Libya’s Palestinian Refugees And The Current Crisis – OpEd


As Tripoli’s Palestinian Refugees awakened the morning of 11/17/1l, like the rest of us here, they saw in the western sky over the Mediterranean a vast swatch of black stratocumulus clouds of acrid smoke from last night’s NATO bombing.

This latest attack, in the Ain Zara and Tajoura districts in the eastern suburbs of Tripoli killed 3 more civilians increasing the more than 1,100 total civilian deaths by NATO, according to Libyan Ministry of Health statistics. This latest attack is believed to have employed four US MK-83, 1000 lb. guided bombs and four US hell fire missiles.

Two weeks ago, on 6/23/11 the Abdullah Muhammad Ash-Shihab Palestinian refugee family of four which included Abdullah, his wife Karime and his six-month-old twins Khalid and Juanah were among civilians killed in a NATO bombing attack. The family had lived in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria but came here seeking Libya’s well known security and quiet life.

Tripoli’s humid air is still pungent with the smell of cordite. Many Palestinians, like the increasingly defiant population of Western Libya, view the bombing and killing of yet more civilians as NATO’s answer to “Baba” (father) Qaddafi’s resistance broadcast Friday night on state-run Libyan TV, just three hours after the decisions made by the 30 member Contact Group at Istanbul were announced.

The Istanbul assembly, claiming authority from UNSC resolutions 1979 and 1973, to “protect the civilian population” granted additional diplomatic recognition and funds to the anti-Qaddafi National Transition Council (NTC). Five months ago, when the events of February 17, 2011 erupted in Benghazi near the eastern shore of the Gulf of Sidra, this country’s nearly 75,000 Palestinian refugees who are dispersed all over the country, were as shocked as most Libyans and foreigners here. Virtually every Palestinian interviewed for this report mentioned that they saw no advance signs that the normal domestic tranquility would be suddenly shattered.

Some of the thousands of Palestinians who came here from Lebanon to escape the civil war, the post Sabra-Shatila Massacre reign of terror with which they were targeted from the US and Israel supported Amin Gemayel government, and it’s the Deuxieme Bureau (Lebanese Army Intelligence Force), asked the Beirut new Lebanese-Palestinian Coordination Commission to urgently intervene with the Lebanese government to let them depart Libya aboard ships and return to Lebanon. They received no assistance or even a reply.

When the violence continued and then started to spread rapidly, Palestinians from Lebanese camps appealed to president Michel Suleiman and the Palestine Embassy in Tripoli, Libya (there is no Lebanese Embassy in Libya because of the August 31,1978 “disappearance” of the Lebanese Shia leader, Imam Musa Sadr) to help them leave this country. Nearly one million others quickly departed, including thousands of foreign workers, among them 20,000 of the 30,000 Chinese based here who have been busy in Libya in all manner of commercial ventures.

This, to the growing consternation of some of the NATO countries and certainly the French who withdrew from NATO in 1966 on the initiative of President Charles De Gaulle, only to have President Nickolas Sarkozy return France with full membership in the military alliance. France is angry because they blame Qaddafi first and China second for their loss of most of their commercial relations in Africa even among their former colonies. President Sarkozy has made plain that France intends to benefit with oil contracts once NATO succeeds and a new more friendly government is installed.

The published Palestinian refugee appeal read:

“We the Palestinians living in Libya, some for more than 35 years have come from Lebanon to flee (civil) war and resided among our brothers in Libya where we got married and worked. However, after the 17 February insurrection and the worsening security situation, we are trying to leave the country via its ports but were not allowed because of inadequate travel documents. We are now stranded and sell our belongings to eat; we do not have work or shelter and do not know what to do or where to go.”

Not even a reply to this request has been received five month later. This silence comes as no surprise given Lebanon’s deeply ingrained hostility toward its remaining 270.000 Palestinians, roughly half of whom remain trapped in 12 squalid camps, and not one of whom is granted even the basic internationally mandated right to work or to own a home.

Umm Mohammed, a 70-year-old woman, who is from the Maghazi area in central Gaza Strip spent days sitting in front of her tent near the border crossing at Salloum at the Libyan-Egyptian border, hoping to return to Gaza after she fled fighting between security battalions loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and the Libyan rebels in the Albayda’a area. She commented, “I do not know how to express displacement and disaster I and my family have experienced for the past sixty years”.

Rami Diab, a 67-year-old Palestinian refugee who was born in the Zionist occupied city of Ashkelon, also hopes to return to the Gaza Strip to save his family from war raging in Libya. “I left my family home in Benghazi and headed to the crossing of Salloum to try to take refuge in the Gaza Strip. But we did not have permission to enter Egypt.”

