The Second Palestinian Nakba: Kuwait and the Iraq War
The Palestinians use the word “nakba” (catastrophe) to describe the exodus of Palestinians before and during the 1948 war against Israel. After the conflict, there were approximately 700,000 refugees who did not return to their homes in Israel. Many remained in exile of their own volition, and today they and their descendants still claim a “right of return.”
In 1990, when Iraq was in an economic crisis, Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi Army to invade Kuwait. We know the rest of the story — how the West rallied to Kuwait’s defense (in part to protect its oil interests), and pushed Saddam back into Iraq.
But what don’t we know about that war?
During the conflict, the Palestinians were divided into two camps: those who supported Iraq and those who supported Kuwait. Some leaders, like Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat, supported Saddam. But others did not.
Their resistance led to Iraqi persecution of Kuwait’s Palestinian community. Due to Iraqi massacres and other violence, approximately 200,000 Palestinians were forced to flee Kuwait, leaving their homes and possessions. The rest of the Palestinian community in Kuwait suffered heavy persecution, unemployment and hunger.
After the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the persecution of the Palestinian Kuwaitis continued. The Al-Sabah family, who ruled Kuwait, never forgave the Palestinian leaders who supported Iraq, and expelled almost all of the remaining members of the Palestinian community. Most of them had to flee to Jordan, since a large majority still retained Jordanian citizenship. The vibrant Kuwaiti Palestinian community of 400,000 men, women and children was eventually reduced to 30,000.
The destruction of the Kuwaiti Palestinian community caused a major crisis in the PLO leadership. But Arafat was lucky. Approximately a year and a half later, a new Israeli government renewed diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, which led to the Oslo Accords. This helped save Arafat’s position in the PLO — and the world.