September 10, 2006

VI. Renewed Violence against Palestinians

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government in April 2003,Iraq has been wracked by high levels of violence both from the insurgency and common crime. Politically motivated attacks and criminal violence have frequently targeted different ethnic and religious groups. In such an environment, it is often difficult to determine in individual cases whether Iraqi Palestinians who were victims of violence were specifically targeted because they were Palestinians, or because they are Sunni, or just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nonetheless, the evidence available clearly demonstrates that Palestinian refugees are particularly vulnerable in Iraq.

Almost all of the Iraqi Palestinians whom Human Rights Watch interviewed believed that their attackers had singled them out because they were Palestinian. Their accounts suggest a pattern of targeted violence and threats. They described how armed groups, either unidentified or believed to be Shi`a militants, attacked, abducted, kidnapped and in some cases killed friends, relatives, and neighbors. Mortar fire has been directed at their homes. According to a PLO representative, armed groups have murdered at least fifty-five Palestinians in Baghdad since April 2003, although he was unable to provide details of the specific circumstances of the killings.[46]

The Iraqi government has done little to stop such targeted attacks, and the Ministry of Interior has itself been implicated in arbitrary arrests, killings, and torture of Palestinian refugees. Those detained by Iraqi security forces described being targeted for abuse and torture specifically because they were Palestinians (see below).

Thirty-year-old Umm `Umar, the mother of two children age ten and one from al-Dura neighborhood, and her brother-in-law Ra'id `Ali Hussain, age twenty-nine, told Human Rights Watch that a group of armed men in police uniforms kidnapped Umm `Umar'shusband, Muhammad `Ali Hussain, on July 24, 2004, from his shop in the predominantly Shi`a Shaikh `Umar area of Baghdad. The kidnappers contacted Ra'id to demand U.S.$10,000 ransom to release his brother, and Ra'id collected the money from friends and relatives and paid it. However, Umm `Umar and Ra'id `Ali Hussain found Muhammad `Ali Hussain's corpse at the Baghdad morgue on July 26; according to Umm `Umar, her husband's body bore signs of torture.[47]

Another Baladiyyat resident, Fatima Ahmad, told the New York Times that armed men had abducted her husband (not named in the article) from his barber shop on January 15, 2006. The article describes how his family located his body at the morgue in March, "with gunshots to the head and torture wounds on his body." Fatima told the New York Times, "He was known as a hard worker and a serious man, and his only crime was being Palestinian."[48]

The Situation after the Samarra Bombing

Following the bombing of the revered Shi`a `Askariyya mosque in Samarra on February 22, 2006, inter-ethnic violence and sectarian killings exploded in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.[49] Armed groups from the Shi`a and Sunni communities killed hundreds of people in numerous attacks that verged on open warfare. In tandem with escalating inter-ethnic killings, Shi`a militias and some elements of the Iraqi security forces targeted Palestinians. As explained by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond at the time, "Some Iraqi parties consider the Palestinians as Sunni Muslims enemies, although they are not involved in internal strife."[50]

Almost immediately after the bombing, unidentified militant groups attacked the Palestinian buildings in al-Baladiyyat neighborhood of Baghdad with mortars and gunfire. One person interviewed by Human Rights Watch at the Trebil refugee camp described how on the day of the Samarra bombing "and the next day, men wearing black clothes [a dress code associated with radical Shi`a militias] came to known Palestinian locations and threatened violence. These men in black outfits came to our housing unit, and we held them off with guns." The U.S. military sent troops to repel the attacks at the Baladiyyat buildings, home to the largest concentration of Palestinians in Baghdad (U.S. troops had to intervene on several occasions to stop attacks on Palestinian neighborhoods[51]), but the mortar attacks continued.[52] Nawal `Ali, age fifty-eight, told Human Rights Watch she had decided to flee Baghdad after a late February mortar attack on their al-Baladiyyat apartment wounded her son, Muhammad `Ali Hassan, age twenty-six, in the face and hands.[53]

According to the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Riad Mansur, at least ten Palestinians were killed in the immediate aftermath of the Samarra bombing.Human Rights Watch has been able to collect detailed information on a number of those killings.

