This is another guest post by Brian Goldfarb, a frequent reader and contributor to this blog.
“Not part of the solution, but part of the problem” – What is? Well, if we’re talking about the Middle East and Israel/Palestine, then one strong candidate, among many, is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). Who says so? In this context, Alan Johnson, Professor of Democratic Theory & Practice at Edge Hill University (UK) as well as being the founder and editor of Fathom , a relatively new quarterly online journal. Johnson sees the role of Fathom as leading the way “for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region”. To this end, he publishes articles such as “UNRWA, an obstacle to peace?“, by Dr Einat Wilf, who from 2010 to 2013 was an MK for the Labor Party, as well as an academic researcher. If you follow the first link to the magazine itself, you’ll find all sorts of contributors to the journal, such as Norman Geras (normblog) and Eve Garrard, neither of whom are uncritical supporters of Israel.
Dr Wilf, as one might expect from an academic, starts with a brief discussion of the role of refugee agencies in the post-World War Two world. Thus, her second sentence:
Whereas the actual number of Arabs who could still claim to be refugees as a result of the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1949 is today no more than several tens of thousands, the number of those registered as refugees is reaching 5 million, with millions more claiming to have that status” cuts to the chase, as the Americans would say.
Like so many others, I’ve made this point, usually through gritted teeth, on other sites: unlike all other refugee “problems” created by and since the end of WWII, the number of Palestinian “refugees” has grown and grown. Further, she continues, immediately, with the point that
…since the Second World War the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] has been responsible for the welfare of all refugees in the world and has assisted in their resettlement and relocation – so that nearly all of them are no longer refugees – with one exception: the Arabs from Palestine.”
The obvious question, to be asked by the mythical alien visiting from Mars, is “why”. Why is there one exception to what appears to be a universal rule? While I know that we all know the reason, it is, nevertheless, worth quoting Dr Wilf’s answer, if only for its directness and relative brevity:
“By contrast, UNRWA, the organisation created specifically to handle the Arab refugees from Palestine from the 1947-1949 Arab-Israel war, has collaborated with the Arab refusal to resettle the refugees in the areas where they reside, or to relocate them to third countries. Worse, UNRWA has ensured that the refugee issue only grows larger by automatically registering descendants of the original refugees from the war as refugees themselves in perpetuity, For Palestinians, uniquely, refugeeness is an hereditary trait.”
That is, all other refugees in the whole world are, according to the UNHCR, only those who are physically and personally displaced by whatever event or events occurred in their original countries of residence. Anyone else, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends who came along for the ride… are not and never can be refugees (unless they themselves are further displaced – but that, as the saying goes, is another story). Only the Palestinians are refugees in perpetuity. If you detect a note of cynicism in my pen, you are right to do so.
The next obvious question is, “okay, but why”. That is, yes, but why is this the definition of Palestinian ‘refugees’ and only Palestinian refugees? Again, Dr Wilf provides an answer that most of us, or at least those of us with an at least partially open mind, are already aware of:
For several decades UNRWA has been engaging in an act of bureaucratic self-aggrandisement, inflating the numbers of those in its care, ensuring the growth of its budget. If the descendants of the Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli war were treated like all other refugees, including the Jewish ones, they would not qualify for refugee status because almost all of them (upward of 80 per cent) are either citizens of a third country, such as Jordan, or they live in the places where they were born and expect to have a future such as Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians born in the West Bank and Gaza are not fleeing war and are not seeking refuge. They are considered citizens of Palestine by the Palestinian Authority itself, just like all other Palestinians born in these territories. No other people in the world are registered as refugees while being citizens of another country or territory. Moreover, if the European Union has adopted the policy that Gaza and the West Bank are territories to be allocated to Palestine – and some EU countries already recognise Palestine as a state – then it makes no sense for it to argue that people who were born and are living in Palestine are refugees from… Palestine.”
In other words, because of political pressure from the Arab states surrounding the Israel-Palestinian problem, and because it suits the bureaucrats, who might otherwise have to find proper jobs, nobody is really interested in finding a solution to the problem of the Palestinian ‘refugees’. To do so would cause more problems in the region (outside Israel itself) than it would solve.
Why does this matter?
