The Palestinian Crisis in Libya 1994-1996 (Interview with Professor Bassem Sirhan)
In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, the Qadhafi government in Libya sought to show its objection to the agreements by expelling the Palestinian community residing in the country. One of the Palestinians living in Libya at the time was Professor Bassem Sirhan, we spoke to him about the Libyan policy of expulsion and the injustice that befell the Palestinian community.
Can you tell us something about the composition of the
Palestinian community in Libya and the conditions they lived under
Libya is not a host country for Palestinians (i.e. Palestinians are not refugees there), as is the case with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan; it is rather one which imports skilled labor in the technical, scientific and professional fields; therefore, the residency of any Palestinian in Libya is based on a personal or individual contract with the state and its institutions, or with Libyan companies or foreign companies operating in Libya. Libya calls itself “The Land of Arabs” and its leader has been referred to by the late President Jamal Abdul-Nasser, as “The Trustee of Arab Nationalism”; it does not require any Arab to hold an entry visa or a residency permit, regardless of the position he will be assuming or the purpose of his stay. As for residency permits, they aim to allow their holders to open bank accounts in order for them to be able to repatriate half of their income in hard currency to their country of origin.
The Palestinian community in Libya was very small in comparison to Palestinian communities in other Arab host states or in Arab states which import skilled labor, according to Libyan estimates, and as per a census conducted by the Libyan Foreign Security Agency in 1995, after the eruption of the crisis, the number of Palestinians in Libya stood at 30,000, a very small number when compared to the number of immigrants from other Arab countries. The number of Palestinians in Libya did not constitute any economic burden on the country, especially since they are highly qualified, efficient, productive and devoted, which has been the opinion of Libyan officials over the years. If the Libyan government had extended a helping hand to Palestinian resistance or liberation movements, the same did not apply to Palestinians working in Libya, who did not receive, during the twenty-five-year period, any dinar as donation or sign of gratitude.
What happened in 1994?
In his speech during the Sept 1 1994. celebrations, Colonel Mouamer Qadhafi announced his plan to expel Palestinians residing in his country in order to prove to the whole world that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had failed to establish a state and, therefore, was unable to fulfill the demands of the Palestinian struggle. Palestinians residing in Libya originally thought that the Colonel's speech was nothing more than a maneuver intended to politically attack the fragile peace accord between Arafat and Israel. Things went on in an ordinary and normal manner during the months of September, October and November, 1994, as Palestinians were allowed to enter and leave Libya, and their labor contracts with ministries, government agencies and various corporations (public and private) were renewed without problems and they could secure new labor contracts.
So when Colonel Qadhafi ordered, by phone, the Labor Ministry not to renew any labor contracts involving Palestinians and to further refrain from ratifying (granting final approval to) any new labor contract involving a Palestinian, even those who had obtained the necessary prior approvals from the ministries concerned, Palestinians were stunned and started feeling deep concern and uncertainty. Furthermore, the Passports and Immigration Department was informed, again via a telephone call, that it may not grant or renew residency to any Palestinian, irrespective of his profession or area of practice; this affected all Palestinians, from medical school professionals to junior technicians.
What were the feelings and reaction of the Palestinian community?
For a number of reasons these developments were met with combined feelings of doubt, shock and astonishment, mainly because Colonel Qadhafi, during his long years in power, had been one of the Arab leaders who showed the most support for Palestinians and their cause, and had sponsored and granted assistance to Palestinian resistance movements. Above all, since Colonel Qadhafi had assumed power, Palestinians working in Libya enjoyed favorable treatment, similar to that given to Libyans. At the same time, Palestinians, whether as a community or resistance movements, had been a prime and solid ally of Qadhafi's regime. On occasions, Libyan forces even joined Palestinians in Al-Biqaa valley in Lebanon, and Libya generously armed Palestinian resistance fighters.
Palestinians in Libya, for the above reasons and more, sought to find a reasonable explanation for the Libyan actions; they could find no justification. Palestinians had not committed any political crime against the Libyan regime and did not adopt any stance that may have jeopardized, even indirectly, the reputation and position of Libya. For example, they did not support Arafat's moves or the Oslo Accords, neither explicitly nor in writing. The contrary is true, I was able to sense that most Palestinians in Libya opposed the Oslo Accords.
