Iraqi Palestinians Yearn to Belong

Families in Baghdad and in border camps complain of neglect.

Iraqi Palestinians Yearn to Belong

Families in Baghdad and in border camps complain of neglect.

Monday, 15 February, 2010

From an outcrop of ragged tower blocks overlooking the sprawl of eastern Baghdad, the remnants of the capital's Palestinian community ponder their position in the new Iraq.

Some 5,000 Palestinians live in the Baladiyaat complex, surrounded by squat Shia neighbourhoods. Conspicuous in their crumbling high-rise buildings, they also feel dangerously exposed.

Thousands of their community fled abroad after being threatened by militias that resented them for having fared relatively well under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a dictator despised by Iraq’s Shia majority.

Many of the Palestinians were born in Iraq but never granted citizenship. “If anyone asks your nationality, tell them you are Christian – and always change your name,” Umm Jihad told her son, constantly fearing he might be killed over his origins.

An accountant at a private Baghdad firm, she says her colleagues harass her, asking how she expects a government with “enough problems of its own” to help those like her who come from abroad.

“But I have lost hope of going back to Palestine. It is no better than Iraq these days,” she said.

Her son, Jihad Saeed, a 19-year-old technology student, says he currently has no legal status in Iraq despite having been born here. As a Jordanian passport holder, he must leave the country in order to renew his residency permit.

His family returned to Iraq a year ago, having fled to Jordan during the bloodiest phase of the sectarian conflict.

“Jordan was hell,” Jihad said. “Life was tough. We were barely able to make a living there.”

He is one of few who have returned. Most of Iraq’s Palestinian refugees have relocated to neighbouring countries or scrape by in camps in the no-man’s land along the western border, awaiting resettlement.


Many Palestinian families have roots in this country dating to the creation of Israel in 1948 and its subsequent wars with its Arab neighbours. Others came more recently. Following his defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein encouraged the migration of thousands of Palestinians to Iraq, promising jobs and preferential treatment in an effort to portray himself as a champion of oppressed Arabs.

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, Baghdad was home to some 30,000 Palestinians at the time of the US-led invasion in 2003. Less than half remain in the city now.

Shia militia attacks on the Palestinians were fuelled by anger at their association with the Baathist regime, and later on, by allegations that some had become supporters of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

What remains of the community is concentrated in neighbourhoods such as Haifa Street, Saydiya, Salhiya and Baladiyaat.

The Baladiyaat complex of 20 seven-storey apartment blocks was built in 1973. Um Fadi, a 40-year-old mother of four, remembers a smart, modern district that enjoyed good services thanks to its proximity to the headquarters of what was then the top security agency in Iraq. Today, residents live in overcrowded squalor.

“Look how we ended up,” she said angrily, “with no electricity, no water, rubbish everywhere and streets flooded with sewage.”

Um Fadi’s husband disappeared four years ago while travelling to work along the road from Baghdad to the nearby city of Ramadi, then a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

“He was carrying a passport that showed he was of Palestinian origin,” she said.

Fadi Wali al-Edin, a Baladiyaat resident in his early twenties, recalls an attack on the complex in 2006 that prompted the flight of several Palestinian families.

“Masked militiamen kidnapped two men from their homes,” he said. “The women begged for their release but the gunmen beat their faces.”

Baladiyaat’s residents are still nervous of outsiders, having fewer checkpoints and barriers to defend them than some other Baghdad boroughs.

But the city is calmer now than it was two years ago and the conversion of the former security office nearby into a military base – occupied first by the Americans and now by Iraqi forces – has reassured the Palestinians.

They complain today not of the sectarian threat but of the state’s neglect.


Iraqi immigration minister Abdul Samad Sultan maintains that services in Palestinian neighbourhoods of Baghdad are no worse than in other districts ravaged by conflict.

“The government cares about Palestinians as much as it cares about all other Iraqis,” he said.

According to the minister, Palestinian families who have lost breadwinners in the conflict are entitled to state assistance, including monthly benefits of 100,000 to 150,000 dinars (between 86 and 130 US dollars).

The minister adds that Baghdad has done its best to help Palestinians marooned in camps along the border with Syria by sending them food and other necessities.

“The Iraqi government can’t force them to return to their homes,” he said. “In fact, they have asked to be resettled in a third country, despite the improvement in the security situation.”

The UNHCR in Syria says it hopes to close down the largest border camp, Al-Tanf, by the end of the year, once it has found a home for its remaining 660 Palestinian refugees.

Farah Dakhlallah, a spokeswoman for the agency, says asylum for more than 250 people from the camp had been arranged in the past year – mostly in Sweden and Norway. None of the Palestinians had expressed any wish to return to Iraq, she says.

Conditions in the camps – particularly Al-Tanf – are said to be appalling. Dr Alaa Yousif, a physician of Palestinian origin based in Erbil in northern Iraq, says serious health problems in Al-Tanf are going untreated.

“There is no financial support for major surgery,” he said. “The people in Al-Tanf must be supported until the problem is solved.”

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq has periodically been suggested as a possible destination for some of the Palestinian refugees. The territory is relatively stable and its government has friendly ties with the Palestinian leadership.

Official visits by Palestinian negotiators and leaders to the region have been accompanied by speculation in the Kurdish press of a local solution to the refugee problem.

However, senior officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, told IWPR there are no plans to admit Palestinian refugees.

Sardar Qadir, a political sciences professor in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, says the KRG’s budget is unlikely to allow it to help the refugees “unless the central government in Baghdad decides to support them”.

On the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis place Palestinian refugees in the same category as other displaced victims of sectarian violence.

“Just like other Iraqis, they fled looking for a place to live in peace,” said Mohammed Ali Jabr, a government worker in his early twenties.

Abu Sami, a man his early fifties, said the Palestinians “escaped because of the deteriorating security”. Those that remain, he says, are not a threat to the city.

Ali Kareem is an IWPR-trained reporter in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalists Samah Samad  and Azeez Mahmoud contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah and IWPR Iraq editor Neil Arun contributed to this report from Erbil. 

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