Palestinian Camps
Palestinian Camps

Driven by War to a No Man's Land in Jordan

Palestinians Ikhlas Aziz, left, and sister-in-law Aida Qadsiya are refugees in Jordan. In 2003, they fled Iraq, the family's refuge from Arab-Israeli war.
Palestinians Ikhlas Aziz, left, and sister-in-law Aida Qadsiya are refugees in Jordan. In 2003, they fled Iraq, the family's refuge from Arab-Israeli war. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 2, 2007

RUWEISHED, Jordan -- It was 10 a.m. when the desert winds began blowing sand into the tent, one of a gaggle perched across a moonscape along Jordan's border with Iraq. Its rickety wooden frame creaked like a decrepit rocking chair, and Samir Abdel-Rahim, stranded for the past four years in a no man's land with other Palestinians fleeing carnage in Iraq, recounted his tale.

It began in 1948, before he was born, when Israel was created. It stretched through the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Its denouement unfolds here, where Abdel-Rahim, 52, his wife and their four children simply wait.

"It's a long story," Abdel-Rahim said. "We're never a party to any of the wars, but we bear their consequences."

In this forlorn corner of Jordan, the border drawn as an arbitrary line in the sand, the remnants of six decades of conflict in the Middle East converge in the Ruweished camp and three others strewn along Iraq's western frontier. The camps are home to more than 1,300 Palestinians, dispossessed by conflict with Israel, driven from their homes by conflict in Iraq, and forced to wait by sometimes arbitrary politics barring their entry elsewhere. Many are the offspring of refugees from a war they are too young to know; their lives are now ordered by another that shows no sign of ending.

The magnitude of the Palestinians' plight in the camps along Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan pales before the sheer scale of Iraqis' exodus from their country, where millions have been displaced or forced to flee to neighboring countries. But it is rare in the Arab world for the lives of a handful of people to so closely chart the generations of war, dictatorship, vengeance and dispossession. By the Palestinians' own admission, their lives offer a uniquely Middle Eastern lesson in the caprice of fate.

"This is the destiny God delivered," said Abdel-Rahim's sister-in-law, Ikhlas Aziz.

The camp unfurled beyond their flimsy door, held shut by a bent nail. Colored in shades of brown, tents housing the nearly 100 Palestinians here stretched along two ribbons of ruptured black asphalt. A chain-link fence snared water bottles and plastic bags swept by gusts of wind. On this day, as on others for four years, sand, the kind that grits between the teeth, hung in the air like a morning fog.

"We're just biding our time, biding our time for something," said Abdel-Rahim's wife, Aida Qadsiya, in a black veil.

Abdel-Rahim and his family were among an estimated 35,000 Palestinians in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion. His parents had arrived in 1948, having followed the returning Iraqi army, which during that Arab-Israeli war fought in a swath of territory from the West Bank town of Jenin to Haifa on the coast.

Although Palestinians faced restrictions in Iraq that limited their access to land, cars and phone lines, they were perceived as a favored constituency under Hussein. Fashioning himself as a champion of their cause, he provided refugees free or subsidized housing and exempted them from military service. Many Iraqis resented Hussein's aid to families of suicide bombers and others killed in the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. Weeks after his fall in April 2003, landlords set out to reclaim houses that the government had rented to Palestinians, sometimes for less than $1 a month.

"If you don't leave my house, I will burn it down -- you and your family inside," Abdel-Rahim, bearded and balding, said he was told by his landlord in the Baghdad neighborhood of Hayy al-Salam.

On May 4, 2003, he left with his family and his brother's family, buying bus tickets for the equivalent of about $7.

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