The stateless people you’ve never heard of

Click photo to download. Caption: Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah. When Bedoon leader Abdullah Atallah declared that the emir was to “blame” for the plight of his people, he was promptly arrested for the “insult” and now faces a five-year prison sentence. Credit: The White House.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Here’s the setting: a Middle Eastern state filled with skyscrapers and luxury hotels, and blessed with a booming business environment and the close friendship of the United States. Here’s the problem: a substantial segment of its population lives with the constant threat of deportation hanging over it.

Its members cannot obtain birth or marriage certificates, or identity cards, or driving licenses. They are banned from access to public health and education services. Their second-class status means they have no access to the law courts in order to pursue their well-documented claims of discrimination. And on those rare occasions that they summon the will to protest publicly—as they did in 2011, when demonstrators held signs bearing slogans like “I Have a Dream”—the security forces respond with extraordinary brutality, using such weapons as water cannons, concussion grenades, and tear gas with reckless abandon.

All this is depressing enough, but what really saddens me is that many people reading this will quickly conclude that I am talking about the Palestinians. After all, doesn’t what I’ve outlined here sound suspiciously like the “apartheid” system which Israel’s enemies insist has been imposed upon both Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank?  Isn’t this further evidence of the righteousness of the campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel?

The truth is that the Palestinians do not have to endure this kind of raw discrimination. The situation I’m describing is located in Kuwait, and the people in question are known as Bedoon jinsiya (also spelled “Bidoon” or “Bidun”)—around 120,000 human beings who live without nationality and with none of the rights that flow from citizenship.

Like the other Arab governments, the Kuwaitis are a harsh, unsentimental bunch. Ironically, the Palestinians know this only too well: in 1991, after a U.S.-led coalition liberated oil-rich Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, the entire Palestinian population there was accused of having collaborated with Saddam Hussein. The fact that some did and that many others did not didn’t matter. Over a six-month period, around 200,000 Palestinians were booted out of the emirate in a campaign of violence and terror. PLO leader Yasser Arafat, in a rare moment of candor, asserted that Kuwait’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was “worse than what has been done by Israel to Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

The Bedoon have faced a similar but more gradual onslaught, albeit without the extensive media coverage that the Palestinians receive. Human rights organizations aren’t in the habit of paying attention to them: a recent article in the Arab newspaper Al Akhbar cited a Human Rights Watch report on the Bedoon from 2011, adding that such documentation is “rare.” As a result, not only do most of us not know who the Bedoon are, but it’s probably also safe to say that the vast majority of westerners have never even heard of them.

Ethnically Arab, the Bedoon are drawn from three main sources. Firstly, those who failed to apply for nationality or lacked the right documentation when Kuwait attained independence in 1961. Secondly, those who were recruited to work in the Kuwaiti security forces during the 1960s, many of whom arrived in the emirate with their families. Thirdly, the children of Kuwaiti mothers and stateless or foreign fathers.

As Human Rights Watch noted, “regional political instability” during the 1980s led to the removal of the meager benefits—which did not include the right to vote—that the Bedoon had enjoyed thus far. They became “illegal residents” and were thus completely excluded from the social services accessed by Kuwaiti citizens. Those who slander Israel’s Law of Return as racist should know that Kuwait operates one of the most restrictive nationality laws in the region, amended many times since it was first passed in order to make the requirements for citizenship more stringent. It has now gotten to the point where Kuwaiti women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, even when those children are not eligible for their father’s nationality.

Kuwait’s official position is that there is no problem of statelessness in the emirate. Half-hearted attempts by the government to address the situation of the Bedoon have come to nothing, and over the last month, many Bedoon have begun protesting again. When one Bedoon leader, Abdullah Atallah, bravely declared that Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah was to “blame” for the plight of his people, he was promptly arrested for this “insult” and now faces a five-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti authorities have threatened that further protests will result in the deportation of those involved.

It’s high time that Kuwait be held accountable for enforcing a system that looks like, well, apartheid. But no one is doing so. I haven’t seen, for example, students at the elite Dartmouth College protesting against their university’s “American University of Kuwait” program. I’m not aware of any campuses hosting “Kuwaiti Apartheid Week” events. There’s a whole Division of Palestinian Rights at the U.N., but that organization is silent on the Bedoon of Kuwait.

We can whine about the double standards. Or we can press our own Jewish leaders to raise cases like the Bedoon with their government interlocutors, in the name of both universal human rights and protecting Israel’s democratic reputation. It is time to go on the offensive.

Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on March 27, 2014 and filed under Opinion, Israel, World.