UNRWA: Perpetuating the Misery

Writing in The Guardian, Karen AbuZayd, the outgoing commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) calls to address the Palestininan refugee question. While apportioning responsibility to Israel, she fails to acknowledge the fate of Jewish refugees in 1948,  her own organization’s role and the neglect of Palestinian refugees by their own leadership and fellow Arab states.

AbuZayd states:

Make no mistake, not a single conflict of contemporary times has been resolved, no durable peace achieved, unless and until the voices of the victims of those conflicts were heard, their losses acknowledged and redress found to injustices they experience. The precedents of recent peacemaking efforts and the methodology of contemporary conflict resolution affirm that giving high priority to resolving dispossession and the plight of refugees is a necessity, an international obligation and a humanitarian imperative.

While UNRWA may be concerned solely with the plight of Palestinians refugees (more on this definition later), how can AbuZayd make the above statement without reference to the Jewish refugees who were forced to flee from their homes in Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel? As Avi Beker writes:

Although they exceed the numbers of the Palestinian refugees, the Jews who fled are a forgotten case. Whereas the former are at the very heart of the peace process with a huge UN bureaucratic machinery dedicated to keeping them in the camps, the nine hundred thousand Jews who were forced out of Arab countries have not been refugees for many years. Most of them, about 650,000, went to Israel because it was the only country that would admit them. Most of them resided in tents that after several years were replaced by wooden cabins, and stayed in what were actually refugee camps for up to twelve years. They never received any aid or even attention from the UN Relief And Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or any other international agency. Although their plight was raised almost every year at the UN by Israeli representatives, there was never any other reference to their case at the world body.

Referring to an April 2008 US House of Representatives resolution on Jewish refugees, Lyn Julius argues that it:

is about recognition, not restitution, although Jewish losses have been quantified at twice Palestinian losses. Such resolutions could lead to a peace settlement by recognising that there were victims on both sides. Thus justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.

UNRWA: PERPETUATING THE REFUGEE PROBLEM

While AbuZayd appears to place responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel and others in the international community, what of UNRWA’s own role?

Unlike the millions of refugees around the world who are the concern of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only the Palestinians have their own dedicated UN agency. While other refugees (including Jewish refugees from Arab lands) are successfully integrated and absorbed into other countries, why do Palestinian refugees still exist over 60 years after Israel’s creation? As Lanny Davis writes:

UNRWA’s definition of the refugees to whom it devotes its time and attention are well beyond the original 900,000 Palestinian refugees who were identified in 1950. Today the number served is over 4.5 million. Why? Because UNRWA has defined its mission to serve the descendents of the original 900,000. This means grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees are the focus of UNRWA’s attention in refugee camps located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. (Some might ask: Why haven’t the Saudis, with all their oil money, contributed to finding homes for the great-grandparents, parents, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees over these 60 years?)

UNRWA, it could also be argued, is a negative influence on prospects for peace. There have been reports of Hamas members and potential terrorists being on the UNRWA payroll along with the use of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel textbooks in UNRWA-sponsored schools. Davis also takes issue with the anti-Israel statements of UNRWA spokespeople.

THE ROLE OF THE ARAB STATES

In a Dec.7, 2009 article, the Daily Telegraph looks at the plight of Palestinian refugees living in squalid conditions in Lebanon and perhaps hits the nail on the head:

“How could it be possible that for the past 61 years Palestinians are trapped in these camps,” complained Mahmoud al-Jomaa, who chairs an organisation that provides health programmes for children.

What hurts the most for the refugees is the feeling that they have been forgotten by the world – and particularly by other Arabs.

“Seven million Jews worry about the fate of Gilad Shalit, while 300 million Arabs couldn’t care less what happens to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians,” said Walid Taha, who lives in the Shatila camp in Beirut.

In fact, the bulk of UNRWA’s funding comes from western donors with only a small proportion from the Arab states:

According to an Oct. 2009 feature in The Independent:

UNRWA’s grant of refugee status to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees according to the principle of patrilineal descent, with no limit on the generations that can obtain refugee status, has made it easy for host countries to flout their obligations under international law. According to Article 34
of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees,” and must “make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings” the opposite of what happened to the Palestinians in every Arab country in which they settled, save Jordan.

Indeed, the article states:

In 2001, Palestinians in Lebanon were stripped of the right to own property, or to pass on the property that they already owned to their children and banned from working as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists or in 20 other professions. Even the Palestinian refugee community in Jordan, historically the most welcoming Arab state, has reason to feel insecure in the face of official threats to revoke their citizenship. The systematic refusal of Arab governments to grant basic human rights to Palestinians who are born and die in their countries combined with periodic mass expulsions of entire Palestinian communities recalls the treatment of Jews in medieval Europe.

In addition, the Palestinian Authority has not been at the forefront in helping relocate the residents of refugee camps into permanent housing facilities.

Arabs have to share responsibility for the refugee issues since they rejected the 1947 partition plan and and launched a war of destruction. Had they, like Israel, accepted the partition, there would have been no war and no refugees.

We congratulate the Daily Telegraph and Independent for going beyond the standard reporting on Palestinian refugees. Perhaps it is time for Karen AbuZayd to take a more sophisticated examination (including some self-examination) regarding the Palestinian refugee problem. Simply blaming Israel and “occupation” is simplistic and does little to resolve the issue.

Please take one or two of the points above and send an e-mail to The Guardian’s letters page – letters@guardian.co.uk – to ensure that another point of view is expressed concerning the plight of Palestinian refugees.

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