Pundits have spilled much ink on the latest chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but one question is still waiting to be asked and answered: “Why are there still refugees living in Gaza at all? Aren’t these people refugees of wars fought decades ago?”
The answer is that the highly politicized and cynical mission of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) was never to resettle the residents of Gaza. To the contrary, the agency has maintained the refugees’ poverty and suffering, encouraging the dream that Israel will be eliminated and the victorious refugees can establish a 23rd Arab country in its place. The latest fighting has shown that it is high time for Gazans to surrender this zero sum fantasy so that the Palestinian people can start thinking about their future more realistically and both Palestinians and Israelis may live in quiet, if not peace.
U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 offered the Arabs living in what was then known as Palestine, a two-state solution in November 1947. They rejected it in favor of war. Five neighboring Arab armies invaded the new country in May 1948 and approximately 650,000 Arabs fled their homes in Israel. The General Assembly passed Resolution 302 on Dec. 8, 1949, establishing UNRWA, making the Palestinians the only refugee group ever to have their own relief agency.
While the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has ably assisted over 130 million refugees in other parts of the world to start their lives anew since World War II, UNRWA’s mission was never to resettle Palestinian refugees, but to provide social services for them — forever.
Refugees are defined under international law as those with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion — unless those refugees are Palestinian; in that case, it is an inheritable trait that can be passed on by one parent. While other refugees around the globe logically lose their status as refugees when they acquire citizenship elsewhere, the Palestinians do not. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and their descendants, who are citizens of Jordan, the United States and elsewhere are considered permanent refugees by UNRWA. By that definition, the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries who came to Israel after 1948 were nonetheless still refugees even after receiving Israeli citizenship, as are all their descendants. It is no wonder that the number of “refugees” has ballooned to four million.
Approximately 25,000 local Palestinians staff UNRWA. In the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, this means that UNRWA is an arm of Hamas. In other words, many American dollars are going directly to members of a terrorist organization. While using the plight of the Palestinians to shamelessly rally their populations against the West, the oil-rich Arab countries donate next to nothing to UNRWA, while the United States and several European countries give the lions’ share of the money. American taxpayer dollars fund approximately one-third of UNRWA’s operating budget of more than $365 million a year. Underscoring the waste involved is the fact that UNRWA’s staff of 25,000 tends to 4.5 million Palestinian “refugees,” while the UNHCR employs a mere 6,300 people to settle nearly 33 million people in 110 countries around the world.
Israel twice attempted to move the refugees into permanent housing units with electricity, plumbing and paved roads, but the Palestinian leadership and United Nations opposed it and passed harsh resolutions demanding that Israel return the refugees to the camps. The PLO even threatened to kill anyone who moved into the homes. Likewise, the Palestinian Authority could have used some of the hundreds of millions of dollars received in foreign aid since 1993, to move people into permanent housing in their emerging state in the West Bank. And half a million Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, despite the total Israeli pullout in 2005. Why? Because Arab leaders prefer to keep the refugees as an open sore, fueling the conflict for the predictable future.
There will never be peace until the Palestinians understand that Israel is here to stay and the Arab leaders, supported by the United Nations, stop feeding their fantasy of eliminating the Jewish state. Getting rid of UNRWA and letting UNHCR resettle them would be a good start.
(Deborah Fidel, president of the ZOA-Pittsburgh District, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)