Some of the Palestinians who fled to Iraq after 1948 had little idea that their fate would forever be intertwined with the residences of Iraqi Jewish refugees.
As Arab forces battled with the fledgling Israeli Army in the 1948 War of Independence, Akram Muhammad Rizak’s family fled its village home with its stone façade and eventually made its way across the desert to Iraq. There, as refugees, they were given housing and medical care by the Iraqi government.
Fifty-five years later, during the latest conflict to hit the Middle East, the Rizaks became refugees once again.
“I want to go back to my home,” Rizak said. But he wasn’t referring to his ancestral home in the village of Arrabeh, near Haifa. He was talking about the central Baghdad house in which the government of his adopted homeland had given his family living quarters almost 40 years ago. The residence, in the upscale Beitawin neighborhood, once belonged to Iraqi Jews.
In april 2003, one week after the American-led forces conquered the Iraqi capital, the Rizaks were forced to flee. This time it was not the fear of an Israeli advance that prompted the family to pack its bags, but the sudden appearance of a band of Iraqis wielding AK-47’s at their front door.
“They told us we had to get out of the house,” recalled Rizak, who begged the men for time to pack his family’s belongings.
Within days, Rizak, his wife, Wufaa’, and four of his children were living in a cramped 250-square-foot tent—a far cry from the 10,000-square-foot mansion (shared with 12 other families) from which they were expelled. Their tent was surrounded by 399 identical tents set up side by side in what was once the soccer field of the Haifa Sports Center for Palestinians in Baghdad. A single fluorescent light hung from a rope inside the tent. The light and the refrigerator were connected to a generator.
Rizak’s parents had chosen to flee to Iraq because they had seen Iraqi battalions fight for the Arab cause. When the Arabs lost the war and Israel was created, the Iraqi soldiers made their way back across the scorching desert, along with a few thousand Palestinians who had fought beside them. The Rizaks were among the 35,000 refugees who opted for refuge in Iraq. Rizak was born near Jenin, where his family paused during their flight.
The Baghdad government originally housed most of the Palestinian refugees, including the Rizaks, in old British Army barracks dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, as now, many Palestinians living in such barracks around Iraq had no running water and were forced to share common bathrooms.
In return for providing housing and medical care for Palestinians, Iraq was later exempted from paying annual dues to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The Palestinians in Iraq were therefore never registered with the United Nations.
In fact, the Iraqi government had hoped to welcome many more Palestinians and be rid of its Jewish citizens in what would have amounted to a formal population exchange. From the tail end of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, Iraq spoke with the United Nations and American and British officials about the idea of transferring more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in exchange for the same number of Arab Palestinians.
It was not a new idea. According to Ya’akov Meron, former head of Arab legal affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Justice, the plan had previously been proposed by high-ranking British officials. The Iraqi government in particular was keen to put the theory into practice. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id told an American diplomat in May 1949 of his desire to see a “voluntary exchange on pro rata basis of Iraqi Jews for Palestinian Arabs.”
His words were backed up by a scarcely veiled threat. If Iraqi Jews were not shipped out, he said, “firebrand Iraqis,” incensed by the creation of a Zionist state, “might take matters into their own hands and cause untold misery to thousands of innocent persons.”
His words proved prophetic. There was no official population exchange, and Iraq’s largely affluent Jewish community became the target of numerous attacks. Instead of taking part in voluntary emigration, Iraqi Jews found themselves forced to flee the country.
Only months after Rizak and his family had trudged to the safety of Iraq, Jewish families would escape across the desert, going west toward Jerusalem.
Some Jews tried to hang on, fearful of losing all that they owned. The initial trickle of Jewish refugees became a flood in 1950 when the Iraqi government announced it would allow Jews to keep properties and goods in Iraq and go to Israel legally if they relinquished the country’s citizenship.
It was the beginning of a mass exodus. Thousands had already gone, and by August 1951 more than two-thirds of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews had left, many abandoning luxurious homes and successful businesses.
Once out of the way, they were double-crossed. The Beitawin district, still known as Thawrat (Torah) because of the Jews who once lived there, was suddenly empty. A year later, the government froze ownership rights on Jewish property. In the 1960’s, Jewish property was expropriated altogether.
Rizak was 10 years old when he moved with his parents and four siblings into a handsome red-brick Jewish mansion. Theirs was one of 150 lucky Palestinian families selected to live in the expropriated houses and pay rents subsidized by the government.
“We lived there with three other families and shared the kitchen and the bathrooms,” he said. “As our families grew and sons got married and had children it got crowded. But we never wanted to leave.”
Most Palestinians lived in homes rented from local landlords and paid for by the government, while others were housed in government-owned buildings and paid subsidized rents. A few successful businessmen rented homes themselves from Iraqis.
But for the Palestinians, there was a downside to government assistance. Under Iraqi law they and their offspring retained permanent refugee status. “Because we have no citizenship we are not allowed to register anything...no cars or house,” said Rizak. In addition, the Palestinians were ineligible for secure, and much coveted, government jobs.
That was not the impression left with many ordinary Iraqis, who insist that Saddam Hussein favored the Palestinians—championing their cause when he came to power in 1968 and providing them with a luxurious lifestyle.
“They say Saddam gave us money,” said Dr. Anwar Salem Al-Awadeh, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Iraq. “It’s not true, there are still Palestinians living in the old British Army barracks.”
Whether the property deed was in their name or not, the Palestinian residents of the once Jewish neighborhood considered themselves lucky. “I loved living there,” recalled Rizak. “For me it was a palace.”
The government’s financial woes in the 1980’s would eventually deal a fateful blow to the Palestinian dwellers of the grand Jewish homes. Iraq was in dire need of cash during the Iran-Iraq war and to get some, it sold the expropriated houses to Iraqis—on one condition: The new owners had to allow the Palestinian families to live there indefinitely. The government paid the rent.
Rizak was already married and the father of a newborn when an Iraqi man bought the villa he lived in.
Meanwhile, more Palestinian refugees came to Iraq, causing the government to rent more homes around the crowded capital in which to house them. First-time refugees arrived from the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War, while second-stage refugees arrived from the war in Lebanon in 1982 and from the war in Kuwait in 1990. Today there are almost 70,000 Palestinians in Iraq, according to Dr. Al-Awadeh.
For the owner of Rizak’s home, and for the other Iraqi landlords, the investment proved to be an incredibly bad deal. United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait weakened the economy and the value of the rents plunged. In the oil-rich Iraq of the early 1980’s the 7,000 dinars annually paid to landlords was worth almost $20,000. By 2002 the same rent—which the government would not allow landlords to change—was worth about $3.50.
So when Saddam’s government fell to United States forces on April 9, the Iraqi owners of the old Jewish houses, as well as those of other homes occupied by Palestinians, were quick to seize their expensive properties from the Palestinian occupants. There was no one to stop them.
“At about four in the afternoon, two days after the fall of Baghdad, 15 men with guns showed up with the owner and told us to leave,” recalled Rizak without emotion, sitting in his tent. “We were 12 families living in the house. We asked for one week and they said O.K.”
The new owners are now hoping to sell their properties to foreign investors and companies at high prices. One house, which was home to 16 families, was reportedly sold for the equivalent of $250,000—an outrageous amount in a country where the average person makes only about $70 a month.
Last summer the Rizaks were living in a tent camp with the ironic name of Al-Awda, “The Return.” Rizak’s son Umar, 23, had just married the girl from the tent next door. Rizak had dreamed of making a wedding in the large yard of the beautiful mansion in Beitawin.
Instead, the once fortunate Palestinians were playing the role of refugees in the country that had received them so willingly.Read article in full