We Loved the Land and the Land Loved Us

Mohammad Manasra - Växjö, Sweden

“The Palestinian peasant is an educated peasant.” Mohammad’s father’s words accompany the constant ringing in his ears that started when he was injured by a car bomb meant to kill him on the streets of Baghdad. “We were farmers, we knew the land, we loved the land and the land loved us.” It was this love of the land that led the villagers of ‘Ayn Ghazal, on the slopes of Mount Carmel to fiercely resist the Zionist onslaught in 1948. Despite the signinficant imbalance in the level of training and armament that clearly favored the Zaionist forces fighting to clear the area of its indigenous inhabitants, the defenders of ‘Ayn Ghazal, Ijzim and Jaba’ relentlessly fought to keep their families alive and on their land. “The Zionists called our three villages the ‘dirty triangle’ because they couldn’t defeat us, even though they were heavily armed with modern guns and artillery and planes while every three of the Palestinian resistance fighters had to share a rifle!”

Mohammad’s father was one of these rifle-sharing fighters. Most of his direct family had been killed in the 1930s and 40s because of their involvement in the Arab Revolt against Zionist colonization and British occupation, and his shoulders bore the responsibility of continuing the family line. He fought nonetheless, and when the Zionists finally entered the village, he was one of the few who had stayed despite the heavy aerial and artillery bombardment. He was arrested and taken to a prison camp where he spent a year before his release and expulsion. Meanwhile, his wife and children had been evacuated with the Iraqi army and the Red Cross to the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where he would follow in 1949.

“Those early years in Iraq were horrible.” Mohammad, born in 1955 in Baghdad recalls these events as if they were his own memories. “We were put in an army barracks with fifteen other families with nothing but a piece of cloth separating each family; the barracks was surrounded by barbed wire fence, and the food was army rations, lentil soup in the morning, rice and sauce in the afternoon, and kubab for dinner. Imagine, peasants who were used to tilling their land and eating from it reduced to this.” The Iraqi government had decided that the Palestinians were guests in Iraq, and refused UNRWA presence in the country, committing to take care of any and all humanitarian functions that the UN agency was supposed to fulfill.

The family moved to Baghdad where the growing Palestinian refugee community developed its consciousness of imparting the meaning of being a Palestinian refugee to the younger generation, the generation into which Mohammad was born. The Free-Officers revolution toppled the Iraqi monarchy on 14 July 1958, and the new President of Iraq, Abdul-Karim Qasim created a Palestinian battalion called the Al-Qadisiya Brigade, which was meant to grow into an army that would liberate Palestine. Many of Mohammad’s family members joined, and later moved on to join the Palestinian revolution in Jordan and Lebanon. “My family and I have always supported anything that could lead to the liberation of Palestine, whether morally, financially or with our own bodies.”

The 1963 coup brought the Iraqi Ba’th Party to power. However, this did not cause any disruption to official Iraqi support for Palestinian liberation. If anything, the policies of “treating Palestinians as Iraqis except in the field of citizenship and mandatory military service were codified in the law. ”Under the Ba’th regime, Mohammad completed his state-funded secondary education and later graduated from the prestigious University of Baghdad in 1983 with a degree in law. “I could have studied engineering [which requires a higher average], but chose law because I wanted to know our rights as Palestinians. I focused on international law, because I wanted to fight for our rights as refugees and people who have had our land, our whole country stolen from us.”

“Until 1994, Palestinians in Iraq were respected and truly treated as equals. We were not, however, given preferential treatment the way that many [Palestinians and Iraqis] say; we lived off of our hard work, and many of us had to struggle to feed our families. Our community is full of very hard workers.” After Iraq’s defeat by the US-led coalition that opposed Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, the world imposed a brutal sanctions regime on the country that ultimately killed over 1.5 million Iraqis, at least a third of whom were children. One of the results of the sanctions regime was skyrocketing inflation in the Iraqi economy. “The sanctions era was particularly hard on Palestinians because in 1994 the Iraqi government passed Law 2.3 which banned any foreign economic activity in the country, and this law was interpreted as applying to the Palestinian community in Iraq. This meant that we Palestinians, who had been living in the country for over forty years, could not renew work licenses, could not open businesses, could not be officially employed, we were not even allowed to sign contracts!”