According to Palestinians who had fled Iraq, assailants hit Samir Khalid al-Jayyab, a fifty-year-old Palestinian with a prosthetic leg, on the head with a sword, and then shot him as many as twenty times. According to his relatives, he had gone to collect his child from school on the evening of February 22.[54]

On the morning after the Samarra shrine bombings, February 23, armed men abducted Ziyad `Abd al-Rahman Mahmud and Numayr `Abd al-Rahman Mahmud, two brothers of the former Palestinian attach in Baghdad, Najah `Abd al-Rahman Mahmud. The severely mutilated bodies of the two men were found two days later at the Baghdad morgue.[55] The same week, a Palestinian imam, Nawaf Musa, was abducted from his mosque and murdered.[56]

On the evening of March 16, Muhammad Hussain Sadiq, a twenty-seven-year-old Palestinian barber, was murdered in the Shu`la neighborhood of Baghdad, next to al-Ghazaliyya quarter where he lived. Despite a bomb attack in Shu`la the previous night, Muhammad had gone there to stock up as he was preparing to flee to the Syrian border.According to his relatives, a group of armed men strangled him to death after discovering from his identification document that he was Palestinian. The armed men also reportedly killed two Sunni men in the same neighborhood that night.[57]

According to people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, unknown militants also threatened Palestinians in different Baghdad neighborhoods, distributing flyers ordering them to leave Iraq immediately or be killed.A group calling itself the "Judgment Day Brigades" distributed a flyer to Palestinian homes in al-Hurriyya, al-Dura, al-Za`faraniyya, and al-Baladiyyat neighborhoods.It read in Arabic:

In the Name of God, the Merciful and Beneficent
Warning Warning Warning
To the treacherous Palestinians who collaborate with the takfiri,[58] Wahhabis,[59] the usurpers,[60] and the Baathists loyal to Saddam, especially those living in al-Dura.
We warn that we will eliminate you all if you do not leave this area for good within ten days.
Whoever takes heed is forgiven.
The Judgment Day Brigades[61]

Some Palestinians also reported receiving similar messages on their mobile phones, ordering them to leave Baghdad immediately or be killed.[62]

In other neighborhoods, Palestinians received reports from friendly neighbors that suspicious strangers had come around to ask where Palestinians were living. The neighbors advised the Palestinians to leave their homes immediately.[63]

The rise in attacks, killings, and threatening flyers sent shock waves throughout the Iraqi Palestinian community. UNHCR stated publicly that the Palestinians of Baghdad were "in a state of shock," and that "this panic may spread and lead to more Palestinians fleeing Baghdad."[64] Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on March 14 to express his concern about the rise in violence against the Palestinian refugees, particularly "the limited capacity of the Iraqi security forces to provide effective protection," and urged the establishment of a special protection office to protect the Palestinian refugees from further violence.[65] Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas also personally called President Talabani, urging him to stop the killings.[66]

Iraq's leading Shi`a religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah `Ali al-Sistani, on April 30 issued a religious fatwa (edict) prohibiting attacks against Palestinians and their property, stating, "You should not harm the Palestinians, even those accused of crimes. The civilian authorities should protect the Palestinians and prevent attacks against them."[67]Shi`a Iraqis have largely respected Sistani's religious edicts, but some of the more militant groups associated with rival clerics such as Muqtada al-Sadr have not always abided by them.[68]

Despite the international attention, attacks against Palestinians continue at the time of publication of this report. On June 1, 2006, UNHCR reported a "fresh spate of killings and kidnappings in Baghdad," with at least six Palestinians murdered in Baghdad in the last two weeks of May.[69]Among the six new murders reported to UNHCR were the May 28 killing of a Palestinian man who was taken out of his home by around twenty armed men and executed in front of his family, and the May 15 abduction and murder of a Palestinian resident of Baghdad by unknown gunmen. UNHCR also reported the distribution of more threatening flyers in Palestinian communities, warning Palestinians to leave Iraq within ten days or "face the same fate as the criminals in other areas."[70]

Almost all of the Iraqi Palestinians whom Human Rights Watch contacted in Baghdad expressed an urgent wish to leave. One Palestinian interviewed over the phone from Baghdad told Human Rights Watch: "Things are bad, very bad. I want to leave, to any country where there is some kind of stability. I am looking for a quick solution. I cannot wait one or two months." A few minutes later he switched to English to say, "I am very afraid, do you understand me? Anyone could come to me to wipe me out, anything could happen to me," before asking to end the interview.[71] Palestinian representatives in Baghdad and international journalists have confirmed that many Palestinians are seeking to leave Baghdad.[72]

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Abu Bakr, director-general, Department of Refugee Affairs (Amman), Palestine Liberation Organization, Amman, April 22, 2006.Dalil al-Kassus, the Palestinian representative in Baghdad, provided the same figure to Agence France-Presse.See Nafia Abdul Jabbar and Ahmad Faddam, "Scared Palestinians Try to Flee Baghdad," Agence France-Presse, April 3, 2006.

