September 10, 2006

III. Background: The Palestinian Refugees in Iraq

Iraq, like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, has played host to a significant Palestinian refugee population since the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war that caused large-scale displacement of Palestinians from Israel.[1] Unlike those states, Iraq did not sign an agreement with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), established in 1949, preferring instead to address the assistance needs of the Palestinian refugees itself. There are no accurate statistics for the Palestinian refugee community in Iraq, but most policy makers, including UNHCR and the Iraqi authorities, estimate the pre-2003 war Palestinian refugee population of Iraq at 34,000.[2]

The Palestinian refugee population in Iraq can be roughly divided into four groups: Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli conflict;[3] Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the 1967 conflict; Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Kuwait and other Gulf States following the 1991 Gulf War, when Yasser Arafat's public support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait inflamed anti-Palestinian sentiments; and a significant number of Palestinians from other Arab states who had come to work or had resettled in Iraq.

Almost the entire Palestinian population in Iraq lives in the capital, Baghdad.Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, approximately 4,000 Palestinians lived in the northern city of Mosul, and an estimated 700 Palestinians lived in the southern city of Basra.[4] A large percentage of Iraq's Palestinians live in the following neighborhoods of Baghdad: al-Mashtal, Baghdad al-Jadida, al-Salam, al-Dura, Karrada al-Sharqiyya, al-Batawin, al-Za`faraniyya, al-Baladiyyat, and al-Hurriyya, although others were dispersed in private housing throughout the city. Many Palestinians live in low-rise apartment buildings built by the Iraqi government. Some families live in government shelters, such as former schools. In al-Za`faraniyya, for instance, eighty families lived in a former school for the blind, and another eighty families lived in a former orphanage. In some neighborhoods, Palestinian families rented private homes.[5]

During the 1948-49 war, the Iraqi army fought in the area from Haifa to Jenin, and when it withdrew, took some Palestinian refugees with it. (As a result, many Iraqi Palestinian families are originally from Haifa, in what is now Israel.) The Iraqi government housed thousands of arriving Palestinian refugees in schools and military camps as an emergency measure. Soon after, the Iraqi government began constructing temporary "shelter residential systems" to house the Palestinian refugees. Thereafter, in the 1970s, the Iraqi government constructed housing complexes for Palestinian refugees with basic services such as water, sewage, and electricity. The conditions in the shelters were poor, and the government-constructed housing was inadequate for the rapidly growing Palestinian population.In response to housing needs, the Iraqi government began to rent private housing for Palestinian refugees, providing the housing free of charge.An estimated 63 percent of the Palestinian refugees in Iraq benefited from such government-provided housing.[6]

As U.N. sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War crippled Iraq's economy, causing massive inflation, the Iraqi government froze the rents it was paying to the landlords of homes occupied by the Palestinians, as it did with many other government payments. By the end of the 1990s, the mostly Shi`a landlords were receiving next to nothing for the homes occupied by Palestinians many of the Palestinians interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2003 stated that their rent (paid by the government) amounted to the equivalent of less than U.S.$1 a month. Iraqi law prohibited landlords from breaking rental agreements.[7] Landlords forced to rent to Palestinians for inconsequential sums were, in effect, deprived of their property. In 1999, a group of Shi`a landlords from al-Tubji neighborhood of Baghdad tried to challenge the unfair agreements in court. They lost their case.[8]

The favorable housing arrangements Palestinians enjoyed was only one source of the resentment some Iraqis held against them. In order to improve his standing as an Arab leader, Saddam Hussein in 2001 announced the formation of a new paramilitary force, the Jaysh al-Quds (Jerusalem Army), with the aim of "liberating" Jerusalem. Iraqi males of military age, particularly Shi`a and Kurds, were often forced to "volunteer" for service in the force. In addition, Saddam Hussein openly provided "martyr" payments of U.S.$25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers and U.S.$10,000 to the families of other Palestinians killed in the Intifada.[9] Iraqis suffering under the strict sanctions regime reportedly resented Saddam Hussein's decision in 2001 to send 1 billion to aid Palestinians throughout the Middle East.[10]

