Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Between Baghdad and Gaza

This is the story of a friend. I do not use his real name.
This is the plight of being Palestinian, stateless.

The 4km stretch of land was squalid, with no water, no food and nowhere to take shelter. The strip of land truly did justice to its name, No Man’s Land. Roughly 400 refugees were located there with no way of returning where they had come from, the hell of Iraq, and without permission to continue on to the police state of Syria. The people that inhabited this No Man’s Land were paperless and stateless.

The border between Iraq and Syria was the only space on earth where Karim was given permission to exist. It was July when Karim arrived at the border, escaping a death threat and having left his family and all that he knew behind, he was making an attempt at reaching his mother’s homeland that he had never visited, Syria. During those four months, with the sun beating down on the hundreds of people stuck there, the most immediate concern was a mere drink of water. Karim’s only travel document was a Palestinian passport issued by the Palestinian Authority in 1994, but never acknowledged by Israel who holds the official registry of all Palestinians within the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians residing outside of these areas have no “right of return” while Europeans, Americans, Russians, Ethiopians… really anyone who could trace their family origins back to the Jewish people was given access and legal rights to live, work and die in Israel, the land of historic Palestine.

Four months after arriving at the border, on November 8th, Karim’s mother picked him up, driving him to their new temporary home on the outskirts of Damascus. His skin was like leather she said as every drop of water he was able to find during those months was barely enough for drinking. Karim’s teeth had begun to decay. After months of trying Karim’s family was able to receive a letter from a Syrian government official giving Karim permission to enter Syria but without residency. At any moment he could be deported to the very place he had come from. Syria had given him temporary permission to become an illegal refugee in the police state.

In 1994 Karim’s father, Abu Karim, had chosen not to take on the Iraqi citizenship in the hope of one day returning to a state of Palestine still to be established. Abu Karim was Palestinian, from the Gaza Strip’s city of Deer Al-Balach where his family had fled from Beer Sheva in 1948 today located in Israel. Abu Karim was one of those ambitious Palestinians that despite the odds fought his way into university in Gaza and then continued his higher education in engineering in the UK. When he took on a job with General Electric in Baghdad he settled there with his family.

Karim was raised in an upper class neighborhood of Baghdad, his brother called it, the “Hollywood of Baghdad”. There he described to me a life wholly unimaginable to one who had grown accustomed to the media’s bloody reports of the city. Karim described today’s city of anarchy as the playground of his youth. There, he drove fast motorcycles through the streets and along with his brother was known as a little trouble maker at school. All this was to change with the international community’s siege on Iraq in the early 90s following the first Iraq war. By this time Abu Karim was running Iraq’s biggest import-export company. It was the people of Iraq who suffered most from the siege. At that time Karim’s life was affected dramatically, but it was the war in 2003 that changed everything.

The US lead invasion transformed the way of life in Iraq. It was for one of the US soldiers roaming the streets of Baghdad that Karim translated in a shop one day. Abu Karim had raised his children speaking English, he himself knowing seven languages. After the short encounter in the shop the soldier asked Karim to translate for the army and Karim agreed. But upon interrogation and the US officials realizing Karim did not have Iraqi citizenship, they imprisoned him in order to investigate his status in Iraq. Within seven days he was cleared and yet it was not until eleven months later that Karim was released by the Americans having passed through some of the worst US run prisons in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, much like the Assads, the neighboring Arab dictators in Syria, was gaining political capital by officially taking the Palestinians under his wing. It was well known in the West Bank and Gaza that the Ba’ath party sent monies to family’s whose members had died as “martyrs”, especially in attacks on Israeli army outposts. Yet, within Iraq this was largely for show and Palestinians though given a space to live in Iraq, a packed refugee camp not unlike those within the Palestinian areas, remained a stateless people at the mercy of a foreign Arab tyrant. Karim had excelled in a private school for advanced students and one day Saddam Hussein had come to visit the academy that was named after him. Upon his discovery that the top 17 students were Palestinians he had all Palestinians dismissed from the school the following day. Karim had been the first in his class and early on experienced the racism of living without rights.

Yet, it was the perception that Saddam made the Palestinians his spoiled favorite minority that brought on them the wrath of Shiite militias that sought revenge on anything connected to the legacy of the man who had suppressed, tortured and killed thousands of Shiites during his reign.

Karim’s family left their neighborhood a ghost town, partially occupied by militias but devoid of anything resembling the life that had not so long ago existed there. Even deeper tragedy struck when Karim lost his father in July.

Abu Karim had remained in Baghdad after the rest of his family had fled to Syria. There he was captured by a Shiite militia. He was tortured and upon release Abu Karim was able to travel to Syria and underwent an emergency operation to amputate his leg to try and prevent the gangrene from reaching the rest of his body. He lost the race against time. One week later Abu Karim died as the virus reached throughout his body.

Abu Karim was a wise man with deep love for his family. With the civil war looming in Iraq he had told his son Karim never to be overcome by a desire for revenge. Revenge, he taught, was an animal instinct that needed to be rooted out of humans. Karim today seeks no revenge on his father’s killers.

Karim is a prisoner in this world, only temporarily escaping the cell of No Man’s Land he has been sentenced to. Karim is fatherless and homeless as a result of war, as a result of occupation, as a result of injustice.

Iran: Palestinian Reconciliation; Israel: Palestinian Division

Some absurdities are taking place in the happy Western world balance of Good ("the West"...oddly enough including War ally Australia) and Evil (the so-called "Middle East" "/" "Islamic World"). It is one of the members of the famed "Axis of Evil" (North Korea by the way has just asked to be excused from this list) Iran, who is hosting reconciliation talks between the various factions.

The Algerian ambassador in Cairo for his part has also called for a "fact-finding committee on Hamas' takeover Gaza Strip to become a reconciliation committee between the Palestinians."

Just a few weeks ago Palestinian premier had seemed to soften his hard line stance towards Hamas when he called for a
"return to national unity."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office responded by stating that any Fatah-Hamas unification would cause "a breakdown of the diplomatic process", Abbas they said was "well aware" of their position. Israel seems to be quite fond of this (convenient) division.