The only exceptions to Law 2.3 (1994) were doctors and lawyers who were constitutionally protected, and in 1998 Mohammad was elected as Chair of the Palestinian Lawyers’ Union in Iraq. “My number one priority, as decided by the Union’s membership, was to change the interpretation of Law 2.3 so that it would not apply to us.” However, despite his petitions, nothing changed. “I don’t think the petitions ever reached Saddam. The law’s application to Palestinians was only reversed when two married Palestinian doctors who were friends of mine developed a very important new medication, and met with Saddam. He asked them if they had any requests, and they told him about the effect of Law 2.3 on our community. He was shocked, and while they were sitting with him, he demanded a pen and paper and wrote a law that reiterated the existing law that Palestinians were to be treated as Iraqis, adding that Law 2.3 (1994) would not apply to Palestinians, and that anyone from an employee to a minister who did not comply would be punished with six months in jail before a presidential review of his or her case. This enabled our community to rebuild their lives.”

The respite was short-lived; in March 2003 the US invasion of Iraq began the systematic destruction of the country. As with all who lived in Iraq, the future became uncertain, and foreign nationals were mostly evacuated by their embassies. “Before this, we Palestinians never heard of divisions, Sunni-Shi’i, Christian-Muslim, Iraqi-Palestinian, this was all foreign to us. At first, the community did not face any real threat over and above what all Iraqis were facing, but “we were a small community, and none of the international agencies even cared to consider us, the PLO barely recognized us as part of the Palestinian refugees waiting to return to Palestine, so there was a great risk in the new environment of lawlesness .”

The first signs of anti-Palestinian sentiment in Iraq began to emerge a few months after the occupation; local landlords began evicting Palestinian tenants in government subsidized housing. Since all of the official Palestinianin stitutions had been shut down, Mohammad joined a group of Palestinian professionals in forming the Association for the Human Rights of Palestinians in Iraq that was officially registered with the new Iraqi government. “We lobbied the UNHCR to pay attention to us, and they helped us do a census of Palestinians in Iraq [counting 23,000 after the US invasion] and set up a refugee camp for the 700 families that were evicted in the Haifa Sports Club stadium. We called it the Al-Awda Refugee Camp. This was the first time in history that Palestinians in Iraq were officially registered with anyone as refugees.”

The situation continued to deteriorate. In March 2004, the Allawi government decreed that any Palestinian activity with the exception of sports was to be considered terrorism. Later that year, as students headed for their colleges to begin a new school-year, they discovered that they had been expelled for being Palestinian. Mohammad and the human rights association he’d helped found successfully campaigned to have them reinstated. “The big disaster came in 2005, when the Ja’fari government came to power.” He adds, “we do not need to go into the fairness of that election.” In May 2005, a bomb exploded in Baghdad al-Jadida, a neighborhood of the Iraqi capital. Fifty-eight people were killed, and over 200 injured. “Within one hour, the Iraqi army arrested four Palestinians based on the confession of someone that we all knew was mentally ill, and then showed the four men on television, having clearly been tortured, confessing to the bombing. The television then decided to interview Iraqis on the street about the confessions, and the reactions that they televised showed people saying that they wanted to kick the Palestinians out, and kill them, and burn their houses down. Since that day, over 500 Palestinians have been killed or gone missing in Iraq.”

Following the Baghdad Al-Jadida bombing Palestinian communities lived under self-imposed house-arrest. Palestinian houses in the Huriya neighborhood were blown up, Palestinians’ bodies would be found in garbage dumpsters and on the street, community members went missing, death-threats became commonplace, and many started fleeing to the borders with Jordan and Syria. Many Palestinians had already tried to get into Jordan from Iraq since 2003, but the Jordanian government had not let them enter and set up the Ruwaished camp on the border between the two countries with 200 families at the time, most of these have already been relocated and the camp has been shut down since 2007. In 2005, many more tried to enter Jordan, but the Jordanian army sent tanks and troops to stop them. Syria was also hesitant to let Palestinians enter and in 2006 Al-Tanf and Al-Walid camps were set up on that border. “We tried to pressure the Syrians to let them cross into Syria, and eventually the UNHCR managed to get the Syrians to agree to set up a camp on their side of the border in Al-Hasakeh; this camp is called Al-Hol.” These camps were similar to desert prison camps; refugees are not allowed to leave, and health and education services are largely improvised by the refugees themselves.

