International diplomats and Jewish jurists from Israel and the US met at the United Nations on Monday to debate whether the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was helping or hindering the Palestinian “refugee” issue, and by extension, the peace process.
The event was organized by The International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, both of which argued that by granting an unprecedented separate refugee status to Palestinians, the UN had put peace further out of reach.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 with the express goal of providing humanitarian aid to Arabs displaced by Israeli-Arab war a year earlier. It was and remains the only UN refugee agency established for a particular people group.
Originally, UNRWA’s mandate, like those of other refugee agencies, included resettlement of the refugee population. But, as Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor pointed out at Monday’s debate, that particular clause was deliberately removed from the UNRWA mandate in 1965. “They have perpetuated the problem instead of solving it,” said Prosor.
In fact, UNRWA has done more than that. It has turned a relatively minor refugee issue into a global crisis by breaking all the rules and granting refugee status to the descendants of those original refugees.
As former Knesset Member Einat Wilf stated, there is absolutely no reason that a Palestinian child living in Gaza four or five generations removed from the 1948 war should be considered a refugee.
And that brought up another issue. Millions of these so-called refugees are living in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. While they may not be living in the exact cities from which their great-grandparents hailed in 1948, they are still living in the same land and under their own autonomous government. Simply put, they do not fit the traditional, internationally-accepted definition of a refugee.
And yet, they continue to be granted refugee status and used as pawns in the peace process.
In neighboring Jordan, many of the Palestinians there have been granted local citizenship. They are resettled, and yet, they are still listed as refugees.
Prosor said all this is fueling a very dangerous notion: the idea that one of the results of the peace process will be a “right of return” under which these millions of so-called “refugees” will flood into Israel-proper.
“UNRWA fuels false promises and gives grievance to dangerous myths,” said Prosor. “We have heard time and time again that settlements are the major hurdle to peace. In these halls, no one will admit that the real obstacle is the so-called ‘claim to return.’”
The primary reason Israel is so reluctant to go too far in negotiations is that Palestinian leaders continue to hold fast to this “right of return,” which is bolstered by the UN itself.
Some at Monday’s meeting suggested that America and major European powers, which are UNRWA’s chief funders, simply cut off the cash flow. But Prosor and other Israeli representatives said that wouldn’t work.
UNRWA, with the happy cooperation of the Palestinian Authority and other Arab regimes, has created a massive population that far outstrips the original number of refugees and that is today reliant on humanitarian aid.
Were UNRWA to cease existing, Israel would be obligated to provide for this population. And if it did not or could not, then the now-starving “refugees” would become an even more effective political tool against the Jewish state.
Prosor and others said the solution is for UNRWA and the UN to start treating the Palestinian refugee issue under the same rules and norms as all other refugee situations in modern history, excluding the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab nations, for whom the UN took no responsibility and provided no assistance.