“Because if millions of Arabs who are citizens of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, or inhabitants of Syria and Lebanon, claim to be refugees from what is today Israel, even though they were never born there and never lived there, and demand that as a result of this refugee status they be given the right to relocate to Israel (‘the right of return’), then the whole basis for peace by means of two states for two people crumbles. If Israel with its 6 million Jews and more than 1.5 million Arabs has to absorb between 5 and 8 million Palestinians then the Jews will be relegated again to living as a minority among those who do not view them as equals; the only country in which the Jews are a majority and can exercise their right to self-determination would be no more.”
Once again (please excuse my language), the Jews get screwed.
Not surprisingly, there are abundant ironies in this situation:
UNRWA is funded by countries who support two states for two peoples. The United States, the EU, Canada, Japan and Australia fund 99 per cent of UNRWA’s annual budget of over $1 billion, whereas the 56 Islamic countries who supposedly grieve for their Palestinian brethren supply only a few million dollars.”
Why are we not surprised by this? Because, basically, it is in the interests of the Arab states not to solve the “problem” of the Arab refugees created by the so-called Nakba.
After a paragraph in which she, to coin a phrase, makes nice to the Western powers, Dr Wilf gets real, again, when she argues that:
If Western countries truly want to remove obstacles on the road to peace they cannot condemn the growth of settlements on one hand and condone the manufactured growth of the number of refugees on the other. Either both the growth of settlements and the inflation in the number of refugees should be treated as obstacles to peace, or neither should be.
She then continues:
… if the West truly wants to promote a coherent policy that supports a two-state solution and does not favour one side over another, it should use its power as the financial supporter of UNRWA to steer its practices along a more constructive path. The welfare, education and health services provided by UNRWA could continue and even be expanded, but their provision should be based on need, not refugee status.”
Oops, that sounds dangerously close to ‘labourist’ social welfare policies that might actually solve social problems. That would never do (he said cynically): actually solve social problems and produce a real peace plan? How dare you!
Actually, Dr Wilf notes that there are stirrings of such an approach in the US (despite misgivings as to just how pro-Israeli the US really is) when she notes that a start was made on just such an approach when
in 2012 when the US Senate, acting on the initiative of Senator Mark Kirk [R. Illinois], introduced an amendment to the budget bill, requesting that UNRWA report ‘on the number of refugees that it services separate from their descendants.’ The US Senate Appropriations Committee asked for nothing more than information and transparency in reporting in return for the 250 million dollars of US taxpayers money that it supplies UNRWA annually. It did not ask for aid to be cut. It did not call for cessation of services to the millions of descendants; it only asked for transparency in numbers. Even though the amendment did not go through, given that the budget bill as a whole did not move forward, the US Senate sent out a powerful message for peace in that the attainment of a two-state solution cannot be congruent with UNRWA’s practice of inflating the number of refugees. And if the EU wants its recent stringent steps against Israeli settlements to be taken as genuine efforts to keep the two-state solution alive as the path to peace, it must pursue policies that address all obstacles to peace.”
Even allowing for Einat Wilf having a political axe to grind (that comment on the EU wanting “its recent stringent steps against Israeli settlements to be taken as genuine efforts to keep the two-state solution alive as the path to peace” comes straight from her Labor MK background: even sharing her political philosophy, I personally would never characterise the EU initiative on the settlements in such terms), these are strong words and well worth a wider circulation. Indeed, the case she presents can never be made often enough if sense is to prevail in the Middle East.
Will it? Ah, now, where did I put my crystal ball…
Brian, thank you for bringing this important article to our attention. It is of utmost importance for the continued well-being – and possibly the existence – of Israel to debunk the false statistics promoted by UNRWA.
However, their malign attitude towards Israel is not expressed purely by their inflation of the number of Palestinian refugees. It has been well documented that UNRWA-run school are themselves hotbeds of anti-Israel propaganda and even hothouses for terrorists themselves. Here are a series of articles from just this year:
Why the world shouldn’t support UNRWA – from Haaretz of all papers.
Israel files complaint against UNRWA Lebanon director for deleting Israel from a map – Times of Israel
Even UNRWA’s own photos show their tacit support for terrorists – Elder of Ziyon
And one from the archives from 2011: Do UNRWA schools encourage terror against Israel? – Jerusalem Post