Mohammad himself stayed in Baghdad, working relentlessly and without pay to try to secure some protection for those who stayed, to get those arrested out of jail, and to find countries that would take in Palestinians from Iraq. He received verbal death threats, his office was blown up, as was a car identical to his in an operation that was presumably directed at him. Later, his own car was blown up, and he was shot at twice, the second time he was seriously injured and pronounced dead. “Al-Jazeera carried a story announcing that I had been assassinated! I’ve been injured in my leg, shoulder and head, and now have a constant ringing in my ears.” As a result, Mohammad moved from the Al-Baladiyat Palestinian neighborhood to feel a little safer as he continue his work, and on 22 February 2006, the neighborhood was raided by the Mehdi Army killing 7 Palestinians.

On 27 July 2006 came another major assault on the neighborhood, but this time it aimed to completely eliminate the Palestinian presence. Palestinian youth used what light arms were available to defend their neighborhood, often sharing weapons. Mohammad frantically called every embassy and UN agency in his phonebook. After eight of the Palestinian defenders were killed and four wounded, the US-Iraqi army intervened to stop the assault, but Mohammad was told that he and his family were as good as dead if he stayed one more day in Iraq. That same night, he and his family were smuggled into Syria where his family stayed for a year, as he used a forged passport to get to Turkey and from there to Sweden where he applied for refugee status and managed to bring his family in 2007.

In Sweden, he discovered that it would take him seven years of study to become a lawyer. While most people would have settled for jobs as taxi drivers or convenience store operators, this ‘educated peasant’ enrolled in multiple simultaneous preparatory courses through which he hopes to do seven years of study in three. He now juggles morning and afternoon programs, with weekly observation visits to the local courthouse, in addition to maintaining his full-time workload trying to get Palestinians still in Iraq and in Iraq-Syria-Jordan border camps relocated somewhere safe; as well as helping those who manage to make it into Sweden find homes, work, and medical treatment. “When people tell me it is hopeless, and that we can’t hope to accomplish much, I tell them ‘it doesn’t matter! If we can rescue 100 or 50 or ten or even just one, that is reason enough to do everything we can.’ What else can I say; the lawyer who took over my role in the human rights organization we set up was tortured and had hot oil poured over his body, one of my brothers was tortured and still has a massive gash in his leg, one of my nephews was tortured in front of his younger brother who developed brain cancer from the trauma, and these are just a fraction of the stories from only my direct family.” Mohammad is one of the few Palestinians from Iraq who is even willing to share some stories, because his family have left Iraq, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees from Iraq and their stories will probably remain hidden for years and perhaps be buried with their narrators because of the understandable fear for their own and their families’ safety.

As he narrates his life story, Mohammad continually refers to the right of return’s centrality to everything he has encountered. “Look,” he exclaims as his next class approaches, “none of this would have happened if we were still in Palestine, none of this would have happened if we had been allowed to return to Palestine. The bottomline is that all of this could have been averted if we had our own country to be safe in. I consider all of my work to rescue Palestinians in Iraq as a part of my work for Palestinian refugee rights, and the right of return is the firstoftheserights. In Iraq I was a refugee, in Sweden I am a refugee, wherever we go we are refugees; the only ID I have is an expired travel document issued to Palestinian refugees. This is why I have collected 1000 signatures to petition lawyers’ organizations to take Israel to the International Court of Justice to get them to implement this right. It is our ancestors’ legacy that we never leave our land, that we never let go of ‘Ayn Ghazzal, that we never forget that it is us and our families who are Palestine, and that ultimately we have to return to our beloved land, and that its love will return to us.”