Plight of Palestinian refugees spans five generations

Sunday 30/04/2017
Left to fate. A Palestinian refugee, who fled Syria’s war with his family, holds his passport in the Shatila refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Beirut. (AFP)

Jerash Camp - As a boy, Palestinian Ab­dullah Abu Massoud fled the war over the birth of Israel in 1948 and sought refuge in the nearby Gaza Strip.

As an adult, he was displaced again when Israeli forces captured Gaza, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in 1967. He escaped to Jordan, where he has been living in a refugee camp for 50 years.

Now 77, Abu Massoud is the white-haired patriarch of a refugee family spanning five generations, including a great-great-granddaugh­ter. The future looks bleak.

“Fifty years have passed without a step forward,” said Abu Massoud. “We don’t belong here.”

The plight of Palestinians up­rooted by Israeli-Arab wars is one of the world’s longest-running refugee crises and a solution would likely re­quire setting up a state of Palestine that would take in large numbers of them. Such a solution appears dis­tant even as US President Donald Trump says he wants to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Hundreds of thousands of Pal­estinians are being displaced again by regional conflicts, including civil war in Syria. The head of the UN Re­lief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which helps displaced Palestinians, said they were no longer the world’s focus.

“We are dealing here with a com­munity that has essentially reached a crisis of existential nature,” said UNRWA Commissioner Pierre Krae­henbuehl.

Abdullah Abu Massoud was born in a Bedouin encampment in what is now Israel. His family fled Israeli forces during the war over Israel’s creation, walking to Egyptian-run Gaza. More than 700,000 Palestin­ians were uprooted at the time.

In his 20s, Abu Massoud married Bassama, an Egyptian, and settled in Gaza.

Bassama, 72, said that after Isra­el’s capture of the territory in 1967, Gaza residents began talking of leav­ing, fearful of what Israeli rule might bring. Israel was offering transporta­tion to Jordan, Bassama said.

In April 1968, the Abu Massouds and other displaced Palestinians from Gaza boarded a truck to Jor­dan’s border. From there, they took buses to an area near the town of Jerash where UNRWA was setting up a tent camp. Bassama said she re­members her feet sticking out of the tiny tent while she slept.

Under US proposals in previous Israeli-Palestinian talks, a Palestin­ian state created from lands Israel captured in 1967 would welcome families such as the Abu Massouds. In addition, an agreed upon number of refugees would be allowed to re­turn to Israel and others could opt to stay in their host countries.

Disagreements remained, how­ever, and talks failed. Palestinians wanted Israel to accept moral re­sponsibility for the plight of refu­gees. Israel feared this would lead to a large-scale return to Israel and dilute its Jewish majority.

There have been no serious nego­tiations since gaps widened with the 2009 election of Binyamin Netan­yahu as Israel’s prime minister. Con­tinued Israeli settlement expansion made a partition deal more difficult.

Today, 5.3 million Palestinians and their descendants are registered with UNRWA in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, making them eligible for health and education services. Some in Netan­yahu’s government allege UNRWA and others perpetuate the refugee problem artificially. UN officials say refugee status is typically handed down through the generations in protracted conflicts.

A 29-year-old grandson of Bas­sama and Abdullah, Alaa Abu Awad, has never set foot in historic Pales­tine, the land between the Mediter­ranean and the Jordan River, but he clings to an idealised image of Gaza to help him deal with his state­lessness. He has tacked a Palestin­ian flag to the wall of his shop in Jerash camp.

“It’s the flag of my homeland,” said Abu Awad.

Most Palestinians in Jordan re­ceived citizenship as descendants of refugees from the neighbour­ing West Bank, which was under Jordanian control for two decades, until 1967. The offspring of those who arrived from Gaza — more than 150,000 — are still temporary resi­dents. They cannot own property and are barred from government jobs.

This has curtailed opportunities.

Alaa Abu Awad dropped out of school because there was no fund­ing for an education. As a tailor, he struggles to feed his family. Busi­ness has slowed because of rising prices and unemployment. He fears he will spend his life in the camp.

Circumstances vary for displaced Palestinians like the Abu Massouds.

Fewer than 30% of them live in UN camps. Many are poor. Others became successful; Palestinians helped drive economies in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, refugees cannot ac­cess public health or schools and are barred from most skilled profes­sions.

In once welcoming Syria, about 400,000 of the country’s 560,000 Palestinians were displaced in the civil war.

Most of the 2.2 million UNRWA-registered Palestinians in Jordan have citizenship, arguably ending their refugee status. Others say Jor­dan did this as a temporary protec­tion measure.

In Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank and Gaza, descendants of refugees have the same rights as others. Pinned down by poverty, many remain in camps, which have been hotbeds of unrest against Isra­el and resentment against the Pales­tinian ruling elite.

Life in Jerash has changed the women.

Unlike Bassama’s generation, the younger women wear veils, signal­ling that a more fundamentalist version of Islam is taking root. The women say being covered head to toe offers protection in the crowded camp.

Privacy is rare. In the Abu Mas­soud home, Bassama typically sits on a floor cushion, overseeing young female relatives as they cook and clean.

She accepts her refugee life as fate. She did her best to provide a home for their seven children, all now married.

Bassama said she has no hope of return and expects to be buried in the camp’s rundown cemetery.

“Gaza is gone. Palestine is gone,” she said. “It’s over. For 50 years, they are saying, peace, peace. We are tired of the words.”

(The Associated Press)