According to a United Nations estimate, 34,000 Palestinians live in Iraq, many of them born in the country. They were given safe harbor over the past five decades after Egypt, Jordan and its Arab allies were defeated in three wars launched to destroy Israel.
Palestine's UN observer has reported to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the Palestinians are now trying to flee from Iraq. They are being persecuted by armed Arab militias, and increasing numbers of them have been killed or kidnapped in the sectarian conflict raging in Iraq. The UN observer has appealed for international intervention to protect them.
The Palestinians, virtually of whom are Sunni, feel less secure in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein because Iraq's Shiite-dominated regime resents their past loyalty to Saddam. Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgents, who tend to be religious fundamentalists, apparently are suspicious of the secular orientation of most Palestinians.
So where can the Palestinians find a new refuge? The most obvious place is Jordan, Iraq's neighbor to the west, where at least half its own citizens still identify themselves as Palestinians.
But several days ago, two busloads of Palestinians fleeing from Bagdad were turned back by Jordanian authorities who had closed the border. For four days, the Palestinians were stranded between the Iraqi and Jordanian border posts. UN refugee agency officials had to be called in to feed them. Only then was Jordan's border reopened, and the Bagdad refugees admitted.
Ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Arab world, comprised of 22 different nations, has made a major diplomatic issue of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out in the course of the three wars launched against the new Jewish state.
Israel has been pilloried in the United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere for their alleged responsibility for the Palestinian refugees' plight. In many foreign circles Israel is regarded as a pariah state. Its very existence as an independent country has been challenged by those who conveniently overlook the fact that Israel itself was created as a refuge for Jews persecuted and slaughtered in Muslim and Christian countries.
So where is the much-vaunted Islamic compassion for their "Arab brothers"? Only Jordan and Iraq have accorded full citizenship to the Palestinian refugees and provided them with all the rights enjoyed by the native populations. The oil-rich Arab countries sit on their hands while other foreign countries, the U.S. included, have contributed billions of dollars to support the refugees. And all the while, the refugees' miserable condition has been used as a political instrument to demonize Israel.
A novel situation is developing as Israel plans to unilaterally establish its own borders. About 1 million Arabs live in Israel as citizens. Many of them bemoan their alleged treatment as second-class citizens. Nevertheless, their standard of living exceeds that of Arabs in most neighboring countries. And they enjoy social welfare benefits and democratic freedom unknown to their neighbors.
Some right-wing Israeli politicians, likely coalition members in Israel's new government, propose that Arab-populated communities in Israel proper be transferred to an independent Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Interestingly, however, many Israeli Arabs appear unenthusiastic about giving up the privileges of Israeli citizenship. They seem reluctant to become citizens of a Hamas-dominated regime that is likely to be an autocratic theocracy.
International law prohibits stripping citizens of their citizenship against their will. It will be intriguing to see, if the transfer plan is ever implemented, how many Israeli Arabs will try to apply this law to avoid joining their Arab "brothers" in a Palestinian state.