved, they say, when Israel agrees to let the Palestinians have their own state.
Yet in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, after two Gulf wars, and the rise and fall of the Oslo peace process, not a single Palestinian refugee has returned to Israel – and only a handful of ageing political functionaries have returned from neighbouring Arab countries to the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, failed peace plans and shifting political priorities have resulted in a second Palestinian "Nakba", or catastrophe – this one at hands of the Arab governments. "Marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines," a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Lebanon recently observed, "the refugee population constitutes a time bomb."
The fact that the divided Palestinian political leadership is silent about the mistreatment of the refugees by Arab states does not make such behaviour any less reprehensible – or less dangerous. Some 250,000 Palestinians were chased out of Kuwait and other Gulf States to punish the Palestinian political leadership for supporting Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of Iraq were similarly dispossessed after the second Gulf war.
In 2001, Palestinians in Lebanon were stripped of the right to own property, or to pass on the property that they already owned to their children – and banned from working as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists or in 20 other professions. Even the Palestinian refugee community in Jordan, historically the most welcoming Arab state, has reason to feel insecure in the face of official threats to revoke their citizenship. The systematic refusal of Arab governments to grant basic human rights to Palestinians who are born and die in their countries – combined with periodic mass expulsions of entire Palestinian communities – recalls the treatment of Jews in medieval Europe. Along with dispossession and marginalisation has come a new and frightening turn away from the traditional forms of nationalism that once dominated the refugee camps towards the radical pan-Islamic ideology of al-Qa'ida.
Daniel C Kurtzer, who has served as US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt and now advises the Obama administration, says that all American governments have resisted dealing with what he calls the most sensitive issue in the conflict – the normalisation of the status of the Palestinians – through a right of return to Palestine, or citizenship in other countries. "The refugees hold the key to this conflict's settlement," he says, "and nobody knows what to do with them."
In the unlikely event that President Obama's vision of a swift and final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict materialises, millions of Palestinians would still live in decaying refugee camps whose inhabitants are forbidden from owning land or participating in normal economic life. The only governing authority that Palestinians living in the camps have ever known is UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Established by the UN on 8 December 1949 to assist 650,000 impoverished Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, UNRWA has been battling budget cuts and strikes among its employees as it struggles to provide subsidies and services to Palestinian refugees, who are defined as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948".
The inclusion of the descendants of Palestinian refugees as refugees in UNRWA's mandate has no parallel in international humanitarian law and is responsible for the growth of the official numbers of Palestinian refugees in foreign countries from 711,000 to 4.6 million during decades when the number of ageing refugees from the 1948 Israeli war of independence in was in fact declining. UNRWA's grant of refugee status to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees according to the principle of patrilineal descent, with no limit on the generations that can obtain refugee status, has made it easy for host countries to flout their obligations under international law. According to Article 34 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, "The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees," and must "make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings" – the opposite of what happened to the Palestinians in every Arab country in which they settled, save Jordan. For all the easy criticism that can be levelled at UNRWA, it is hard to see how many Palestinian refugees would have survived without the agency's help.
The responsibility for the legal dimensions of their fate lies elsewhere, as UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd made clear at UNRWA's anniversary ceremony in New York on 24 September, before an audience that included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Queen Rania of Jordan – herself a Palestinian. "The protracted exile of Palestine refugees and the dire conditions they endure, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, cannot be reconciled with state obligations under the UN Charter," AbuZayd said. The result for the refugees, AbuZayd said at a forum the previous afternoon at the Princeton Club, is a "suspended state of existence" for which no one seems willing to accept political responsibility. The rest of the discussion, moderated by Ambassador Kurtner, made clear that anticipated solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem had failed to emerge – leaving a community in crisis.
"You can't ignore an entire people because it's awkward or inconvenient," says Dr Karma Nabulsi, a lecturer at Oxford and a former Palestinian representative at the UN. In the period immediately after Oslo, she added, Palestinian refugees in Arab countries hoped to be repatriated to areas governed by the Palestinian Authority. Today, despair has replaced that initial optimism. "What young Palestinian would want to resettle in Gaza or in the West Bank?" she asks.