How did the crisis develop?
The official position of the Libyan government became clear in the period between mid-December 1994 and mid-February 1995, as the Libyan government adopted the following measures: (1) Deleting names of Palestinians from the lists of renewable labor contracts which were sent by the various ministries to the Labor Ministry; (2) Returning all new labor contracts which were sent by these ministries to the Labor Ministry for ratification; (3) Refusing, at the Passport administration, to grant residency to any Palestinian requesting a new residency permit or whose residency had expired; (4) Circulating news that the Libyan government prohibits any Palestinian entry to Libya; and (5) Preventing any Palestinian who had left Libya, whether on a business trip or to meet with family members, from returning, even if his residency permit was valid and despite the fact that he would still be entitled to receive from the Libyan government certain labor rights and compensation.
The most crucial element in the rise of tension and evolution of the crisis came in an interview with Colonel Qadhafi conducted by Ahmad Al-Hauni, editor in chief of Al Arab (an Arabic newspaper published in London), in mid-February, 1995. Qadhafi responded to a question regarding the Palestinian community in Libya by stating that: “Arafat and the United States, Israel and others declare that the Palestinian cause has been resolved finally and exclusively. This is not true, as there are millions of Palestinian refugees who are still out of their homeland. And as I care about the Palestinian cause, and in order to achieve the best interest of Palestinians, I will expel the thirty thousand Palestinians who currently live in my land, and try to secure their return to Gaza and Jericho. If Israel would not let them in, while Egypt does not allow them to pass through its territories, then I shall set a great camp for them on the Egyptian-Libyan borders” Qadhafi also added that “all of what I will be doing is for their best interest. No matter how they suffer, and even if they remain in the camp for years to come, this would still be for their national interest. And the whole world would come to the conclusion that the settlement is a big lie, and that Palestinians are still refugees. I hereby call on all Arab states hosting Palestinian refugees to act likewise...”.
As the Colonel's statements are considered government policy in Libya, Palestinians there could not help but feel concerned about the thought of having to stay in a camp in the empty desert, with all the misery and suffering that would bring about, including depriving their children of the opportunity of seeking education. The major fear for some of them derived from the fact that they might not be able to return to any other state. It is hard to describe the state of chaos and fear that the Palestinian community in Libya passed through during 1995, and this was compounded by the fact that the Libyan government, including its agencies and administrations, acted passively and did not make any statements to ease the tension. The response Palestinian employees received from the various public authorities, and the Ministries of Health and Education regarding their status was: “Nothing new—we did not receive any information or instructions recently. We hope it turns out OK.”
A few days later the Colonel, in his speech on the Fateh Revolution Day (September 1, 1995), expressed his determination to expel Palestinians and called on Arab States to follow suit, while covering his arbitrary decision with revolutionary, nationalist and patriotic rhetoric. It seems that the political pressure coming from Egypt did not allow the Colonel to proceed with his plans to expel all 30,000 Palestinians in Libya. For the Palestinians not formally expelled, being left in Libya without work or income is equivalent to expelling them to the borders.
Where did the expelled Palestinians go?
Hundreds of Palestinians were expelled during the first stage. Egypt barred 143 of them from crossing its borders, so they were practically left in no-man’s land near the Saloum border post while Libya refused to take them back. Later on, a group of 150 Palestinians, after being stranded for weeks on the Libyan Border, crossed into Egypt en route to Jordan and the Gaza strip. A second group of 40 Palestinians reportedly headed for Rafah, on the Egyptian border with Gaza hoping to enter the Palestinian-controlled area.
By September 1995 there were thirty-two Palestinians in the Egyptian-Libyan no-man’s land, thirty-six at the Rafah crossings and 1,500 in Tubrok Camp, all living in severe conditions and facing humiliation every day. Furthermore, internal Libyan flights were conducted twice daily, each carrying 300 Palestinians from various cities in Libya to the camp at Tubrok, a coastal town in northern Libya. From September 1995 onwards, the number of Palestinians in the makeshift camp at Saloum (Al-Awda Camp) varied from 200 to 600, and maybe more. Most were low-income earners who had no other country to go after being expelled from Libya.
