Wednesday, July 9, 2008


by Barry Rubin, Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Spyer


2nd part of  6


Bibliography and footnotes in part 6

Thwarting offers of permanent housing

Over the years there have been numerous opportunities for groups of refugees to move into decent, permanent housing, and almost always they have been thwarted. For example, in 1985, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units that had been constructed near Nablus with support from the Catholic Relief Organization. In this instance (as in several similar instances) the UN intervened. A General Assembly resolution was passed, indicating that:

"measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return, [called] once again upon Israel to abandon its plans and to refrain from...any action that may lead to the removal and resettlement, of Palestine refugees in the West Bank and from the destruction of their camps."

Dr. Eli Lasch, head of medical services in Gaza for Israel's Civil Administration from 1967 until 1985 reports that in Gaza when the Israeli Department for the Rehabilitation of the Refugees prepared houses for thousands of refugees, UNRWA threatened the refugees with the loss of their rights as refugees.

It should be noted that in neither instance did Israel require of the refugees that in order to move into new housing they relinquish their "right" to return.

Equally significant is that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which ruled the Gaza Strip and West Bank population from around 1994 onward made no attempt, despite large-scale foreign aid, to move people out of refugee camps into permanent housing. They would thus be living in Palestine (both pre-1948 Palestine and the future state that the PA was supposed to be constructing) but not in the area where they formerly lived which was now Israeli territory. Such an improvement in their status, even as citizens of an incipient Palestinian state, did not meet the political goal of using them to erode and eventually eliminate Israel's existence. The fact that it would have benefited the refugees was of no importance.

UNRWA: a unique international body

There is no other body like UNRWA in the UN system. Millions of refugees worldwide –– over 130 million since the end of World War Two –– fell under the responsibility of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which aims to resettle and rehabilitate the refugees. UNRWA was created as a separate body and its jurisdiction is solely the Palestinians. It is UNRWA that defines the term "refugee" in the broadest terms by including not only those Arabs who fled from territories held by Israel, but also those who stayed in their homes and lost their source of livelihood as a result of war. Today, this would include all third and fourth generation of refugees even those children of just one Palestinian refugee parent.

All in all, not a single Palestinian has ever lost his refugee status. There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees or their descendants who are citizens of Jordan. Yet as far as UNRWA is concerned they are still refugees.

Consequently, UNRWA over the past 60 years has transformed itself into the main vehicle for the perpetuation of the focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the UN. In contradistinction to UNHCR, UNRWA is an apparatus that maintains the status quo –– in other words, the office has no incentive to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

As one of the largest employers in the host countries which have Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA is staffed there by local Palestinians, over 23,000 people, with only about 100 international UN professionals. The pattern of hiring within the served population is unique in the UN constellation-both UNHCR and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Fund) avoid employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, considering it a conflict of interest.

The bureaucracy, well over 99 percent Palestinian, has created an infrastructure of Palestinian dependency on the ground whereby Palestinian refugees rely on the services UNRWA provides (medical assistance, jobs, education) and have absolutely no incentive to plan or implement any solutions that may endanger their livelihood by rendering their services obsolete.

Thus, UNRWA is not so much in reality a UN body but a Palestinian organization funded by the UN. Since its employees have traditionally been supporters (or at least feel the pressure to act as such) of Fatah and the PLO, UNRWA behaved largely on the ground as a PLO front group. Today, especially in the Gaza Strip, it has moved toward becoming a virtual arm of Hamas.

Since its inception UNRWA has became a vehicle for Arab propaganda and incitement towards violence. As Israel's first director-general of the Foreign Ministry Walter Eytan explains,

"The refugees were a gift to Arab propaganda, which succeeded, by perverting the facts, in turning them into the gravest political liability with which Israel has had to contend in the first decade of her existence. Wherever in the "Western" world anti-Israel feeling exists, it draws its inspiration primarily from the Arab refugees. For all her efforts, Israel has never succeeded in freeing herself from the reproach leveled at her by Arab propaganda –– that she drove out the refugees in the first place and has since cruelly denied them the elementary human right of 'returning home,' and that in doing so she has 'defied' the United Nations."

In addition, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion bluntly described the Israeli obstacle of finding a resolution of the Arab refugees saying that, "the fact that Israel is trying to solve the refugee problem proves that she has an interest in its solution. This alone is enough to damn any such attempt in Arab eyes."

And although, some support the Palestinian "right of return" out of good-hearted naiveté many others have a different agenda. Their purpose is not the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the destruction of Israel. As one of Yasser Arafat's closest advisors, Saker Habash, once commented, "The right of return is our winning lottery ticket for the destruction of Israel."


UNRWA is simultaneously a UN agency and an integral part of a long-term Arab strategy to use the perpetuated misery of the Palestinians in order to keep this humanitarian burden at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its approach basically said: Israel's existence necessarily meant Palestinian suffering since there was no other way of relieving their situation.

In this context, up until 1967 there was no attempt to bring a humanitarian option to the Palestinians. In fact, only when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza did the Palestinians get the opportunity, from Israel no less, to build homes and get out of the refugee camps. This was of-course rejected by Yasir Arafat. Even though arguably such a strategy could have contributed to building an independent Palestinian state it detracted from his true aim of seeking total victory and Israel's elimination.

He pursued the same policy after he took over the Gaza Strip in 1994 and the Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank in 1995. In 2000 an official PLO document Arafat and his administration endorse the Arab strategy to perpetuate the refugee problem and keep them in their dire conditions in the camps, stating approvingly that, "in order to keep the refugee issue alive and prevent Israel from evading responsibility for their plight, Arab countries –– with the notable exception of Jordan- have usually sought to preserve a Palestinian identity by maintaining the Palestinians' status as refugees."[4]

A secondary factor was that, after the establishment of the PA, UNRWA meant that Arafat could continue to disclaim all responsibility for the well-being of the refugees. Their social, medical, educational, service, and even financial provider remained UNRWA and the UN, at no cost to Arafat in resources or governmental effort, contrary to every principle of normal territorial integrity and autonomy. The situation signaled that no outcome of the Oslo peace process –– and that is to say any two-state solution –– could possibly help the refugees' situation.

Barry Rubin, Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Spyer


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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