Entry Denied to Egypt

Approximately 3000 Palestinians have tried to cross into Egypt since Monday 7 March, 2011, but the Egyptian military had received instructions to not let Palestinians refugees in. Many Palestinians who had travelled to the border returned home, to the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Tobruk and adjacent areas. On Tuesday March 8, 2011, 15 Palestinians were still in Salloum demanding to cross, while hundreds of other Palestinians refusing to go back to their homes, had chosen to wait in the homes of Libyan host families in a village near the crossing. It has been reported that Palestinians without national identity cards or valid residency in Egypt were not allowed to cross, whereas even Asian laborers without papers managed to get into the country.

The Palestinian Authority has tried to coordinate the evacuation of the Palestinian community in Libya and indeed Israel offered to allow 300 into the occupied territories as a “humanitarian gesture”. The first flow of Palestinian refugees that was evacuated followed unverified NTC reports of pro-Gaddafi’s forces detaining a group of 43 Palestinian students in Misurata after they reportedly refused to join the pro-regime forces. By the end of February 2011, a total of 104 Palestinian students had left Libya.
Mohammad Hammad, director of cultural affairs at the Palestinian consulate in Alexandria, arrived at the Salloum crossing on the Egypt-Libya border in early March to provide assistance to fleeing Palestinians. Currently, more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees live in Egypt, most of whom were expelled following Israel’s 1967 invasion and occupation of the Gaza Strip.

According to Mr. Hammad, most Palestinians arriving in Egypt were sent back to Libya by the authorities. According to Egyptian officials, Egyptian law requires Palestinians who enter Egypt to have a visa from the host country’s embassy first. For this reason, the Palestinian Authority ambassador in Cairo tried to obtain this permission from the Egyptian government in order to allow them to go to the Gaza Strip via Egypt. Hammad reported that the Palestinian consulate in Cairo was providing refugees with essential supplies. The situation is critical, he said, with “families living outdoors without anything. Many of them do not even have money and turned to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for emergency help.

UNHCR does not usually deal with Palestinians in the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) area of operations, which is mainly the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but following the February 17 eruption, it did provide some Palestinians with help during February-April. This is a welcomed exception to UNHCR practice and it recognizes that all of Libya’s Palestinians are refugees and hence UNHCR has the humanitarian obligation to protect them, especially since Egypt and Libya are not included in the UNRWA area of operations.

The current chain of misfortunes started for the refugees pictured with the U.N. blockade of Libya in 1992. This was followed by Libya’s attempt to expand employment opportunities for its own nationals. This was accompanied by a widening gulf of distrust between the Libyan government and the PLO, especially after the signing of the Oslo accords.

In September 1995, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi announced that all Palestinians in Libya, estimated at 30,000, would be expelled. It was a partial bluff which he meant to be a blow to the newly formed Palestinian Authority. His message to the Yasser Arafat was, “If you do not have sovereignty, do not claim to be in control. If you cannot provide shelter for your citizens, do not pretend to be their governor.”

As the expulsions began, Palestinians were put on ships without a destination. Lebanon and Syria accepted a fraction that had lived there previously. Egypt allowed Palestinian expellees with valid travel documents to pass through its land, but none were allowed to stay for more than 24 hours. Thirty-six Palestinians were stranded for several weeks at the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza, waiting for permission from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza. However, the majority of those expelled had no place to go.

The next month, in October 1995, Qaddafi redefined the order to allow the luckless Palestinians to return to Libya until their “government” finds a better place for them.

There have been some fears expressed by Hamas and others that the Qaddafi regime may take revenge on Libya’s Palestinian community because of rumors than some Palestinians are involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Benghazi and even with some of the Salafist groups comprising part of the National Transition Council. In addition, anti-Qaddafi protests and graffiti and burning of Qaddafi poster in Gaza fueled these fears by Hamas and the refugee community here.

However, this observer has been repeatedly assured by Libyan officials in Tripoli that Palestinians in Libya are welcomed, will retain all their civil rights (please refer to Part II) and will in no way be discriminated against or pressured due to some Palestinians presumably favoring the NTC. (on this subject and the current legal and social status of Palestinian refugees in Libya please refer to Part II)

This article was published by Al Manar and is reprinted with permission of the author

Franklin Lamb

Franklin Lamb, a former Assistant Counsel of the US House Judiciary Committee at the US Congress and Professor of International Law at Northwestern College of Law in Oregon, earned his Law Degree at Boston University and his LLM, M.Phil, and PhD degrees at the London School of Economics. Following three summers at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Lamb was a visiting fellow at the Harvard Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center where he specialized in Chinese Law. He was the first westerner allowed by the government of China to visit the notorious “Ward Street” Prison in Shanghai. Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and works with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon and the Sabra-Shatila Foundation. His new book, The Case for Palestinian Civil Rights in Lebanon, is due out shortly.

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