Sharing a panel with Dr Nabulsi, the doveish former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who negotiated directly with Yasser Arafat at the failed Camp David meetings in 2000, asserted that Israel has suppressed narratives that would make clear its responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948. Indifference to the refugees' plight, he added, was shared by Israel's negotiating partner in the Oslo years – Yasser Arafat. "He was not a refugee man," Ben Ami said flatly. "He was much more centred on the question of Jerusalem. I heard him say to [Mahmood Abbas] in my presence, 'leave me alone with your refugees'."
It is no secret that certain Arab regimes saw the Palestinians under Arafat's leadership as an unwelcome occupation that stripped Jordan bare and destroyed Lebanon. Similarly, Arafat often used the threat of destabilisation and assassination to get Arab regimes to fund the Palestinian cause. Still, the record of Arafat's Palestinian Authority in its territories during the 1990s attests to the truth of Ben Ami's observation, which applies both to Arafat's Fatah and to Hamas. Despite $10bn in foreign aid, not one refugee camp in the West Bank or Gaza has been replaced by modern housing. On the West Bank, chances for normal Palestinian communal life have been shattered by Israeli settlements, arrests, checkpoints and roadblocks, and by 15 years of abuses by Fatah. Even under the best of circumstances, an influx of refugees would further destabilise a Palestinian economy that is kept afloat by the world's highest per capita receipts of foreign aid.
Daniel Kurtzer agrees no one is likely to make a deal that includes a substantial return of the Palestinian diaspora. "Most Palestinian refugees know it, as do the settlers," he says. So rather than wait for American mediators or Arab states to impose solutions on them, the Palestinians themselves should begin to tackle the diabolically difficult issues inherent in the resolution of their political and economic future. "What we need is a refugee summit," he says. "I'm looking for a real conversation that must start internally and soon."
After 60 years of failed wars, and failed peace, it is time to put politics aside and to insist that the basic rights of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries be respected – whether or not their children's children return to Haifa anytime soon. While Saudi Arabia may not wish to host Israeli tourists, it can easily afford to integrate the estimated 240,000 Palestinian refugees who already live in the kingdom – just as Egypt, which has received close to $60bn in US aid, and has a population of 81 million, can grant legal rights to an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One can only imagine the outrage that the world community would rightly visit upon Israel if Israeli Arabs were subject to the vile discriminatory laws applied to Palestinians living in Arab countries. Surely, Palestinian Arabs can keep their own national dream alive in the countries where they were born, while also enjoying the freedom to work, vote and own property?
A practical solution to the crisis of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries will focus on Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, which together play host to approximately 3 million of the estimated 4.6 million Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza. While each of these countries has chosen different legal and political approaches to the 1948 refugees and their descendants, they share a political desire to sublimate the rights of Palestinian residents, treating them as unwanted guests or as tools to be used in pursuing wider political interests – but rarely as fully-fledged members of society. Lebanon, where Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat are widely blamed for having sparked the 1975 civil war, is the worst offender against international norms. Yet even in Jordan, which is in many ways a model for the humane treatment of a large refugee population, Palestinians today feel markedly less secure than they did two decades ago, or even five years ago.
Outside of Iraq, whose Palestinian population fled en masse after the fall of Saddam, nowhere has the situation of the Palestinian refugees worsened so dramatically as in Lebanon. Since the early Sixties, Palestinians there have been barred from working in medicine, dentistry and the law. In 2001, the Lebanese parliament adopted an amendment to the country's property laws that prohibited the acquisition of real estate by "any person not a citizen of a recognised state" – meaning the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon. Palestinians who had acquired real estate prior to 2001 were barred from bequeathing property to their children.
Right-wing Christians and Shi'ite radicals alike support discriminatory legislation that further impoverishes Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, with the stated goal of preventing them from beginning the process of naturalisation, known as tawtin. In his inaugural speech in May, 2008, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian and former head of the country's armed forces, reaffirmed "Lebanon's categorical refusal of naturalisation", a statement echoed by the former Lebanese ambassador to the US, Nassib Lahoud, who told us recently in Beirut: "The confessional balance does not allow these things to happen ... at the moment the Palestinians are citizens of a state that does not exist." His sentiments were echoed by Hizbollah's spokesman on the Palestinian question, Hassan Hodroj. "The threat of tawtin is genuine," Hodroj explained. "It is one of the ways in which Israel, backed by the US, is endangering the region."
