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

For more than 66 years, Palestinian refugees have been languishing in squalid conditions across camps in the Middle East. But do all of them agree that a return to Palestine is necessarily the best solution? Through her extensive research, Paula Schmitt finds that while different refugees may have different desires, hopelessness remains everyone’s worst enemy. 

By Paula Schmitt

IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo:
IDF soldiers expel the residents of Imwas from their village during the 1967 Six Day War. (photo:

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.

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.

Adnan Abu-Dhubah: “If there’s peace, I’m the first person ready to go back.”
Adnan Abu-Dhubah: “If there’s peace, I’m the first person ready to go back.” (photo: Paula Schmitt)

“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.

‘Doing the job that Israel should be doing’

For Kathem Ayesh, head of The Jordanian Society for Return and Refugees, keeping Palestinians in camps without any rights serves Israel. “If you keep Palestinians in such a miserable situation, they will never think about going back to their homeland, they will be desperate to eat and solve daily problems, to have the essentials to live. They won’t have time to think of their rights.” Though his theory makes sense, it’s not what I witnessed.

This paradox is part of a long and old debate. In the rest of the Arab world, it’s not rare to hear invectives against Jordan for “doing the job that Israel should be doing.” There’s no doubt, and it’s quite understandable, that refugees living in camps as non-citizens have an extra urgency to return. But the argument that Jordan may be alleviating Israel’s burden is technically misguided, if for nothing else because the refugees to whom Jordan gave citizenship are still registered with UNRWA, still counting as refugees if and when a collective restitution is implemented.

It is true that most of the people who said they would not want to go back to Palestine – and there were many of them – have a Jordanian passport. They explained it makes no sense to go back and start a new life over there when they have a full life here. But they are still refugees, and they still demand compensation for all the things that have been stolen from them. For Taalat Othman, an UNRWA physics teacher who heads the Association for NGOs and Committees Responsible for Defending the Palestinian Right of Return, “We demand to return to our villages, cities and our land, which have been forcefully occupied by the Israeli gangs, and to be reimbursed for all losses, both spiritual and material.” Mr Othman’s association has over 200 representatives in refugee camps.

Despite their refugee status, most of those who would not go back to Palestine are Jordanians, and they can vote, run for office, own businesses and do not feel they are treated differently. Government figures put the total number of Palestinians at a strategic 49 percent of the Jordanian population, but unofficial figures given by experts claim that number is closer to 75 percent, whether they are registered as refugees or not.

Taxi driver Mohammad is one of them. Like many who were interviewed for this feature, he prefers not to tell me his full name, explaining in perfect English that he “could be misinterpreted.” His father is from Jerusalem but he was born in Jordan. “Yes, Palestine is my homeland,” he says, “It’s a dream. But when I think with reason, what am I going to do there? I’ve never been there. If I go to Palestine I will be a stranger. Even with a house I wouldn’t go. I’m 45 now. I’m not going to start a new life all over again.” That sentiment is shared even by very politicized people who work at the UN with refugees, and are refugees themselves.

“This is a safe haven for us Palestinians,” says a UN official who prefers to remain anonymous. “I don’t feel like I am different than any other Jordanian in the country. I have properties here, and a car. My children are in the university. I can travel; I have a passport. This country has been very generous to us. I was once asked if there was a bus outside waiting for me and my family, would I go back? No. I would not go back to Palestine. My life is here. My friends, my family, my everything, my memories if you wish. I love Palestine. I would like to visit, but not live there.”

The old may die, but will the young forget?

Yet while the refugees from ‘48 have the luxury to weigh the pros and cons of the hypothetical arrangement, ‘67 refugees can dream of little else. It is hard to imagine anyone living in the Jerash’s Gaza camp wanting to stay where they are. The same can be assumed of all the refugee camps I visited in Lebanon: Sabra and Shatila, Mar Elias, Bourj el-Barajneh, Nahr el-Bared. Scenes of gloom repeat themselves endlessly, punctuated as they are by cute, happy children who make photo essays slightly less disheartening.

In one of the houses I entered in Jerash, I was received by a very old couple sitting on the floor. They sleep, eat and sit every day on the cold and humid cement. The woman, who thinks she is older than 80, cares for her blind husband despite having a back that is completely bent forward, incapable of straightening up. She doesn’t show much interest in an interview, and whenever she hears the word Palestine she sobs. But she made good use of my presence by holding my arm so I could help her stand up off the floor and go to the toilet. She fights that battle every day, a constant struggle to overcome the minimum human necessities we perform without a thought. But that daily hardship does not diminish her desire to go back. It just keeps it alive. She tried to tell me about the time when she and her family were expelled, after their neighbors were killed. But her story was interrupted every five words by her breathing – words and breath would not come simultaneously – and in between them she would moan in pain, holding her stomach.

Couple Jerash refugee camp.
(Photo: Paula Schmitt)

“The old will die, the young will forget.”

