Only 30% of those who, for some reason, are still considered “Palestinian refugees in Syria” still live in refugee camps. Actually, they should long ago have been considered Syrians for all intents and purposes. They were part of the national Arab identity, they are connected by family ties, they should have been assimilated into the economic life of the country. But despite that, as a result of political brainwashing, they remain in Syria as a foreign element. They daydream about the “right of return,” and are kept perpetually in their inferior status. Most of them are at the bottom of the employment ladder, in the service (41%) and construction (27%) professions. Twenty-three percent do not even go to elementary school and only 3% reach academic education.
Apartheid in Lebanon
In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians suffered for only two decades because of the Egyptian régime. In Lebanon, the apartheid continues to this day. The result is poverty, neglect, and enormous unemployment. Up to 1969, the refugee camps were under the stringent military control of Lebanon. According to the descriptions of Martha Gellhorn, most of the refugees were in a reasonable situation. Many even improved their standard of living compared with the days before the “nakba.” But in 1969, the Cairo Agreement was signed, which transferred control of the camps to the refugees themselves. The situation only grew worse. Terrorist organizations took control of the camps, which turned them into arenas of conflict — mostly violent — among the various groups.
A new study that was published in December 2010 presents data that makes the Gaza Strip look like paradise compared with Lebanon. Indeed, there was some scant publicity about it here and there, but as far as we know, there was no worldwide protest, not even a Turkish or international flotilla.
In contrast to Syria and Jordan, in which most of those defined as refugees are no longer in refugee camps, two thirds of the Palestinians in Lebanon live in camps, which are “enclaves outside the control of the state.” The most stunning data is that, despite the fact that about 425,000 refugees are registered with UNRWA, the study found that only between 260,000 and 280,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon. The paradox is that UNRWA is receiving financing for more than 150,000 people who are not even in Lebanon. This figure alone should have led to a serious inquest by the financing countries (primarily the US and Europe), but there is no chance that that will happen. The issue of the refugees is fraught with so many errors and lies that one more lie doesn’t really change anything. And so UNRWA can demand a budget for 425,000 people from the international community, while its website has a link to the study that shows that it’s all a fiction.
According to the study, the refugees are suffering from 56% unemployment. That seems to be the highest figure, not just among the Palestinians, but in the entire Arab world. Even those who are working are at the bottom of the employment ladder. Only 6% of those in the workforce have some kind of academic degree (compared with 20% of the workforce in Lebanon). The result is that 66% of the Palestinians in Lebanon live below the poverty line, which was set at six dollars per day per person. That is double the number of the Lebanese.
This dismal state of affairs is a result of apartheid for all intents and purposes. A series of Lebanese laws restrict the right to citizenship, to property, and to employment in the fields of law, medicine, pharmaceutics, journalism, etc. In August 2010, there was a limited amendment to the labor law, but the amendment did not actually lead to any real change. Another directive prohibits the entry of building materials into refugee camps, and there are reports of arrests and the demolition of houses resulting from construction in the refugee camps. The partial and limited prohibition of some building materials imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip stemmed from the firing of rockets at population centers. As far as we know, no prohibition was imposed in Lebanon due to a similar firing of rockets at population centers. And despite that, again, beyond the dry reports of human rights organizations, as part of the outlook that “they are permitted to do as they please,” no serious protest was recorded and no “apartheid week” was held against Lebanon.
Apartheid in Kuwait
In 1991, the Palestinians constituted 30% of the country of Kuwait’s population. Relative to other Arab countries, their situation there was reasonable. Then Saddam Hussein invaded from Iraq. As part of the attempts at compromise that proceeded to first Gulf War, Saddam made a “proposal” to retreat from Kuwait in exchange for Israel’s retreat from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The PLO, headed by Yasir Arafat, supported Saddam’s proposal. That support was the opening salvo in one of the worst events in Palestinian history. After Kuwait was liberated from the Iraqi conquest, an anti-Palestinian campaign commenced, which included persecution, arrests and show trials. The terrible saga ended in the expulsion of 450,000 Palestinians. Incidentally, some of them had settled there back in the 1930s, and most of them had no connection to Arafat’s support for Saddam. Nevertheless, they were subject to collective punishment, a transfer of proportions similar to the original nakba in 1948, which barely earned any mention in the world media. There are endless academic publications on the expulsion and flight in 1948. There are close to zero studies on the “nakba” of 1991.
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These are the main countries in which the refugees are located. Apartheid is also rampant in other countries. In Saudi Arabia, the refugees from mandatory Palestine have not received citizenship. In 2004, Saudi Arabia announced some changes, but clarified that the changes do not include the Palestinians. Jordan also prevents 150,000 refugees, most of them originally from the Gaza Strip, from receiving citizenship now. In Iraq, the refugees were actually given preference under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, but since he fell from power, they have become one of the most persecuted groups. Twice, both on the Libyan-Egyptian border and on the Syria-Iraqi border, thousands of expelled Palestinians lived in temporary camps and not a single Arab state agreed to take them. That was a formidable show of “Arab solidarity,” in making the “Arab nation.” And it continues. Palestinians from Libya, refugees from the civil war, are now arriving at the border of Egypt, which refuses to grant them entry.
Time after time, the Arab countries have rejected proposals to resettle the refugees, despite the fact that there was room and there was a need. The march continues. In 1995, the ruler of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, decided to expel 30,000 Palestinians, just because he was angry about the Oslo accords, about the PLO, and about the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. A Palestinian doctor, Dr. Ashraf al-Hazouz, spent 8 years in a Libyan prison (together with Bulgarian nurses) on false charges of spreading AIDS. In August 2010, before the present uprising, Libya passed laws that made the lives of the Palestinians impossible. It was at precisely the same time that Libya dispatched a “humanitarian aid ship” to the Gaza Strip. There is no limit to hypocrisy.
