Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sentenced to life at birth: What do Palestinian refugees want?

There’s something almost cruel about asking a Palestinian refugee whether he would accept living peacefully with Israel were he ever allowed to return. It feels like a sadistic exercise: treat a man like a lesser human, deny him a country, a house, a profession, keep him confined for years and once he is released expect him to stand up, dust the humiliation off his clothes and shake hands with his captor.

IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War

The Palestinian refugees I spoke to are not willing to shake hands with their captors – at least not if another Palestinian is watching. Pride is the last thing they still own, the tenacity typical of those who have nothing to lose on one hand, and no hope of gaining anything on the other. But what I learned once the conversations became private is that many of those refugees would just like to live in peace with dignity, and for that they are willing to give a pardon that has never been asked of them. In fact, pressured with a thousand hypotheses of restitution, acknowledgement of guilt and requests for forgiveness, almost every Palestinian I spoke to is ready to shake that proverbial hand and finally start a life that has been kept suspended ever since they were born.

Poster-children of their tragedy

“If there’s peace, I’m the first person ready to go back,” says 75-year-old Adnan Abu-Dhubah, his determination looking unsteady on the wooden stick he uses for a cane. There is no handle on the stick, and with the weight of his body his palm is branded with a square wound. Mr. Abu-Dhubah has known little else than life in a camp. He is one of 30,000 refugees in the Gaza camp in Jerash, Jordan, living in squalid conditions, walking through mud and sewage every day. Like most poor people, Mr. Abu-Dhubah looks older than his age. But time inflicts a heavier load on Palestinian refugees, because unlike other poor people they are denied the most precious and immaterial of all commodities: the hope to overcome one’s condition. Palestinian refugees are sentenced to life at birth, and for many of them even a winning lottery ticket wouldn’t be enough to buy the right to own property, or enough education to become a lawyer or a doctor. Most of the 5 million refugees registered with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) in five different host countries live in similar or worse conditions, permanently deprived of most rights ascribed to the citizens of any country. There are more than 70 professions denied to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, for example, and over 80 of them in Jordan. In neither country can they work even as a taxi driver, for that would require a driver’s license and most of them cannot legally possess one. In Lebanon, even the materials necessary for building a refugee shack are regulated by law – bricks and a proper roof are too permanent, and thus illegal.

“The one who put us in this position is Israel – not Jordan, not Lebanon or any other Arab country. The Arab countries have not stood by us, it’s true, they have not fulfilled their duties towards the Palestinian, but I don’t want to mix the blame here,” says another resident of the Gaza camp, 40-year-old Faraj Chalhoub, father of eight children.

That is yet another catastrophe almost exclusive to the Palestinians. Because their expulsion is illegal under a number of international laws, and because such injustice has never been rectified, some countries fear that by accepting the refugees as citizens they would be helping Israel ‘erase the evidence.’ In their exceptionally miserable condition, Palestinian refugees are the poster-children of their tragedy, the living proof of Israeli crimes and the indelible evidence that will stay exposed for everyone to see until they are allowed to return.

“I wish I could go to smell the air of my country and die,” says 70-year-old Massioun, the wife of Mr. Abu-Dhubah, herself also using a wood stick as a cane, this time with a makeshift handle. All her brothers and sisters live in Palestine and they’ve been separated since 1967. Like all refugees in Jerash, Massioun is a victim of what they refer to as Nakbatein, or two catastrophes: her family was expelled twice, first from the village of Barbara in 1948, and then again from Gaza in 1967. Of the more than 2 million refugees registered in Jordan with UNRWA there are about 120,000 who suffered the same two Nakbas, and none got Jordanian citizenship, unlike the refugees who came in 1948. More