The outgoing director of the New York office of the UN Refugee and Works Agency, a body established specifically to tend to the needs and aspirations of the so-called Palestinian refugees, angered the Arab world last month by stating that those refugees will never be allowed to take up residence in Israel.
Speaking at the National Council for US-Arab Relations, Andrew Whitney said it was unreasonable to think that the peace process would end with Israel opening its gates to five million new Arab residents, and that the Palestinian refugees and their offspring should be absorbed into their host nations.
Said Whitney: “If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be – for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes – then we are storing up trouble for ourselves.”
Neighboring Jordan, whose population is made up mostly of Palestinians, strongly condemned Whitney’s remarks. Palestinian Authority spokesman Saeb Erekat blasted the UNRWA official, insisting that “the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes and lands is one of the most important rights.”
For Israelis, the Palestinian “right of return” is a non-starter, as it would mark the demographic destruction of the Jewish state. One of the reasons Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas so fervently refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state is because it would mean relinquishing the demand to flood the country with so many Arabs, a demand for which Abbas is a chief advocate.
Israelis also argue that the Palestinian refugee issue has been politicized, misrepresented and grossly exaggerated as a means of pressuring Israel to give in to its own demise.
First, they note that while 700,000 Arabs were made refugees by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, an equal number of Jews were expelled from the surrounding Arab nations and absorbed by Israel.
Second, it is unprecedented for the offspring of refugees to be given equal refugee status as their parents. Only in the case of the Palestinians has a refugee population ballooned so much thanks to refugee status being granted to children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren over the course of 60 years.
Of course, that is likely because no refugee situation has ever lasted so long. Israel argues that population transfers during times of war, and especially during the birth of new states, are not unheard of, and in fact make sense when the different populations move into more natural ethnic settings.
For instance, there were large population transfers between Greece and Turkey following World War I and India and Pakistan in 1947. In both cases, the refugee populations were fully absorbed.
In fact, more than 50 million people were displaced by war and conflict in the 20th century. Almost none returned to their original homes, yet few but the Palestinians are still living as refugees today.
For decades, the Palestinians - a nationality only invented in the last century who differ little if at all in language, religion and culture from the Arabs of the surrounding nations - have been used as political leverage, deliberately left in refugee status in order to bring pressure on Israel. And the international community has been party to this crime.
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