Refugees

‘A LONG JOURNEY AHEAD’

For the Palestinian diaspora, peace negotiations are unlikely to end the ordeal

ADNAN R. KHAN June 30 2003
Refugees

‘A LONG JOURNEY AHEAD’

For the Palestinian diaspora, peace negotiations are unlikely to end the ordeal

ADNAN R. KHAN June 30 2003

‘A LONG JOURNEY AHEAD’

For the Palestinian diaspora, peace negotiations are unlikely to end the ordeal

Refugees

ADNAN R. KHAN

The formal unveiling of George W. Bush’s road map for Middle East peace during a historic meeting on June 4 in Aqaba, Jordan, was optimistic. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas shook hands and agreed to take the first steps toward implementing the plan, which could lead to a Palestinian state in three years. Sharon promised to dismantle a number of Israeli settler outposts in the occupied territories, while Abbas said he would take action to stop suicide bombings. He has so far failed to control the militant group Hamas; suicide attacks and Israeli strikes left over 60 people dead in a spasm of violence. Despite the setback, last week Sharon and Abbas tried to hammer out a ceasefire agreement that would allow the peace plan to proceed. But little has been said about one contentious issue: Palestinian refugees. Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adnan R. Khan recently visited a Palestinian refugee camp on the Jordan-Iraq border. He filed this report:

WITHOUT WARNING, a sandstorm sweeps over the Ar Ruwayshid camp in the wastelands of east Jordan, turning day into night. Flimsy tents are ripped apart, scattering personal belongings over the dusty terrain and sending a dozen people, choking, to the camp clinic. Twenty-year-old Sinan Sumrein and his mother, Ibtesam, 43, hug each other in their tent and pray while the frenzied winds tear at the thin canvas separating them from the maelstrom. Later, when the wind finally subsides, Ibtesam, still suffering the after-effects of rotten meat served to camp residents two days earlier, listlessly prepares coffee on a propane cooker. “Every day, it’s the same,” she sighs. “Heat, dust and rocks and boredom.”

The almost 1,000 people living in this squalid camp are part of the latest chapter in the sad saga of the Palestinian diaspora. The inhabitants of Ar Ruwayshid had temporary homes in Iraq, but were displaced because of the war. Sinan and his mother’s roots go back to Haifa, from where family

members fled in the face of advancing Israeli soldiers in 1948. Neither mother nor son has ever seen the ancestral home, just 300 km to the west and now an integral part of Israel. Both were born in Baghdad, where Ibtesam completed her master’s thesis in theatre arts at Baghdad University earlier this year, before the war forced them to try to escape to Jordan. But Haifa still holds a mystical allure for them. “My mother told me many stories,” says Ibtesam. “About the fish, the seaside and the boats. It is my home— I will never forget it.”

For now they live in limbo, symbolizing an enduring problem: what to do about the Palestinian refugees. Some four million are registered with the UN; taking into account others who are not on the official lists, the number may actually be as high as eight million people, scattered mostly throughout

‘YOU HAVE TO understandour first aim is to return to Palestine. But if that’s impossible, anyplace where we can live in peace will do.’

the Middle East. Many of them listened to news of George W. Bush’s so-called road map for Middle East peace in the hope that it might offer some solution to their plight. They were disappointed: the refugee problem was barely mentioned despite being a key issue separating the Palestinian Authority and Israel. But others have chosen to step past that particular minefield as well. The last major peace initiative—the so-called Oslo process—began in 1993 with negotiations between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist. The talks continued but ultimately failed injanuary 2001—and did not come close to adequately addressing the refugee issue.

People trapped at Ar Ruwayshid, aren’t surprised that the refugees’ plight has been

largely ignored in negotiations. “We live in these terrible conditions, while those politicians go to resorts and drink cocktails by the sea,” says Ali Saeed Jabri, a 52-year-old father of five. “What do you think they do there—talk about the poor, suffering Palestinian refugees?” But even talk may not go anywhere—the issue seems unsolvable. Palestinian leaders have always insisted on the return of all refugees, and cite UN resolutions that call for repatriation of all Palestinians forced from their homes in successive wars dating back to 1948, when the state of Israel was established. But Israel, with a population of six million, will never allow the refugees to return to their homes—that would skew the identity of the Jewish state. And even if a Palestinian homeland is established, would Israel sanction an influx of refugees there who would help create a Palestinian state whose population would dwarf that of Israel?

The issue goes well beyond a bilateral disagreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In Jordan, the majority of that country’s 1.8 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN have been granted full citizenship rights. But under UN rules, even these naturalized Jordanians retain their refugee status, and with it the right to return to their homes. Syria and Lebanon, meanwhile, have refused to give citizenship to the almost one million Palestinians in those two countries. Their position: Palestinians will never have a true homeland outside of Israel and must be returned.

Now the Iraq war has added another troubling variable. Saddam Hussein’s police protected the almost 90,000 Palestinian refugees living in that country, but many are now being persecuted and are trying to leave Iraq. Jordan doesn’t want to take them in. “Jordan is not legally mandated to accept these people,” says Nabil Benbekht, UN coordinator for the Ar Ruwayshid camp. “The fear of the Jordanian government is that if these people are allowed in, there will be a flood from Iraq.”

In Jordan, many Palestinians who now

enjoy full citizenship rights have come to feel a strong affinity for their host country and would not return home. But those trapped in Mideast refugee camps face a different reality. Sinan longs for a better, more peaceful life. “Our first aim is to return to Palestine,” he says. “But if that’s

impossible, then anyplace where we can live in peace will do.” His mother wants the home she never knew. “If no other country wants me,” she says, “then let me return to my home.” In an effort to make a visitor understand, she shows the dedication she wrote for her master’s thesis: “To

Palestine: the beautiful inherited wound, bleeding like a river and refusing to heal. To my mother’s soul, trying to return to its roots. To my children, my inheritance to you: knowledge and wounded hope. And to my brothers and sisters: we still have a long journey ahead.”