September 10, 2006

IV. The 2003 War and the Backlash against Iraqi Palestinians

We are afraid all the time.We have to keep watch over our houses night and day. We are waiting for something to happen, and the longer we are here, the more likely it is that something will happen. Why should we wait? Frankly, we don't want to stay here. We want to go to another country. We need urgent help from UNRWA.

It is true that when Saddam was here, we felt safe, but we have not been living in the paradise some people imagine. Look at our homes. They are not fit for families to live in, and these are the better homes. We can show you far worse places where children are living next to raw sewage. In winter, our homes become flooded knee deep because there is no drainage system.

It is true that the Iraqi government in the past forced Iraqis to rent us homes at very low prices, but that is not our fault. At the time [1958-1963], when `Abd al-Karim Qasim[15] was here, the rents we paid were five dinars a month. That was real money then, but it gradually lost its value and especially after 1991, with the sanctions and the economy suffering, that rent was meaningless. The Iraqi government did not raise these rents, and we can understand the house owners feel resentful, but this is not the way to deal with the problem. Please find us a solution before something really serious happens.[16]

Almost as soon as the government fell in April 2003, Iraqi Palestinians as well as other non-Iraqi nationals (Iranian Kurds, Sudanese, Somalis, and others), became subject to intense harassment, violent attack, and forced evictions from their homes. The harassment and the violence appears to have two primary causes: resentment by Iraqis for the government's perceived preferential treatment of the Palestinians (many poor Iraqis resented the fact that the government provided Palestinian refugees with subsidized housing, while they as Iraqis had to fend for themselves), and attempts by mostly Shi`a landlords to reclaim the properties the government had forced them to rent to Palestinians virtually for free.

Physical Attacks and Threats

Iraqi Palestinians whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003 complained of attacks on their homes, threats, and other forms of harassment by Iraqis.Many physical attacks were accompanied by verbal insults that indicated the attackers resented the Palestinians for their perceived preferential treatment under Saddam Hussein, and sought their expulsion from Iraq.

For example, Nazima Sulaiman, a fifty-year-old woman from Baghdad's al-Hurriyya neighborhood, recalled that on the day Baghdad fell, fifteen armed men came to her home and told her family: "This home is for Iraqis; you own nothing.Saddam was protecting you; go and ask Saddam to find you another home."Two days after the threats, on April 11, 2003, unknown persons threw two bombs into Nazima's home, completely destroying it and killing her seven-month-old grandchild, Rawand Muhammad Sulaiman.Three of her children and three cousins were so severely wounded that they required hospitalization.[17]

Other Palestinians reported similar threats and attacks throughout Baghdad, as the cases below illustrate.

Murtada M., a taxi driver living at the "Palestinian Buildings" in al-Za`faraniyya neighborhood of Baghdad, which housed some eighty Palestinian families, recounted how a group of four armed men arrived at their compound on April 22, 2003, and entered their school.The Palestinian residents repulsed the attack by firing on the men, but unknown civilians then came to the compound to protest, yelling "Leave al-Za`faraniyya like you left Palestine!"[18]

Samir, a baker living in the Baladiyyat "Palestinian Buildings," recounted that armed men came to the compound five days after the fall of Baghdad, shooting and demanding that the Palestinians leave, and blaming them for the war: "It is because of you," they yelled, "Saddam gave you one million euro and us nothing!" Samir moved to al-Hurriyya neighborhood with his family, but again came under attack, with armed men protesting outside the refugee center and telling the Palestinians to "Get Out!"[19]

Muhammad, a customs official who lived with his family in an apartment in one of three "Palestinian Buildings" (home to forty-five Palestinian families) in the Ta'mim neighborhood of Baghdad, recounted how they had faced ten days of shooting and threats before they decided to flee on April 21, 2003.He told Human Rights Watch:

They were holding Kalashnikovs [assault rifles] and they shot at the buildings. We were inside, and they sometimes entered the buildings into the corridor. They were drunk. They were threatening us, saying they'll bring bombs. "We'll burn you," they said. "We want you to leave. This is our country. You liked Saddam, and now he's gone."[20]

Expulsion of Palestinian Families from their Homes

Many of the Iraqi Palestinian families interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2003 said that threats, harassment, and violence during rent disputes were the primary reasons for their departure from Baghdad or their internal displacement within Baghdad. Expulsions of Palestinian refugees from their homes began almost as soon as the U.S.-led invasion began. In many cases, armed Shi`a landlords expelled their Palestinian tenants, while in other cases, armed Iraqis attempted to expel Palestinians from government-subsidized homes in order to seize the homes for themselves.