[47] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Umm `Umar, May 9, 2006, and Ra'id `Ali Hussain, May 11, 2006.

[48] Semple, "As Palestinians Wait at Iraqi Border, Others Get Threats."

[49] Jeffrey Gettleman, "Bound, Blindfolded and Dead: The Faces of Revenge in Baghdad," New York Times, March 26, 2006.

[50] "Palestinians Targeted in Iraq," IRIN News, March 5, 2006.

[51] Ibid; U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, "Human Rights Report 1 January-28 February 2006," p. 5.

[52] U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, "Human Rights Report 1 January-28 February 2006," p. 5; Human Rights Watch interview with Rebah, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Nawal `Ali, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with camp leader, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with Haji Mahmud Hussain, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.The witnesses interviewed based their description of the killing on the accounts of eyewitnesses who had seen the killing.

[55] "Palestinian President, Legislators Condemn the Attacks Against Palestinian Refugees in Iraq," International Middle East Media Center, March 1, 2006; Palestine Society for Human Rights in Iraq, "Awful Crime," February 28, 2006; Khaled Abu Toameh, "Abbas Begs Iraq to Stop Killings of Palestinians." Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2006.

[56] Abu Toameh, "Abbas Begs Iraq to Stop Killings of Palestinians."

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Haji Mahmud Hussain, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

[58] In Iraq, the term "takfiri" has become "shorthand for insurgents who kill Shi'a."See Dexter Filkins, "Armed Groups Propel Iraq Towards Chaos," New York Times, May 24, 2006. See also Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 31:"The term derives from the word kufr (impiety); it means a Muslim who is, or is declared to be, impure: by takfir he is excommunicated in the eyes of the Community of the Faithful.For those who interpret Islamic law literally and rigorously, one who is impious to this extent can no longer benefit from the protection of law.According to the consecrated expression, 'his blood is forfeit,' and he is condemned to death."

[59] Wahhabism is an extremely conservative Sunni interpretation of Islam, named after Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who sought to cleanse Islam of "superstitions" and return it to the "pure" form practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.Its adherents range from apolitical traditionalists (Wahhabism is closely associated with Saudi Arabia's rulers) to jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. In the context of the flyer, Wahhabism is used as a slur, implying Sunni terrorists.

[60] This is probably a reference to the widely held belief in Iraq that Palestinians "usurped" property and other benefits under the government of Saddam Hussein.

[61] Copy of flyer on file with Human Rights Watch, unofficial translation.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Shihad Ahmad Taha al-Hajj, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview, Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

[64] See "Death Threats cause panic among Baghdad's Palestinian refugee community," UNHCR News Stories, March 24, 2006; "Iraq: UNHCR increasingly concerned for Palestinians in Baghdad," UNHCR Briefing Notes, March 24, 2006; "Iraq: UNHCR seriously concerned for thousands of Palestinians," UNHCR Briefing Notes, March 3, 2006.

[65] Semple, "As Palestinians Wait at Iraqi Border, Others Get Threats."

[66] Abu Toameh, "Abbas Begs Iraq to Stop Killings of Palestinians." See also, "Dix Palestiniens tus ces derniers jours Baghdad (diplomate), Agence France-Presse, February 28, 2006.

[67] "Don't Harm Palestinians, Sistani Tells Iraqis," STR, May 1, 2006.Other Shi`a authorities, such as the cleric Hussain al-Muayad, also issued similar fatwas.See "Iraqi Shi'a cleric urges unity, rejects sectarianism, praises 'resistance,'" BBC Monitoring, May 4, 2006.See also, "Iraq: UNHCR Welcomes Grand Ayatollah's Fatwa on Palestinians," UNHCR Briefing Notes, May 2, 2006.

[68] Filkins, "Armed Groups Propel Iraq Towards Chaos."

[69] "Killings, abductions in Baghdad leave Palestinians in Iraq scared and angry," UNHCR News Stories, June 1, 2006.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Human Rights Watch telephone interview (name withheld), May 16, 2006.

[72] "Dix Palestiniens tus ces derniers jours Baghdad (diplomate)," Agence France-Presse, February 28, 2006; David Enders, "We All Just Want to Leave," Mother Jones, May 4, 2006.