The fact that the living standard of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has been deemed "catastrophic" by both UNRWA and by the Lebanese government can therefore be understood as a deliberate result of official state policy that is supported by all parties across Lebanon's divided confessional spectrum. As a member of the Lebanese parliament, Ghassan Moukheiber, explained in an interview with the ICG, "our official policy is to maintain Palestinians in a vulnerable, precarious situation to diminish prospects for their naturalisation or permanent settlement".
Yet the results of this horrifying policy may not be confined to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In his book Everyday Jihad, about the experience of refugees in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, home to an estimated 70,000 Palestinians, the French scholar Bernard Rougier describes the results of decades of exclusion and marginalisation which have severed the refugees from any connection to a lost homeland – or the country in which they were born. As a result, he says, many Palestinians have abandoned a failed nationalism for the radical millenarian ideas associated with al-Qa'ida. "Palestinian salafist militants have devoted themselves to defending the imaginary borders of identity," Rougier writes, "declaring themselves the protectors and guardians of the cause of Sunni Islam worldwide."
Visitors to the Ain al-Hilweh camp are immediately made aware that they have entered another world. While Lebanese army checkpoints ring the camp, the Lebanese state has no presence inside. Food, water and other basic services are provided by UNRWA, while armed factions openly display weapons in muddy alleyways and recruit generations to serve under their banners. It is easy to see why the secular promise of Palestinian nationalism has faded and why the promise of a Muslim paradise without borders might take its place. One of the 9/11 hijackers dedicated a poem to Ain al-Hilweh's most prominent jihadist in his videotaped will, and dozens of Palestinian fighters from the camp joined al-Qa'ida in Iraq.
"The situation is the camp is deteriorating," Rougier told us, when we asked about whether things were getting better or worse for the Palestinians of Lebanon. Bound by their absolute opposition to tawtin, he says, Lebanese leaders are creating a radicalised Palestinian population that will eventually have to be absorbed into Lebanon, despite having little or no allegiance to the state.
Sahar Atrache, lead author of the ICG report on the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, agrees. "Palestinians refugees in Lebanon lack means of socio-economic advancement and are bereft of hope," he says. "They are vulnerable on all counts – politically, legally and above all physically. The status quo is good neither for the refugees nor for Lebanon itself."
While Palestinian refugees and their descendants inside Syria are not allowed to vote or hold Syrian passports, they are free from the overt discrimination that has turned Lebanon into a recruiting ground for al-Qa'ida. The legal status of Palestinians inside Syria is defined by a 1956 law that states that grants them "the right to employment, commerce, and national service, while preserving their original nationality". More than 100,000 of the estimated 450,000 Palestinians in Syria live in or around the Yarmouk refugee camp, which long ago became a neighbourhood of Damascus.
While Palestinians are reasonably well integrated into the Syrian socio-economic structure, according to the scholar Laurie Brand they do not have the right to vote, nor can they stand for parliament or other political offices. Palestinians are barred from buying farmland and prohibited from owning more than one house. The female descendant of a Palestinian refugee can become a Syrian citizen by marrying a Syrian man. The male descendants of Palestinian men and their children are barred from acquiring Syrian citizenship, even if they marry Syrian women.
The major focus of Syrian interest in the Palestinian refugees has long been as an extension of the Assad regime's policy towards its neighbours – Israel and Lebanon. Damascus has long hosted a variety of Palestinian terror groups that rejected the Oslo process, including Ahmad Jibril's Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). More significantly, Damascus is also the political and logistical centre for Hamas. "Syria's support for armed Palestinian groups is key to pressuring Damascus' neighbours, most notably Israel and Lebanon," says Andrew Tabler, author of the Syria-watching blog Eighth Gate.
Syria increases its leverage inside Israel by weakening Fatah and strengthening Hamas. In Lebanon, Syrian military and political interference has turned the refugee camps into "security-free islands" (juzur amniya) where bombers can be recruited, bombs manufactured, and plots can be directed beyond the reach of the Lebanese army and police. "Life for the Palestinians was deliberately frozen for political manipulation," concludes Lebanese analyst Tony Badran. "Syria has no interest in normalising that situation."
While Syria imposes a measure of security on its Palestinian neighbourhoods, it foments insecurity and violence in Lebanon and Gaza, splitting the Palestinian polity and fuelling the misery of Palestinians throughout the region.
