From the moment that Palestine fell under Israeli occupation in 1948, support for the Palestinians from the state and society in Iraq was nothing thing short of unwavering, but not any longer. Expressions of this solidarity and pan-Arab rhetoric have slipped away, substituted by discourse analogous to that voiced by Israel and Zionist enthusiasts.
The shift is not new; it was activated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait on 2 August, 1990. By 2003, the winds of political change opened the door to systemic violence, but it was not until Iraq’s phase of heightened sectarian warfare in 2006-7 that the noose tightened.
Members of Baghdad’s 1,500 strong Palestinian community were slain by unofficial militias and their cohorts were viewed as staunch supporters of ousted President Saddam Hussein. Amidst the whirlwind of violence, Palestinians were uprooted once again; many had their residential properties on Haifa Street seized by the militias. Surviving members of the community fled to neighbouring Jordan to escape the same fate. Others crossed into unfamiliar territories unable to turn back to their ancestral lands.
“The persecution of Palestinians in Iraq has spiralled out of control since 2003,” explained Iraqi lawyer and former diplomat Naji Haraj, who has worked closely with many of these cases. “Palestinians are forced to seek refuge in Europe and the Nordic states.”
Labels such as “terrorist” and even “Daeshi” are now commonly associated with the Palestinians still living in Iraq. Those who had no option but to remain in the country are increasingly tarred with the terrorism brush. The protection that Iraq once offered Palestinians has been eroded by misconceptions and fear. Anti-Palestinian rhetoric has increased, diminishing further what chance the Palestinians had of obtaining Iraqi citizenship or permanent residence; some have been classed officially as “guests” for up to 60 years.
With the unlawful US-led 2003 invasion which toppled the government sympathetic to Palestine, Iraq’s Palestinians were taught an important lesson; without Washington’s endorsement, their struggle is going nowhere. Protests at the time outside the Palestinian Authority Embassy in Baghdad attracted only scant attention, but the demands by the Palestinians for protection, equal rights and an end to discrimination has not blunted the false allegations against them.
The sharp increase of anti-Palestinian rhetoric also captures Iraq’s tilt towards Israel, which has been happening mainly behind closed doors for the past 10 years or so. In 2008, tensions over Iraq’s relations with Israel came to a head during a parliamentary session when Mithal Alusi defended himself against militia commander-turned parliamentarian, Hadi Al-Ameri. The latter accused Alusi of operating as an Israeli client, but the Ummah Party leader hit back with evidence of Al-Ameri’s cosy relations with Iran, without denying his own presence in Israel.
“I will travel to any country where Iraq’s interests are at stake,” insisted Alusi, who also threatened to leak the names of other politicians and public figures travelling to Israel in an effort to thaw Iraq’s relations with the Zionist state. “Names would even include those of turbaned figures,” he claimed.
Ordinary citizens and members of civil society in Iraq have joined-in with the anti-Palestinian rhetoric. Samah Farqad, for example, is a poet and social media activist from Basra who has provoked nationwide anger.
“Why should Iraq be the only country to bear the burden of Palestine, while jeopardising its bilateral relations with other states in the process?” she asked, championing the rights of Israel. “The majority of suicide bombers are Palestinian.” Farqad stumbled when trying to produce statistics to support her claim.
Sentiments like these have been heard before, but in the context of Baghdad’s enduring alliance with Washington they have found new vigour. It should be added that no evidence has been produced to justify the allegations.
Taking the lead in the normalisation of relations with Israel are Kurdish officials and public figures under the protective US umbrella. As Iraqi-Kurdistan’s contentious independence referendum draws nearer — it is less than two weeks away — a lot of noise has been generated by Israeli officials in support of Kurdish aspirations for statehood on territories the Kurds have no right to claim as their own.
There are important changes in the region. Governments across the Arab world are more noticeably divided than ever before on the subject of Palestine, while Israel exploits the current turmoil. The development of Israeli-Kurdish ties, however, works neither in the interest of Iraq as an entity nor its minorities whose political freedoms will be muted by the backing that Kurdistan receives in the form of moral support from Israel and US dollars.
America’s failure to convince the world that Iraq’s post-2003 political process is a progressive step bears an uncanny similarity to its marketing of the Palestinian peace process as the only way to find a “solution” to a colonial occupation dressed up as a conflict between equals.
Despite the increasing visibility of anti-Palestinian hatred and its consequences for the community in Iraq, the position of the state and personalities on the fringes is still dwarfed by the support of most ordinary Iraqis for the Palestinian independence struggle.
Nevertheless, anyone perceived as challenging the wisdom of the “peace process” or political status quo is too often classed as a “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathiser”. That is the enduring legacy in post-2003 Iraq, but it doesn’t mean that the allegation is accurate. The Palestinian “Daeshi” may well be Iraq’s newest imagine threat, but it remains just that; imagined. It bears no resemblance to reality.