Ibrahim Khalil Ibrahim, a sixty-two-year-old retired businessman, told Human Rights Watch how he had lost the home he had rented for twenty-two years:

The Iraqis took the opportunity of the war to get us out of our home.They came at the beginning of the war, the owners came with guns.They said, "Get out of our home. Because there is no government, we need our home. Now we will put a bullet in each of your heads" meaning me and the kids. So we thought, there is a war, so if they kill us no one will protect us. So we left and ran away. Not only us, but a lot of people. They kicked out anyone who was not Iraqi, their whole families. Once Saddam was gone, we had no one to protect us.[21]

Khairiyya Shafiq `Ali's family also lost their government-subsidized apartment in Baghdad, after groups of armed Shi`a men threatened them during four visits to the apartment: "They threatened they would empty their guns in our heads. They started [coming] after the fall of the government, approximately one week after. They shot bullets at the house. They told us, 'Saddam is gone, you are nothing here. You own nothing in Iraq, if you want to leave, take only your clothes.'"[22]

Twenty-four-year-old Jihad J. gave an almost identical account of how armed men had evicted his family from their rent-free home in al-Tubji area of Baghdad, where they had lived since the 1980s. Two days after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, a group of five armed men broke down the door of their apartment and entered:

They told us to get out or they would kill us, and they had their guns pointed at us. They were telling us to get out [of Iraq], that Iraq was their country. They insulted Saddam, saying he had tortured them because of us, and things like this. They gave us twenty-four hours to leave.[23]

The forced evictions of Palestinians occurred all over Baghdad, reaching even the few Palestinians living in private housing for which they paid market-rate rents. Wisam A., a crane operator with a wife and four children, told Human Rights Watch that he was forced to leave his rented home in al-Khadra' neighborhood of Baghdad, where few Palestinians lived, and for which he paid the substantial rent of 400,000 Iraqi dinars per year (about U.S.$200).Armed men surrounded his home on three different occasions, shooting in the air and demanding that the family leave. Although Wisam and a Shi`a neighbor managed to scare off the armed men by shooting automatic weapons in the air, Wisam decided to leave his home after the third attack, on April 25, 2003.

Many owners of apartments occupied by Palestinians gave the Palestinians eviction notices almost immediately after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, explaining that they wanted to get market-rate rents for their apartments. "Fatima" (not her real name), a forty-two-year-old resident of a seven-apartment building occupied by Palestinian families in Baghdad al-Jadida, explained how she and six other families lived rent-free in apartments for which the government paid the owner an annual rent of 20,000 Iraqi dinars (about U.S.$10). As soon as the government fell, the owner demanded that all of the Palestinian families leave.[24]

Sabir Jamil Shahin, a thirty-six-year-old father of three, was forced to give up his three-room apartment in al-Mashtal neighborhood when the landlord increased the rent from 20,000 Iraqi dinars (U.S.$10) to 100,000 Iraqi dinars (U.S.$50) a month after the war: "He told others he wanted to get rid of us. So I decided to leave before anything worse happened."[25]

According to the Baghdad office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), between April 9 and May 7, 2003, some 344 Palestinian families comprising 1,612 individuals were either expelled or were forced to leave their homes in Baghdad.[26]The Iraqi Red Crescent Society and other humanitarian organizations provided many of the families with temporary accommodation at a makeshift relief center located at the Haifa Sports Club in al-Baladiyyat neighborhood. As of May 7, 2003, the Haifa Sports Club provided accommodation to 107 families comprising some 500 people in tents provided by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society on the Club's football pitch.[27] By November 2003, the population of displaced Palestinians at the Haifa Sports Club had reportedly grown to some 1,500 persons, housed in 400 tents.[28]

[15] President of Iraq between 1958 and 1963.

[16] Human Rights Watch discussion with a group of Palestinian men at a state-funded shelter, al-Hurriyya neighborhood, Baghdad, April 29, 2003.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Nazima Sulaiman, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 27, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with `Imad al-Din `Abd al-Ghani Muhammad, al-Hurriyya neighborhood, Baghdad, April 29, 2003.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Murtada M., al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 28, 2003.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with Samir, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, June 27, 2003.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 28, 2003.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Khalil Ibrahim, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 27, 2003.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with Khairiyya Shafiq `Ali, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 27, 2003.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with Jihad J., al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 27, 2003.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima, al-Ruwaishid refugee camp, Jordan, April 28, 2003.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with Sabir Jamil Shahin, al-Baladiyyat nursery, Baghdad, April 28, 2003.

[26] Palestine Liberation Organization, Public Committee, Committee of Relief and Funds, "The Families Evicted From Their Homes," May 7, 2003 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[27] Human Rights Watch interviews with `Abd al-Salam Yusuf `Uthman, Haifa Sports Club, al-Baladiyyat, Baghdad, April 28 and 29 and May 7, 2003.

[28] Lawrence Smallman, "Baghdad's Palestinian Refugees," Aljazeera, November 9, 2003.