Jordan is the only Arab nation that has integrated large numbers of Palestinians as full-fledged citizens. This is due not only to the unification of the East Bank and West Bank of the Jordan River valley under Hashemite rule between the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 until Israel's occupation of West Bank in 1967, but also to the luck of having had an enlightened monarch committed to the compassionate treatment of the estimated 100,000 refugees who crossed the Jordan River during the nakba in 1948. Israel's occupation of the West Bank following the 1967 war triggered a second exodus of 140,000 refugees into Jordan.
Today, almost 2 million of Jordan's 6 million people are registered Palestinian refugees, the largest concentration of current and former refugees in the Palestinian diaspora – and increasingly, tensions have deepened between the Palestinians and the "East Bank" establishment. This summer in Amman, ambiguous declarations by the recently appointed minister of the interior, Nayef al-Kadi, who is widely perceived to be anti-Palestinian, led many Jordanians of Palestinian origin to fear they would be stripped of Jordanian identity numbers. Speaking to the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, al-Kadi confirmed that some Palestinians would be stripped of citizenship, ostensibly to counter Israeli plans to turn Jordan into Palestine. "We should be thanked for taking this measure," he said. "We are fulfilling our national duty because Israel wants to expel the Palestinians from their homeland." Panic about their status spread quickly among the Palestinian community.
In interviews this month, senior Jordanian officials sought to quell such fears, while also suggesting there was at least some substance to al-Kadi's explosive suggestion. Faisal Bakr Qadi, the director of the Interior Ministry's office of Inspections, said Palestinians in Jordan were not being systematically stripped of citizenship. Rather, he explained that the government's current review of Palestinian national status dated back to 1988, when King Hussein, in response to demands by Palestinian and Arab leaders, disengaged administratively from the West Bank. Palestinian refugees, he said, meaning those who came to Jordan in the 1948 exodus, were to remain "full Jordanian citizens". "Displaced" Palestinians, or those who had come in 1967 and afterwards, would be able to maintain their yellow identity cards and numbers and de facto citizenship, provided they returned to the West Bank to renew the Israeli passes that permit them to go back and forth between Jordan and the West Bank.
Since 1983, he said, Jordan had given the coveted yellow cards – which enable Palestinians to work without special permits, pay local tuition rates in school, and enjoy full government services – to 280,000 Palestinians, whereas it had "frozen" the cards – or downgraded their status – of only 15,856 people. So far this year, he said, 9,956 cards were upgraded, 291 downgraded.
While many diplomats doubt these numbers, Jordanians insist there is no plot or plan to expel or deny citizenship to Palestinians who have lived virtually their entire lives in Jordan. "We want to ensure that when and if the peace process succeeds in establishing an independent Palestinian state, Palestinians living in Jordan will be in a position to choose their citizenship by having their status in order in both Jordan and Palestine," said an official close to King Abdullah.
Yet the distinctions that seem meaningful in Amman are not clear to some of the almost 94,000 Palestinian residents of Baqa'a, the largest of the 10 official refugee camps run by the UN. Some Palestinians in Baqa'a complain about the "new regulations" and the lack of identity cards that enable them to work without special permits and educate their children in public schools. Anxiety about the future pervades this ramshackle suburb at the northern edge of Amman, which began as an emergency relief centre after the 1967 war and is now a sprawling mini-city with its own basic shops, shawarma (sandwich) stands, and services. Many of the people we spoke to claimed that they knew someone, or had a relative, neighbour and friend whose identity card had been revoked, or whose status had inexplicably been changed.
For many of these refugees at the bottom of Jordan's social and economic pecking order, life without papers means hiding from the police who constantly patrol their camp's streets, being too poor to send any of your eight to 10 children to college, a lifetime of menial labour, and only a threadbare dream of returning to a homeland that most of them have never seen. There is strong suspicion of the state, but also of their neighbours, who are divided into "'48 people" and "'67 people". "Some of the newcomers would give away Al Aqsa for a Jordanian identity card," says Heba, a mother of eight, mentioning Islam's celebrated mosque in Jerusalem, one of its holiest shrines.
"We're Jordanians," says her son, Mustapha, a slender, 20-year-old in a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with meaningless words in unknown languages. "This is the best place in the world," he says, pointing around the bare living room whose worn rugs and threadbare pillows cover the floor on which he and all his siblings sleep. "We would never leave here. But I'm loyal to my country, and I would like to visit it one day."
He seems perplexed when asked which is his country – Jordan or Palestine. "We have no security here, but we are Jordanians," replies Mustapha, who lounges on a mattress in a two-storey cement house down the road while one of his five daughters offers tiny glasses of steaming herbal tea and cardamom-scented coffee. "Everything I have is here. This house. My car. My job. What would I have in Nablus or Be'ersheba?" he declares. "My children know nothing but Jordan. And we will stay here."
That determination, echoed repeatedly through the dilapidated cement homes that line Baqa'a's gravelly streets and dust-filled shops, is precisely what terrifies Jordan's East Bank establishment. Jordanians have reason to fear their Palestinian guests. Many Jordanians have not forgotten "Black September", the civil war launched by Arafat's Fatah organisation in 1970 which nearly toppled King Hussein's kingdom.
Moreover, having grown accustomed to their near monopoly on jobs provided by the government, Jordan's largest employer, Jordanians fear demands for political equality from Palestinians, most of whom would probably choose to remain in Jordan, relinquishing their "right of return' in favour of compensation. An end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would surely threaten Jordan's informal division of power: East Bankers dominate the army, the security services and most civil-service posts, while Palestinians are disproportionately represented in business. Palestinians may advise the king in the royal court, but there has been only one Palestinian prime minister, who served for eight months. Palestinians now comprise only 23 of Jordan's 110 MPs.
"The closer we get to a solution," says Adnan Abu Odeh, a Palestinian who was one of King Hussein's royal court chiefs and also held other important government posts, "the more anxious society becomes. We are approaching a moment of truth."
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A PALESTINIAN REFUGEE IN SAUDI ARABIA: 50 YEARS OF LOST DREAMS Mass deportations, 'Saudisation', and hefty government handouts have only magnified the schism between Saudis and non-nationals ME Middle Ewast Eye, Sarah Aziza, Tuesday 1 March 2016
February is one of the less-sweltering months in Saudi Arabia, but the stubborn humidity leaves the sleeves of my abaya sticking to my arms. In my father’s Ford, we blast the AC and enjoy the rare, early-Friday emptiness of the Jeddah streets.
Shuttered storefronts crowd the quiet blocks, and for the time being there are more stray cats than humans in sight. It’s not until after noon prayer that the owners will arrive, peeling their stores open like so many sardine cans.
My father and I are indulging a common passion: time travel. Our destination: 1968. We’ve set our course for al-Sahifa district, a run-down neighbourhood in the older part of town, where we plan to visit my father’s first “real” home.
My father, Ziyad, arrived in Saudi Arabia at age seven, after the tumult of the Six Day War pushed his family out of their refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Here, my father started second grade and my grandfather kept his family fed through a slew of odd jobs - street peddler, shoe seller, contractor and grocer. My father helped when he was old enough, and the family dined on expired canned food in leaner months.
We find al-Sahifa easily, despite the neighbourhood's changes. My father’s barber is gone, as is the cafe where he would loiter as a young boy, greedily watching television. Even so, much has remained the same - it’s with poignant surprise that he points to a still-operating grocery store on the corner. “That’s Dad’s shop,” he tells me, stuttering a little. We don’t go in.
My father switches off the engine and the two of us step into the muggy morning air. The streets are deserted except for a few dark-haired, hungry-looking men in beige tunics and thick plastic sandals. I adjust my green headscarf and follow my father towards a crumbling alley.
Jeddah is a city of transplants - my father’s story could be interchanged with thousands of others. Saudi Arabia’s population hovered around six million the year my father arrived. Not long after, the first oil boom created a spike in demand for labour, making the country a major destination for migrant workers.
Flocking to the kingdom from neighbouring Arab countries and South Asia, as well as other regions, these foreigners were responsible for much of the rapid expansion of infrastructure that transformed the country. Today, the country is home to nearly 30 million, including at least 9 million foreign workers and several generations of non-Saudis born and raised in the kingdom.
SAYING GOODBYE TO SAUDI
Even so, as we retrace my father’s childhood steps down the narrow, debris-strewn walkway, I know in some ways this is a good-bye.
After nearly 50 years, my father is giving up on Saudi Arabia.
“I’m tired,” he tells me, often, these days. After decades in the kingdom, he’s still a “temporary resident,” ineligible for public services and at the mercy of Saudi sponsors. He’s tired of the effort and expense required to maintain his six- to 12-month permit (iqama), the closest thing to permanency a non-Saudi can hope for in this country.
Most of all, though, he has grown weary of being told, in both subtle and explicit terms, that he’ll never really belong.
“I wanted to be a part of this country, I really tried,” he says. In his school yearbook, grainy photos show him in the traditional Saudi thobe and ghutra. He grew up playing football with Saudi neighbours in the trapezoid-shaped dirt patch outside his building. One of his teammates went on to play professionally; my father qualified, too, but was denied a spot -“Saudis only.”
My father’s next dream was more practical - he wanted to become a pilot. Several of his peers would go on to do just that, but my father’s lack of citizenship would exclude him from the government-subsidised training programme. He’s never lost his fascination for flying, but he’s never set foot in a cockpit either.
Like many other non-Saudis in the kingdom, my father continually found himself limited by a social system that privileges citizens while making citizenship nearly impossible to attain. He’d eventually take his fourth choice career - engineering.
Many of my cousins, born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, are experiencing the same dilemma today. My uncle, debilitated years ago by cancer, can’t afford rent, let alone college for his children. His daughters, who excelled in high school, are ineligible for government scholarships, so they loiter at home and pray for marriage proposals.
Later in life, my father would develop an interest in real estate, but he’d come to learn that there, too, the door is closed to non-Saudis. Extensive prohibitions on property ownership make it nearly impossible for anyone but citizens to buy land for such purposes. My dad would work as a manager for other people’s estates, in a city where he’d spent years building classrooms, homes, and businesses for Saudi owners.
SYSTEM OF EXCLUSION
Perhaps this exclusion is especially painful for people like my father, who, as a Palestinian, grew up stateless. Even so, my father’s story is less tragic than many. The system of Saudi sponsorship renders immense power to the sponsor, and has been used by some to wield abusive power over migrant labourers. Even in the most benign cases, these policies are still a cold reminder that this is a country that belongs first and foremost to its nationals.
It’s not a long walk from the car to my father’s front “door” - a small metal trap set below street-level (it flooded with rain and sewage quite frequently, he recalls). The walls are cracked, and this one-room hotel appears abandoned - we have no way of knowing for how long, or by whom. My father is quiet for a moment, glancing right and left, seeming a little struck by the smallness, and the familiarity.
Looking at the garbage-strewn streets of al-Sahifa, I’m struck by how far he’s come. He worked hard, but he’s quick to admit that teachers, mentors and employers - many of them Saudi - played a large part in his journey. Perhaps it’s his well-founded friendship with these Saudis that make him resent the system that’s devoted to separating them.
The seemingly inexhaustible wealth of the oil industry has created and sustained this stratified society. Now, with the shifts in the energy market stemming the flow of revenue, Saudis should be questioning whether they’ve done enough to foster resilience - or loyalty - in their workforce. Recently, mass deportations, “Saudisation” movements, and hefty government handouts have only magnified the schism between Saudis and non-nationals.
My grandfather - a large-limbed, dark-faced patriarch I know only through pictures - died before my grandmother did. He was buried in a local cemetery. When she passed, my father was informed that the plot where my grandfather lay had been re-purposed as a Saudi-only site. They told him to find somewhere else to bury his mother.
It’s the daily indignities, I think, that are driving my father away. Away from a country that he admits was an important sanctuary for his family post-war, and the site of many fond memories and most of his professional accomplishments.
When he leaves, it will be with relief mixed with remorse - remorse for what could have been for him, what cannot be for my cousins, and the loss of the country he tried so long to love.
- Sarah Aziza is a Palestinian American writer and activist born in Chicago, IL. She has worked with refugee populations in Algeria, Jordan, South Africa, and the West Bank. She recently relocated from Amman where she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow at UNRWA. In addition to pursuing graduate studies at NYU, Sarah works in education and advocacy among immigrant and undocumented communities in New York City. Her twitter is @SarahAziza1
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.