This maxim has been mistakenly attributed to David Ben-Gurion, but who said it is less relevant than who thinks it. And many right-wing Israeli politicians do. They hope Palestinians will not be as persistent and righteous as the survivors and victims of the Holocaust and their relatives were in seeking restitution and reparations.

When it comes to restitution, those two peoples are worlds apart. Unlike Palestinians, Jews have been extremely organized and unyielding in their claims for compensation and justice. Almost 70 years after the end of WWII, associations like the World Jewish Congress are still demanding changes in Germany’s laws to facilitate the recovery of art and utensils from Jewish property stolen by the Nazis. Austria, Holland and France have already worked in that direction, according to the WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. As recently as July 2013, the Associated Press reported on $1.3 billion paid by Swiss banks to the heirs of Jews who owned dormant bank accounts. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors are paid monthly stipends by the German government. And in May of 2013, the German government announced it was committing $1 billion for the home care of Holocaust survivors around the world. The deal was reached between the German Finance Ministry and another Jewish fund for victims of Nazi crimes, the Claims Conference. A keyword search on the Haaretz (one of the best-selling Israeli dailies) website shows an average of three articles every day with the word Holocaust in it.

Such a sense of justice seems to strike Israel as a victim, yet never as a perpetrator. But the orchestrated resolve for seeking WWII restitution has been inspiring Palestinian victims of the Nakba. They are educating themselves and establishing new institutions to preserve their history, to lobby for justice and to demand legal and financial restitution. Rather than turn the other cheek, the Palestinians are more likely to follow the Old Testament and demand an eye for an eye. In Jordan, I met the heads of two associations created only in the past two years for the defense of the right of return. Among all the refugees I interviewed, not a single one – even those not interested in going back to Palestine – is willing to give up the right to justice and compensation. One obscure piece of history that is coming to light only now is an indication that the axiom thought to have been said by Ben-Gurion may not be true after all: yes, the old are indeed dying, but the young are unlikely to forget.

Uncovering a silenced history

Hidden pieces of the Nakba are slowly becoming common knowledge, and fabricated history is being somehow ‘de-fabricated.’ One such subject is the organized robbery of Palestinian-owned books by the Israeli army and the Hebrew University, those whom Ilan Pappe referred to as “the official looters.” Thousands of books were stolen from Palestinian houses by soldiers deployed to the villages with that specific goal. Those books are now in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. Still bearing dedications and handwritten notes, they are all filed under the initials “AP”: abandoned property. Such “abandoned property” is now under the supervision of the Orwellian-sounding Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property.

"Palestinian-owned books at Israel's National Library, marked 'AP' for 'abandoned property. (Screenshot from 'The Great Book Robbery')
“Palestinian-owned books at Israel’s National Library, marked ‘AP’ for ‘abandoned property. (Screenshot from ‘The Great Book Robbery’)

Another piece of history quietly surfacing, and also kept under wraps by the same department, is the almost mysterious case of the confiscation of money and safe deposit boxes owned by Palestinians. I found only three scholars who have studied the subject. One of those scholars is Sreemati Mitter, a College Fellow in Middle Eastern History at Harvard University working on a dissertation called ‘A History of Money in Palestine.’ Wary of giving short answers to questions that require a lot of qualification, and stating that she doesn’t want “any hint of certainty attached to those numbers,” Ms. Mitter released a table she compiled with the figures estimated by the three scholars: herself, Michael Fischbach and the late Sami Hadawi. Referring to Fischbach as “the gold standard,” she cautions that she thinks he “completely underestimated the total amount frozen [by Israel].” The numbers by Sami Hadawi are higher, but they include estimates of confiscated safe deposit boxes. Mitter believes “the real number is somewhere in between the two.”

(Photo: Paula Schmitt)
(Photo: Paula Schmitt)

A document issued by the UN on January 16, 1950 says that, “The Government of Israel declares that it has no intention of confiscating blocked Arab accounts in Israeli banks and that these funds will be available to the proper owners on the conclusion of peace, subject to such general currency regulations as may be operative at the time.”

Mitter says that, in principle, “every single frozen Arab Palestinian bank account was released after the settlement between the two banks (Ottoman and Barclays) and the Israeli government in 1956. But, in practice, many Palestinians, particularly refugees, never saw a penny from their accounts. Where did the money go? No one knows.”

For Professor Fischbach, the confiscation of “land, buildings, household goods, farm animals and tools, merchandise in warehouses, factories, etc., was worth much, much more than the money in blocked bank accounts. […] The Israelis also said they would not pay compensation for […] moveable property, cars, factory inventories, household furniture, farm animals, etc. etc.”

An eroding safety net

Throughout my research, I came to learn that nationalism unites Palestinians much less than the fact they are all part of the same tragedy. All those individual calamities, the looting, the killing, the stealing, and the complete absence of acknowledgement by the perpetrator are the things that actually unite Palestinians the world over, and will keep doing so for as long as they are all victims of an injustice that is yet to be atoned for. It’s something quite evident among any people that have been collectively victimized – no matter how much an individual overcame his personal fate, he cannot turn a blind eye to the fellow victims who didn’t benefit from the same luck.