A number of expelled Palestinians left Libya by sea. Syria sent a ship to carry more than 600 expelled Palestinians carrying Syrian documents, after they got stranded on board a ship opposite the coast of Cyprus, which denied them the right to enter its territory and did not allow their ship to dock in its ports. Al-Hayat Daily newspaper reported that 608 Palestinians returned to Syria, while 13 of them carrying Jordanian documents returned to Jordan. Thirty Palestinians from the ship became trapped after being denied entry to Cyprus and were offered to be allowed to go back to Libya by Libyan authorities, which sent a ship for that purpose; however, they refused to board the ship, and preferred to stay where they were. Lebanon on its part turned back several hundred Palestinians who arrived from Libya on two ships in late August 1995. Their entry was made subject to obtaining an entry visa, even for those holding Lebanese travel documents.
On October 26, 1995, Colonel Qadhafi decided to suspend his decision to expel Palestinians for three to six months, citing the need to give students a chance to finish the academic year as a justification for this move. The Colonel explicitly stated, however, that upon the lapse of that period, the world would witness thousands of Palestinians leaving Libya, with the aim of forcing the international community to recognize the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homeland. During this period approximately 200 evicted Palestinians remained waiting at the Al-Awda Camp.
In May 1996, and after the expiration of the aforementioned period, the Libyan authorities re-embarked on an extensive process to expel the Palestinians who were still in Libya. The number of Palestinians living in Libya went down from 30,000 before the crisis erupted in September 1995, to 17,000 in May 1996. Rumor had it that the Libyan authorities’ plan was to group together all Palestinians in Libya and start expelling them according to the dates when they finish their academic year. It was also said that Libya has started to cleanup and reorganize the Al-Awda Camp.
The United Nations agencies undertook to provide humanitarian aid to the expelled Palestinians who were stuck in the middle of the desert, as evidenced by UNRWA’s press release no. HQ/7/95 of September 13, 1995, and the joint statement on Forced Movement of Palestinians from Libya, which was issued by the UNHCR and UNRWA on September 29, 1995. While it was understood that these matters were within the jurisdiction of the sovereign states concerned the two press releases emphasized that the humanitarian dimension of this developing situation called for the immediate attention. According to the first press release, and as a result of the Libyan action, several countries in UNRWA’s area of operations started imposing restrictions on the entry of Palestinians, even on those who had right of residence.
What were the conditions like for the Palestinians in Al-Awda Camp?
As the winter of 1995 approached, expelled Palestinians feared diseases which normally spread in an area where the weather fluctuated between heavy rainfall and a scarcity of water. By mid-October, 1995, several children of the stranded Palestinians were sick and two people were reported dead. As the camp was hit by torrential rains, floods and sandstorms, conditions were deteriorating and hygiene was poor.
From a humanitarian point of view the expelled Palestinians lived in severe conditions compounded by the fact that the UNRWA was unable to provide refugees with food or health services on a regular basis since it operates neither in Libya nor in Egypt and because Palestinians are excluded from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, meaning that they were prevented from receiving UNHCR’s full support. The camp was in an area with a high density of land-mines planted during the Egyptian-Libyan hostilities of 1975-1980, in addition to a large population of snakes and scorpions. The camp site did not have sources of water and the residents often had to use their modest savings to buy food from Msaed, the closest Libyan town. The camp residents lived in tents threatened to be torn down during the winter because of heavy rain and flooding. In sum, the living conditions of refugees in the Al-Awda Camp were below any humanly acceptable level.
What efforts were made to pressure the Libyan authorities and help the Palestinians?
From the start, none of the powers, parties and revolutionary and Arab-national personalities agreed with Qadhafi’s theory or with the resulting measures that targeted Palestinians. Palestinian resistance-movement leaders opposing the Oslo Agreement exhausted all reasonable efforts to convince their ally, Colonel Qadhafi, to give-up his strict stance. The Colonel remained unmoved and instead requested them to back up his decision and to support his ideas. A high level delegation representing the coalition of ten Palestinian factions opposed to Arafat arrived in Tripoli to hold talks with Libyan officials on Qadhafi’s decision to deport thousands of Palestinians but to no avail. The newly established Palestinian Authority submitted a memo to the League of Arab States, requesting that the Palestinians not pay the price for Libya’s official position on the peace accords with Israel, and called on Libya to respect the 1965 Protocol for Organizing the Residence of Palestinians in Arab countries which granted refugees the same rights to residency and employment as those granted to citizens of hosting Arab states.
