The Elephant at the Negotiating Table
As the Israel-Palestine peace talks appear to be heading towards inevitable collapse, and Israel will almost certainly be held accountable because of the issue of settlement building, one participant… a major main obstacle to peace, is not present at the bargaining table.
Nor has it ever been present. Yet this United Nations refugee agency has been as much part of the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people as any of the participants.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, created in 1948 to care for those who were made refugees following the first Arab-Israeli war, is one of the most politicised, debased and corrupting of all UN bodies. Indeed, a look at the activities of UNRWA shows that without it, the Palestinian refugee situation had a chance of being settled decades ago.
When commentators discuss the issue of Palestinian refugees, what they invariably overlook is that after the creation of Israel in 1948, more Jews were expelled from Arab nations and made refugees than Palestinians who left the fledgling state.
Yet in 1952, the Israeli government took over the integration of Jewish refugees from UNRWA and subsequently assimilated almost 1 million people as citizens of the fledgling state. There have been virtually no claims for return or restitution by Jews against Arab governments. The same cannot be said for Israel’s Arab neighbours who used the Palestinians as pawns in their on-going fight, and have kept them in limbo for six decades. There are few original refugees; by far the vast majority of so-called refugees in the camps are second, third and fourth generations, who by rights should have been given citizenship of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. No other cohort of refugees anywhere in the world has been treated as badly and as callously by their host countries as has that of the Palestinians by their Islamic co-religionists.
Since the creation of Israel, UNRWA’s sole purpose has been to care for the Palestinian refugees both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank along with Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Currently, the organization provides assistance to more than 4 million registered Palestinian in 58 refugee camps. Behind these startling statistics are a number of rarely mentioned criticisms of the agency that have contributed to the weeping sore which is the Palestinian refugee question.
The UN, through its High Commissioner for Refugees, already takes care of more than 26 million people globally with a $1.1 billion yearly budget. The UNHCR was established in order to help assimilate the millions of refugees created in the wake of World War II.
On the other hand, the agency established for Palestinians, UNWRA, which cares for one class of refugee alone, constituting only a fifth of the global refugee total, has a budget of nearly $500 million, half that of UNHCR, whilst having five times the number of staff.
Furthermore whilst the United Nation’s main global relief body does not locally hire refugees that it helps because of the danger of politicization and nepotism, UNWRA has no such qualms. Virtually every single employee of UNWRA is appointed and employed from the Palestinian refugee population, with only a scant handful of senior non-Palestinians in managerial positions. The fact that 99% of the 24,324 UNWRA workforce is Palestinian means that UNWRA is one of the main employers in the region, so any settlement of the refugee problem will have the effect of creating massive unemployment. With the lifestyle of so many underwritten by the donors to the UN, it is in UNWRA’s interest for the Palestinian refugee situation to continue into the future.
But such an employment policy leads to more than nepotism. There have been reports of UNWRA ambulances assisting Palestinian terror organisations as troop transports and former UNWRA head Peter Hansen openly stated that he was “sure that there were members of Hamas on UNWRA’s payroll…and I don’t see that as a crime”. Someone has obviously forgotten to inform Mr Hansen that Hamas is an internationally recognised terror organisation that has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
If UNRWA only assisted those Palestinians forced to leave Israel during its wars, the number of refugees would dramatically decrease from 4 million to just fewer than 200,000. The UNHCR’s aim is to decrease the number of refugees in the world whilst UNWRA has ensured that the number of Palestinian refugees increases dramatically. UNWRA has essentially ensured that Palestinians remain as refugees.
No one can deny the suffering of the Palestinian people since the various Arab states rejected a peaceful partition of the land. Whilst UNWRA has not participated in the recent peace talks, their presence is felt with every conversation as the demand for the right of return is constantly touted by the Palestinian delegation, knowing it will be rejected by Israel. If UNWRA was to be disbanded and the Palestinians to be given the same rights as all other refugees, then peace would be significantly closer.
However, this outcome is not favoured by some Arab states in the Middle East who prefer to use the Palestinians as a weapon against Israel. A number of Jordanian Palestinians have recently been stripped of their citizenship and remain in refugee camps whilst Lebanese Palestinians are barred from a significant number of jobs and are denied basic human rights. Because UNWRA does not believe in the assimilation and resettlement of refugees, even those born in other countries, these Palestinians are simply left to live their lives in squalor waiting some sort of resolution.
Israel simply cannot allow the absorption of 4 million Palestinians as it would, quite simply, destroy it. An additional 4 million Palestinians, along with the 1.2 million Arab-Israeli’s, would eliminate the Jewish character of the State as a result of which the world’s only Jewish country would demographically cease to exist. It is a matter of Israel’s national survival not to allow the significant influx of refugees which is why the Israeli government has attempted to create a Palestinian state by its withdrawal from Gaza and its negotiation with the Palestinian Authority. All attempts thus far have failed.
Only by understanding UNWRA’s participation and collaboration in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, will the true character of the issue be resolved.
Raffe Gold is a Political Science graduate and will soon emigrate to live in Israel. He can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/raffeg