T.M., a wealthy woman in her 40s, married to a Jordanian man with three children, knows she would never move back to Palestine, as her whole life has been made in Jordan. But her will to fight for the right of return “is not about what citizenship I carried when I was born, where I lived, where my children were born. It’s about the struggle, the occupation, and me, as a human being, how I identify with those people. Do you understand? It’s in my heart, it is my heart.”

That is perhaps the biggest mistake still perpetrated by Israel, not only morally – even strategically.

While the original refugees are indeed dying, their descendants are multiplying. What is now a group of more than five million people started out as about 700,000. According to a document issued by the UN General Assembly in October 1950, among the refugees were even “17,000 Jews who fled inside the borders of Israel during the fighting.” They were also given assistance, food and aid, and were registered with UNRWA, but were later absorbed by Israel, who felt “that the idea of relief distribution is repugnant.”

It must be repugnant to Palestinians too, as many refuse to collect their aid. But there are too many of them living in utter misery. According to public information officer of UNRWA, Anwar Abu Sakieneh, the EU, UK, and Japan are some of the donors, but the United States was the single largest donor in 2013 with a total contribution of over $294 million, followed by the European Commission (over $209 million). These contributions made up about 42 percent of UNRWA’s total income for its regular and non-regular budgets. The services it provides are schooling, health care, universities, some hospitalization, and even cash handouts to families it once referred to as “hardship cases” but now euphemistically describes as being “under UNRWA’s safety net.” Those people are so poor they cannot meet daily basic food requirements. “We provide them with a ration of food every three months for each person in the family: lentils, rice, oil, milk, sometimes canned food. And we give a modest amount of $10 per each person of those families for those three months. It’s part of the package. Ten dollars per every three months for each person in the family,” Abu Sakieneh repeats. In total, there are 56,000 people under that safety net.

Sentenced to life at birth: What do Palestinian refugees want?
Jerash refugee camp, Jordan. (photo: Paula Schmitt)

We could live in peace – perhaps even together

But while they have some help for survival, refugees say they believe they have none for their return. Of the more than 40 refugees I asked “who is fighting for their right,” the answer was practically unanimous: no one. They don’t trust the Palestinian Authority and do not believe Hamas has any real power. “No one represents the Palestinian people. Abu Mazen works for the Americans. Hamas can’t do anything. The Palestinians represent themselves, there’s nobody. Fatah doesn’t do anything either,” says Mr. Chalhoub. For Mr. Kathem, the PLO needs to be revived. Another refugee in the Gaza camp who withheld his name said Abbas “sold the Palestinians to the Israelis.” Hani Jaber, a 39-year-old taxi driver who is both a refugee and a Jordanian citizen, at least trusts somebody: “I’m not religious, but Khaled Meshaal is a logic man, he is good. Until now Mahmoud Abbas didn’t do anything for us, the Palestinian people. I don’t care if I am 48 or 67,” he says, referring to the refugees as most of them do, by the date of their exile. “What about us, the people outside? I didn’t vote. My right as a refugee is to choose my leader.” On that, every refugee seems to agree: they should be given the right to vote and be directly represented.

They all concur on their demands too. When asked what their main wish is, they start with the same answer: to go back to their houses, the properties they owned and lived in at the time of their expulsion. Confronted with the possibility that such thing may be impossible, they choose to at least live in their village, and get financial compensation for their losses. More often than not, the answers would include the end of Israel. But here is where something quite surprising and very conspicuous would happen, almost invariably. After talking about the horrors committed by Israel and the need for justice and sometimes revenge, almost everyone, with one single clear exception, agreed that if Israel stopped “occupying our land, killing and humiliating our people, stealing our water, and respected our rights, we could live in peace. Perhaps even together.” That quote, exactly as it is written, was said by someone who preferred not to reveal his name because he was afraid of “looking weak.” He didn’t look weak. He looked, instead, just tired.

Yet there is a fine line between being tired while holding a little hope, and being desperate while holding none. A visit to the children’s art school in the Gaza camp gives a good idea of how they feel, and how their children will feel in their turn. Most of the drawings show kids being killed by soldiers, armed men aiming at a child with a rock. There were drawings of mothers holding their babies, others wiping their tears in the Palestinian flag, a woman hugging an olive tree. But one drawing was emblematic of that moment when tiredness becomes despair, when humiliation grows so unbearable that one chooses honor over life. The drawing showed a boy with his arm raised about to throw a stone. His shadow on the ground, much bigger than the boy, held not a stone, but a gun.

(Photo: Paula Schmitt)
(Photo: Paula Schmitt)

Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.

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For Palestinians, the Nakba is not history
Nakba’s memory is more present than ever in Israel