Kuwait City – Several years ago, Alaa Talleh and his friends set up an exhibit on their university campus in Kuwait City to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause.
One of the reactions stunned him, Talleh said, when a school administrator sharply criticised the exhibit as “ridiculous” and “without meaning”. She told the group they had “betrayed Kuwait”, he said.
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This was the first time Talleh had experienced such discrimination, but he immediately understood why: Some in Kuwait still faulted Palestinians for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s support for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
“We told [the administrator] that it’s not all Palestinians who are at fault. You can’t generalise and treat all Palestinians badly because the leadership made a mistake,” Talleh, a 25-year-old engineer, told Al Jazeera, noting his group spent some time afterwards explaining to the administrator the various ways in which Palestinians helped Kuwaitis during the war, tending to the injured and helping to distribute aid.
was after the war. Twenty-five years later, it is getting better – each year it is a little better – but older generations of Kuwaitis cannot stop thinking that we are their enemies.”]
“The situation shows that most Kuwaitis don’t know the whole truth,” Talleh said. “Some, when you tell them the truth and show evidence, they are convinced – but a small number remain stuck in their beliefs.”
This week marked the 25th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which led to a seven-month war that ended when an international coalition intervened, imposing punishing sanctions on Iraq before defeating it in a ground war.
Former PLO leader Yasser Arafat sided with Iraq in the conflict, believing it was the best ally to support the Palestinian struggle for statehood – and Palestinians who lived in Kuwait during the war paid for his political alignment, even though many disagreed with the PLO’s stance.
“The months of March to June 1991 were witness to a sustained Kuwaiti campaign to expel the Palestinian population using methods that combined bureaucratic means and terror,” according to an article published by Badil, a Palestinian advocacy group.
“The great majority of Palestinian civil servants were simply fired or not rehired; Palestinian children were expelled from public schools; educational subsidies were terminated; and heavy financial burdens were placed on Palestinians who wished to remain… For those who didn’t get the message, there was always the threat of arbitrary arrest.”
Of the approximately 400,000 Palestinians who lived in Kuwait before the war, only about 20,000 were estimated to have remained afterwards. Over the past 25 years, that number has climbed back to around 70,000, according to the Embassy of Palestine in Kuwait.
While Palestinian residents of Kuwait tell Al Jazeera that relations between Palestinians and Kuwaitis have improved significantly since the war, traces of discrimination still remain.
“Discrimination continues by keeping Palestinians from government jobs, as well as government schools and universities,” Darwish Abd el-Nabi, a Palestinian journalist who worked in Kuwait’s Palestinian embassy at the time of the Iraqi invasion, told Al Jazeera.
Kuwait shut down the embassy in response to Arafat’s support for Iraq during the Gulf War, and it remained closed for more than two decades. Relations between Palestine and Kuwait began to thaw in 2004, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas formally apologised for the PLO’s previous stance on the war. But it was not until 2013 that the embassy finally reopened, prompting officials to herald a new era in Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations.
“Reopening the embassy was a declaration for getting relations between Kuwait and Palestine back to where they’re supposed to be,” Rami Tahboub, the Palestinian ambassador to Kuwait, told Al Jazeera. “[Today], relations between the Palestinian community in Kuwait and Kuwaiti people are very warm… [Kuwaitis] tell me all the time, we will never forget the stamp, or the print, that the Palestinian teachers left on the country by teaching Kuwaitis.”
With regards to the Palestinian population in Kuwait, Tahboub added, “I don’t think we’ll ever get back to before 1990, but … the relations will continue to improve to the best of both people.”
Not everyone is as optimistic. Nabi said the embassy, as a link between the two communities, has failed in its role, with Palestinians remaining isolated from broader society.
“I wish the ambassador and the embassy developed relations between Palestinians and Kuwaitis and connected with Palestinians in Kuwait, but he hasn’t done that,” Nabi said.
Abu Mahmoud, a 60-year-old Palestinian from Gaza who lives in the Hawally neighbourhood of Kuwait, called the opening of the embassy a purely “political” development that has not tangibly affected relations on the ground.
On the PLO’s position during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Abu Mahmoud said Palestinians were divided, “and we still are today”. The community fragmented completely because of the war, he said.
“The worst time [for Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations] was after the war,” Abu Mahmoud told Al Jazeera. “Twenty-five years later, it is getting better – each year it is a little better – but older generations of Kuwaitis cannot stop thinking that we are their enemies.”
Talleh maintains that the discrimination he has experienced as a Palestinian in Kuwait is rarer today than it was in years past, with such attitudes – where they do exist – hidden below the surface. He still believes there is a brighter future ahead.
“[Palestinians] are coming again, some young people, freshly graduated – people whose families left in the 1990s and went to live in other countries. But when their kids are graduating, some are coming back to Kuwait to work,” Talleh said.
“After 25 years, the ice has started to melt.”
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