By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The refusal of the Saudi Consulate, in the last few weeks, to issue Umrah visas to those carrying Jordanian temporary passports (which do not have national identity numbers) was surprising and shocking, especially that, for years, they undertake these pilgrimages without any obstacle. Then, things escalated when the Saudi Consulate in Beirut informed travel agents that it has stopped issuing visas to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Also, news spread that Saudi authorities refused to renew residence status for those holding Refugee Travel Document (RTD). In all cases, the only acceptable solution was for them to get a Palestinian Authority (PA) passport.
Interestingly, despite many enquiries made with the Saudi authorities, they did not make any official announcement yet and all their directives were verbal, however the decisions were implemented. Despite the sensitivity of the issue to the PA and concerned Arab states, they also remain silent, may be awaiting clarification and the matter to become official.
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It seems that the new directive was issued early this year (when KSA was eager about the “deal of the century”), but during Hajj, the Saudi consulate went back on its decision and then it returned to applying it during the Umrah season.
On 11/9/1965, the Arab countries agreed on the “Casablanca Protocol,” which stipulates that Palestinian refugees have civil and economic rights on par with the citizens of the refuge country. That they must be “given, upon request, valid travel documents” (and not passports) to facilitate their travel, and without naturalization or granting them political rights, so as to keep their refuge status and cause alive.
Despite the fact that the document has in time turned into a story of enormous suffering for its holders (not to be reviewed in this article), it remains a testimony to the catastrophe of Palestinian refuge that ends only with the return of the Palestinians to their land and homes.
Millions of Palestinians hold RTDs; Most of the RTDs are Egyptian, issued for the Palestinians of Gaza Strip (GS), Syrian RTDs were issued for 600 thousand Palestinians, and Lebanese RTDs for more than 540 thousand Palestinians (as registered with UNRWA in Lebanon). There are also the Jordanian temporary passports (which do not have national identity numbers) for more than half a million Palestinians from the West Bank (WB), including Jerusalem, and from GS living in Jordan.
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Such a decision or measure cannot be considered a routine measure or an internal issue. For the issue of Palestinian refugees, their documents and passports is a political matter of the fırst degree, and the policies affecting this issue must be agreed upon by the Arab countries and Palestinians themselves, after assessing ensuing outcomes. In addition, any of these measure cannot be isolated from the political developments in the region and the “deal of the century” leaks, especially since these measures have negative repercussions on two important issues: Jerusalem and the refugees.
The Jerusalemites, who are the majority of those holding Jordanian temporary passports, are negatively affected by the decision. For the demographic battle in Jerusalem requires that every single Jerusalemite must stay and be steadfastness to reserve the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic identity of the city against the Judaization and displacement of the Israeli occupation. Jerusalemites keep their Jerusalem IDs to be able to live there, but if they get the PA passports Israeli authorities would confiscate their IDs and ban them from living there. If, for example, 30 thousand Jerusalemites were expected to go for Umrah this year (Based on experts’ estimations), the volume of the problem would be obvious.
As for the PA passports, there are certain criteria for the Jerusalemites to acquire them. They must have lost their residency in Jerusalem to be eligible for acquiring them (by applying for a family reunion with someone who has a PA ID), and after that they can get their passports.
In all cases, there might be a way out, by having the PA issue a temporary one-travel PA passport (with no national ID number) that expires upon return. However, if the PA were tolerant in dealing with a few hundred cases to go for Hajj (around 400 this year)… How will it deal with tens of thousands? What if the people of Jerusalem (those suffering the most) did not find practical solutions? Could it end up in making many Jerusalemites seek Israeli nationality and passports in order to facilitate their movement and travel? This would serve Israeli plans to annex East Jerusalem to Israel, and Palestinians must be warned about it.
As for the Palestinians abroad who have RTDs, and are compelled to obtain PA passports, this will lead to losing their “refugee” status. For declaring the possession of such passports to the states that granted them RTDs, will eventually lead to making them choose between them, since one cannot have them both. It is a normal procedure implemented by passport directorates of Arab countries, and stopping it needs a clear and decisive Arab official decision.
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Regardless of how the PA would deal with the Saudi measure, or what extent would the Arab countries reach in their positive or negative interaction with it, the danger and extreme sensitivity of the issue must be emphasized, especially if it became “formal.” Millions of Palestinian refugees would be affected, and it would be viewed as part of the “deal of the century,” knowing that US procedures began when the US administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decided to move its embassy there. In addition, the US has put pressure on the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and tried to close it, and it also pressed Jordan to strip more than two million UNRWA-registered Palestinians of their refugee status.
Politically speaking, since the Saudis have not adopted a formal resolution yet, this suggests some hesitation and internal disagreement about it. They may have floated this “trial balloon” to test for reactions. May be when King Salman named the Arab Summit, which was hosted by KSA, the Jerusalem Summit, and when he pulled from his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman the deal of the century dossier, linking Saudi approval of the peace settlement to the Palestinians’ consent and the Arab peace initiative, indicates a decline in Saudi enthusiasm for the “deal of the century.”
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The Palestinian refugee has the right to live with dignity, and to travel and move freely; his “RTD” should be a witness to Israeli atrocities against Palestinian civilians, a cause for solidarity and support rather than an increase in his suffering and humiliation. He must not be coerced to make tough and difficult decisions.
Consequently, it is everyone’s responsibility to stop such procedures against holders of RTDs and temporary passports.