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Two Peoples, Two Hopes & Two Futures!
Palestine comes to Kurdistan

15 April   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Last week, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, flew to Irbil in Kurdistan from Ramallah in Palestine and met with Massud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish regional government. According to various news despatches, the visit aimed at centring the ties between the two largest stateless peoples in the Middle East. In fact, this trip also came one week after Abbas had held talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in Baghdad, in what was the first visit to Iraq by a Palestinian leader since the 2003-US led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Looking at it from an EU prism, and putting aside the lavish praise that was exchanged between guests and hosts on both occasions, there are two distinct but inter-related issues that flow out of those two simultaneous visits.

The first issue is the pressing if somewhat overdue concern of the Palestinian Authority for the fate of Palestinians in Iraq. According to Daniel Endres, the Swiss head of the Iraq office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were roughly 60,000 Palestinians living Iraq before 2003. Today, six years on, their numbers have dwindled to 11,000 and they are mostly residing in Baghdad’s predominantly Shi’i neighbourhood of Baladiyat. There are also roughly 2300 Palestinian refugees stranded awhile in different camps such as Al-Tanaf, Al-Ruweished, Al-Hol and Al-Waleed camps inside the neutral area or on the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian borders.

This visit to Irbil, not unlike the previous one undertaken to Baghdad, highlighted the mounting pressures that the Palestinian leadership faces in helping define the legal status and resettlement possibilities of those refugees. This becomes even more precarious in view of repeated assertions that Palestinians were awarded special privileges by Saddam Hussein so he could portray himself as the Arab leader par excellence championing the Palestinian cause and fighting against Western oppression. Although some Palestinians actually dispute the true extent of those privileges, there was clearly some sort of symbiotic relationship ratione personae, one of mutual benefit, that was not always equitable, and it is therefore fathomable if some Iraqis are upset with, or angry at, this ostensibly favoured treatment.

In this sense, therefore, my hope remains that the visits by Mahmoud Abbas to Baghdad and later Irbil will help tackle this chapter in the history of this refugee people. As a new volume is being written about the future of Iraq without a ruthless despot at its helm, it is perhaps time to help heal those open sores and expire those memories by charting the way for a better relationship between the two communities. It would not be inconceivable to argue that Abbas’ abiding concern led him to Kurdistan in order to urge his hosts to exercise temporary welcome and hospitality to some of those refugees into Kurdistan. In one sense, by assisting the Palestinians in their present ordeal, the Kurds would help Iraq let its bygones be bygones. However, the understandable Kurdish fear is that a safe shelter for those refugees might well become a prelude to revising the prospects of settling Palestinians in northern Iraq.

This existential issue of statelessness and the struggle of a people to belong to a land, highlight the second more symbolic issue emanating from the visit. It could be gleaned from Mr Barzani’s welcome where he stated that “just as he {Mahmoud Abbas} is the first president to visit the region, we expect and we hope that the Palestinian consulate will be the first consulate to open in Irbil”. Indeed, this open welcome echoes the fervent and decades-long wish of both Kurds and Palestinians for self-determination - a dream that has sustained the plural ethnic, religious, political and linguistic hopes of both peoples despite immense political, geo-strategic and global obstacles facing them.

>But let me introduce a word of caution based on realpolitik as much as our own history and experience in Europe. As some SOMA readers are well aware, Europeans have paid a heavy price for their past jingoistic mistakes and many of us are now striving to move away from a narrow sense of ethno-nationalism toward more transparent cultures and open borders. Mind you, I can fully understand that millions of Kurds and Palestinians worldwide feel they are not at such a crossroads and would argue that they have not yet managed to secure fully their national rights. Whether this is true for some parties or questionable for others, the reality is that the map of the Middle East is being re-re-drawn differently today and both peoples must adapt their strategies to the new realities around them. Otherwise, the downside is that both peoples might end up anew paying too steep a price in a world that is far from being fair or just.

Two peoples, two hopes, two futures: would those visits facilitate rapprochement between Palestinians and Kurds?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   15 April


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