The following is a summary of the apartheid against minorities in the Arab world in general, and against the Palestinians in particular. But there is a difference. While the Copts in Egypt or the Kurds in Syria are, indeed, minorities, the Arabs from mandatory Palestine were supposed to be an integral part of the Arab nation. Two of the symbols of the Palestinian struggle were born in Egypt – Edward Said and Yasir Arafat. Both of them tried to fabricate their birthplace as Palestine. Two other prominent symbols of the struggle by the Arabs of mandatory Palestine are Fawzi al-Qawuqji (who competed with the mufti to lead the Arab struggle against the British) and Izz al-Din al-Qassam – the former Lebanese and the latter Syrian. There is nothing strange about this, because the struggle was Arab, not Palestinian. And despite that, the Arabs of mandatory Palestine became the most downtrodden and spurned group of all, following the Arab defeat in 1948. The vast majority of the descriptions from those years talks about Arabs, not about Palestinians. Later, only later, did they become Palestinians.
The Arab countries are well aware that their treatment of the refugees from mandatory Palestine was no less than scandalous. To that end, they signed the “Casablanca Protocol” in 1965, which was supposed to grant the Palestinians the right of employment and movement, but not citizenship. Some relief was almost within their grasp. But like other documents of that type, this one did not change a thing. The abuse continued.
Comparatively, it seems that the Palestinian group that underwent the most significant growth is the one that is under Israeli sovereignty — both the Israeli Arabs who received Israeli citizenship, whose situation is far better, and the Arabs of the territories. Despite the harsh living conditions in Lebanon and Syria, and before that also in Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians under Israeli rule, beginning in 1967, have enjoyed a steady rise in their standard of living, in employment, in health services, in life expectancy, in the dramatic drop in infant mortality, and in the enormous growth of higher education.
For example, in all the territories captured by Israel in 1967, there was not one institution of higher education. In the 1970s, academic institutions began to sprout one after the other, and today there are at least 16 institutions of higher education. The growth in the number of students has continued for three decades, including during the years of the Intifada in the last decade. Within six decades, the Palestinians — only those under Israeli rule — have become the most educated group in the Arab world.
The same is true in the political arena. After decades of political oppression, it was only under Israeli rule that the Palestinian national consciousness sprang up. For two decades after the War of Independence, the Arabs could have established a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They did not do so — until Israel arrived and released them from the oppression of two decades. That didn’t make the occupation desirable. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t injustices and dispossessions. There were. But it seems that after the first two decades following the “nakba,” it was actually the era of Israeli rule that caused the enormous flourishing growth in every field. We should, and we must, criticize the negative aspects of the occupation. But we should, and we must, also remember the aspect that is ignored.
In the past decades, the lie has arisen again and again about Israel’s responsibility for the distress of the Palestinians, so it is advisable to set matters straight. The Palestinians went through a terrible experience of uprooting and expulsion. Most of them fled. Some of them were expelled. But, again, that type of occurrence was experienced by tens of millions of others. The difference lies in the fact that all the other tens of millions were absorbed by the countries to which they went. That has not been the case with the Palestinians. They have gone through ordeals of oppression, abuse, and denial of rights. That was the work of the Arab countries, which decided to perpetuate the situation. Many proposals to resolve the problem of the Palestinians and resettle them have been rejected again and again. The open wound has festered. Yet, time after time, the Arabs themselves have claimed that the Arabs are one nation.
The borders between the countries, and of this there is no dispute, are a fiction of the colonial government. After all, there is no difference, either ethnic, or religious, or cultural, or national, between the Arabs of Jaffa and Gaza and the Arabs of El Arish and Port Said, or between the Arabs of Safed and Tiberias and the Arabs of Syria and Lebanon. Despite that, the Arab refugees have become the forced victims of the Arab world. The “right of return,” which is primarily a propaganda invention, has become the ultimate demand. Behind this demand was hidden, and still hides, one single intention: the annihilation of the State of Israel. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Muhammad Salah al-Din, said back in 1949 that the “demand for the right of return was actually intended to achieve the purpose of annihilating Israel.”
That was also the case at a conference of refugees that was held in 1957 in Homs in Syria, where it was declared that “any discussion of the refugee issue that does not promise the right to the annihilation of Israel will be deemed a desecration of the Arab nation and treason.” There is no confusion here between the “right of return” and the “right of annihilation.” It is the same “right.” Identical words about return, whose purpose is the annihilation of Israel, were stated in 1988 by Sacher Habash, Yasir Arafat’s adviser. So, too, in our day, is the BDS campaign, whose platform supports the “right of return,” and whose leaders, such as Omar Barghouti, explained that the real objective is the annihilation of Israel.
Already back in 1952, Alexander Galloway, a senior official in UNRWA, stated that “the Arab countries do not want to resolve the problem of the refugees. They want to leave them like an open wound, as a weapon against Israel. The Arab rulers don’t care at all if the refugees live or die.” The Palestinian historiography has erased all expressions of this type, just as it has erased the absorption of tens of millions of refugees in other places, and as it has erased the “Jewish nakba,” the story of the dispossession and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries, and as it has erased the story of the Arab apartheid. But the truth must be told. Indeed, there was a nakba, but it is a nakba that is recorded primarily in the name of the Arab apartheid.
Ben-Dror Yemini is a researcher, a lecturer and a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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