The Iraqi government exempted Palestinians from military service, including in the Jerusalem Army, but subjected them to certain restrictions. Since 1950, the government provided Palestinians in Iraq with refugee travel documents, but not Iraqi passports.[11]Those who came in the aftermath of 1948-49 and their Iraqi-born descendants remained registered as refugees, and did not become citizens. (This was the standard practice throughout the Middle East, with the exception of Jordan, which granted Palestinian refugees Jordanian citizenship.)[12] The travel documents made travel outside Iraq very difficult, and the Iraqi Palestinians were also subjected to the same foreign travel restrictions the Iraqi government imposed on Iraqis generally in the 1990s, such as the requirement to pay 400,000 Iraqi dinars (approximately U.S.$200) to obtain an exit visa.In early 2000, the Saddam Hussein government announced a new policy to grant Palestinians who had resided in the country since 1948 the right to own property in Baghdad.[13] However, Iraqi Palestinians interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report said that, until 2002, legal restrictions prohibiting them from registering homes, cars, or telephone lines in their own name remained in force.[14]

[1] See for example Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[2] See "Palestinians Targeted in Iraq," IRIN News, May 5, 2006 (citing the Iraqi government estimate of a Palestinian refugee population of 34,000); and UNHCR, "Palestinians Leave Desert Camp for Baghdad," May 26, 2004 (estimating the Palestinian refugee population of Iraq at between 34,000 and 42,000).Prior to the 2003 conflict, estimates of the Palestinian refugee population in Iraq varied from 34,000 to over 90,000.See U.S. Committee for Refugees, Iraq Country Report 2002 (estimating 34,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq), and Palestinian Refugees in Iraq, Department of Refugee Affairs, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1999 (estimating 92,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq).A post-2003 war registration campaign by UNHCR, conducted in 2003, registered 23,000 Palestinian refugees in Baghdad, but acknowledged that the actual population of Palestinian refugees in Iraq was substantially higher.

[3] Israeli historian Benny Morris researched the displacement of the Arab population during the 1948-49 hostilities, and in an authoritative work provided the date and the reasons for the flight of the Arab civilian population from 369 cities, towns and villages throughout Palestine.Morris uses the following categories to describe the "decisive" reason for depopulation: expulsion by Jewish forces; abandonment on Arab orders; fear of Jewish attack or being caught up in the fighting; military assault by Jewish troops; psychological warfare by the Haganah/Israel Defense Force to induce flight (known as "whispering" campaigns); and influence of the fall of or flight from a neighboring town. Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, p. viii.

[4]Palestinian Refugees in Iraq, Department of Refugee Affairs, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1999.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with I.J., al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 29, 2003. I.J. is an Iraqi Palestinian lawyer who gave Human Rights Watch a detailed description of the legal regime affecting the properties rented for Iraqi Palestinians by the Iraqi government.

[8] Ibid.

[9]See Human Rights Watch, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002), pp. 100-101.In July 2002, an official from the Iraq-affiliated Arab Liberation Front told reporters that Saddam Hussein had provided an estimated U.S.$20 million in aid to Palestinians in the OccupiedPalestinianTerritories since the outbreak of the second Intifada. Sky TV Broadcast of July 17, 2002.

[10] "Saddam says Palestinian Solution Must Include Refugee Right to Return," Agence France-Presse, January 16, 2001.

[11]Palestinian Refugees in Iraq, Department of Refugee Affairs, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1999.

[12] Abbas Shiblak, "Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25 No. 3 (Spring 1996), pp. 38-39:

Two main principles, not necessarily compatible, seem to have influenced the attitudes of host Arab states The first was to express solidarity with and sympathy toward the refugees.This was illustrated in the willingness, at least in theory, of the Arab governments to give the Palestinians residency, though not political rights on the same footing as their own citizens. The second principle was to emphasize the preservation of Palestinian identity by maintaining their status as refugees, which would prevent Israel from evading responsibility for their plight. [Arab states] normally resisted resettlement and naturalization as a solution to the refugee problem.The exception was Jordan, which granted the Palestinian refugees Jordanian nationality.

[13] "Palestinians Resident in Baghdad Since 1948 to Own Houses," Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2000 (quoting Zidane Khalaf al-Tae, director-general of housing registration in Baghdad).

[14] In Accordance with Decree No. 23 of 1992 passed by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC).