Massacre’s anniversary shines light on plight of today’s Palestinian refugees

By Kristin Szremski

In 1982, the world watched as one of modern history’s worst genocides occurred over a two-day period at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.  The atrocity, carried out by Lebanese Christian philangists under the watchful eye of then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, briefly focused the world’s attention on the plight of Palestinian refugees. The real tragedy, though, goes far beyond the 1,000 bodies the International Committee of the Red Cross buried in a communal grave at Sabra and Shatila. The real tragedy is that nearly 30 years after the massacre, the situation for Palestinian refugees is still untenable, insecure and largely ignored.

Time Magazine’s cover that week blasted “Massacre in Lebanon: Palestinian Civilians are slaughtered.” From Sept. 16 to 18, 1982, militants executed hundreds. The dead were Palestinian refugees, who were among the more than 100,000 forced into exile during the events surrounding the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and that country’s subsequent invasion and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem in 1967.

At least 750,000 Palestinians – nearly two-thirds of that land’s population – fled from their homes and villages, which were destroyed by Zionist militias and gangs from 1947 to 1949. The refugee’s plight was so great the United Nations in 1949 created the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East just to deal with the “problem” caused by the Haganah’ s ethnic cleansing of the land’s indigenous population.

International law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention and UN Resolution 242, guarantees those displaced by war the right to return home. But Israel, in its quest to create a perfect state for Jews – a goal that anywhere else would be derided as racist and discriminatory – is allowed to continue to violate international law and along with it the rights of the Palestinian people.

Today, 40 percent of the world’s refugees are Palestinians. Nearly 7 million Palestinians – 75 percent of their total population, are refugees. Eighty percent live outside UNRWA refugee camps, which house some 1.4 million in 58 refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and other Arab countres, according to the United Nations.

UNRWA was supposed to be a stop-gap measure. It has become a multi-million dollar agency with no end in sight. “In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2011,” UNRWA’s website states.

The ‘Palestine refugee problem’ has come home to Chicago. The Chicago Coalition for Palestinian Refugees Arriving from Iraq, to which the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) belongs, recently welcomed 26 displaced families. We found them apartments, helped them with their paperwork, to find jobs and enroll in English classes. An education coordinator helps the children and their families assimilate into a new school system.

Many of these Palestinians are refugees twice, even three times, over. They were displaced in 1948, in 1967, and now. They are stateless, like so many refugees in this country. They are trying hard to become self-sufficient here, but it is difficult and slow-going. After eight months, the federal government will cut off all aid, placing these vulnerable families in highly precarious circumstances.

That’s why the passage of the Refugee Protection Act, cosponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in March and part of immigration reform,  is crucial to these families’ successful assimilation into American society. Current laws do not afford any protection or legal status for refugees. They can’t return to their country of origin, they can’t travel and they must reapply every year for permission to work. The Refugee Protection Act would alleviate at least some of these hardships.

The American Civil Liberties Union supports the bill.

While we mark the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, we should educate ourselves about the plight of today’s refugees and call upon our elected officials to work to get the bill passed. At the same time, we must remember the special circumstances of Palestinian refugees and demand that Congress withholds aid to Israel until it abides by international law.  It is time to let the Palestinian refugees return home.

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