The secretary general of the Arab League, Dr. Ahmad Esmat Abdel-Majeed, and Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, tried their best to convince Qadhafi that his idea about returning Palestinians to their homes was not practical and would result in nothing but more disaster. Expectedly, the governments of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan did not respond positively to the Colonel’s call to expel Palestinians hosted in these countries to the Palestinian borders. If the Colonel was attempting to utilize the Palestinian card to lift the pressure he had been subjected to or ease the embargo imposed upon Libya, then this card failed and did not accomplish any of its goals. It has been indisputably proved that 30,000 Palestinians means nothing to the Western world, especially the United States.
Perhaps the most effective resistance came from the evicted Palestinians themselves. Under these inhuman conditions, the expelled Palestinians stranded in the Saloum camp had to react, especially given the apparent failure of the diplomatic efforts and humanitarian calls. News items told about expelled Palestinians placing their tents near the Egyptian Saloum-borders security point, expelled Palestinians protesting on the two sides of the highway linking Egypt with Libya and on occasions actually closing the international highway and threatening to close it again and again, and about them entering hunger and medicine strikes. It was made clear by the residents of the Al-Awda camp, that death would be better than this continuing saga of endless human suffering.
How did the crisis eventually end?
In a surprise move in January 1997, the Libyan authorities offered to take back Palestinians refugees, and further dispatched a Palestinian delegation to the tent camp to convince the refugees to return; the refuges hurled sticks and stones at them and accused the delegation of being Libyan agents "who wanted them to go back without guarantees." The refugees sought written guarantees that they would return to their jobs and homes. The Libyan move to return Palestinians was issued by parliamentary committees, which emphasized the Palestinian people's right to return to their homeland and the fact that since such return is impossible for the time being, the expelled Palestinians were offered to return to Libya. Faced with the refugees’ constant refusal to return to Libya without written guarantees, the Libyan authorities sought the mediation of the Palestinian Authority, but it was made clear by the refugees themselves that they were not planning to return without receiving the said guarantees first; since they have no other Arab state to return to. Any return to Libya without securing houses and jobs for them would prove meaningless.
The agony and suffering of the Palestinian refugees who were stranded on the Egyptian-Libyan border came to an end in a rather unexpected way. After spending two years in the desert, Libyan soldiers forcefully evacuated the Al-Awda camp, and ordered Palestinians residing in it (250 of them) to take buses to Tubrok while carrying all their personal belongings. A UNHCR spokesperson in Cairo expressed his satisfaction with the latest development and declared that "evacuating the camp was the only possible solution."
What has happened to the Palestinians who left Libya?
The Palestinians from Gaza who had no residence permit in the Gaza Strip were stuck in Libya and are still there today. Those Palestinians who had residence permits in Lebanon and Syria suffered the least as they were able to return to these countries and, to my knowledge, continue a fairly normal existence. A number of professionals who I know well ended up finding well-paid jobs in the Gulf, while a still smaller number emigrated to Europe and Canada. But the majority simply looked for a living in Syria and Lebanon.
Although the change in Libyan policy brought an end to the suffering of hundreds of Palestinians, it is important to keep in mind that thousands of Palestinians had already been expelled by that time and were not offered the chance to return to their jobs, especially since by then they were living in other Arab countries, mainly Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The world media was unable to clearly specify the number of expelled Palestinians; what may be true, though, is that their number may be as high as 15,000 of the 30,000 Palestinians who once constituted the Palestinian community in Libya.
*This interview is based on an article in The Palestine Yearbook of International Law, Vo1 IX, 1996/97 p363-374, a longer article in Arabic in the Journal of Palestine Studies (Majallat Al-Dirasat Al-Filastinyah, Issue 29, Winter 1997 and correspondence with the author.
**Bassem Sirhan is a Professor of Sociology, a Palestinian writer and a refugee in Lebanon. Professor Sirhan earned his PhD from American University in Washington D.C and has taught in Libya, in the Western Mountain University - College of Education (Yefren) from Sept. 1992 to July 1995 and has lived and worked in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. His research focuses on exiled Palestinian communities in Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait.