The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a budget problem, and as a result its workers are on strike. As the New York Times reports, that’s bad news for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank who depend on the UN agency for food, services, and employment. But the controversy over the impact of the strike and the refugees’ demands for the Palestinian Authority to step in and pick up where the UN left off doesn’t address the heart of their problem. Instead of arguing over who should take care of them, the Palestinians should be seeking the same resolution that has successfully solved every other refugee problem since the Second World War: resettlement. Instead, they have been allowed to languish in camps to keep the war against Israel alive, doing far more injury to themselves than they have ever done to the Israelis.
The curious thing about the dispute between the refugees and the PA is that while the former demand that the corrupt Palestinian government take care of them while UNRWA is on strike, they are resolutely against being governed by it. Doing so would mean giving up their special status as refugees and taking up the more prosaic identity of Palestinian Arabs living on the territory of the putative independent Palestinian state that, while already recognized by some governments, doesn’t yet exist. Leaving the camps would mean a better life, either in the West Bank or elsewhere. But it would also entail giving up their precious fiction that the descendants of the Arabs who fled the land of what is now Israel will someday return to it and thus erase the Jewish state. Rather than do that, they prefer to stay where they are, living in poverty and condemning each subsequent generation to a futile and destructive quest that makes any peace agreement impossible. Instead of demanding more funding for UNRWA in order to continue to maintain the shaky welfare state operating in the West Bank, Gaza, and other refugee camps around the region, those who actually care about the welfare of the Palestinians should advocate instead for its dissolution.
The Times report paints a fairly accurate picture of the systemic chaos of Palestinian society. According to Palestinian population figures, fully 740,000 of the 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank call themselves refugees. These figures are notoriously unreliable since both the refugees and other Palestinian groups have a financial and political incentive to inflate the estimates of their population. But even if we were to accept these numbers as accurate, the current Palestinian refugee population is primarily a function of a political decision undertaken by Arab governments and the leadership of the Palestinians to keep them trapped in camps so they can continue to be used as pawns in the never-ending propaganda war against Israel. Since 1945, wars have created tens of millions of refugees around the world. All, with the sole exception of the Palestinians, are served by a single UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And almost all, including the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries who were forced to flee their homes after 1948, have been resettled in new ones. But only the Palestinians, for whom UNRWA was specifically created, were not given the aid they needed to develop skills and get on with their lives.
The fault for this decades-long scandal lies principally with the Arab states. Not one has sought to absorb the refugees created by the war of aggression launched by the Arab world against the new Jewish state in 1948. Worse than that, the refugees were not allowed to leave the camps and denied the opportunity to acquire citizenship in any of the Arab countries in which they resided. That was also the case with Egypt and Jordan, the nations that governed, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 when the Arab and Muslim world refused to advocate the creation of a Palestinian state in those territories. Instead, their goal was to eradicate the Jewish state that existed inside the truncated borders created by the 1949 armistice agreements that ended Israel’s War of Independence.
But the refugees and the Palestinian political movements themselves also bear a great deal of the blame for the fact that the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees are stuck in exactly the same predicament as their forebears. A case in point is provided by the Times in its interview with Mai Abd al-Razzaq, a 49-year-old Palestinian seeking services from UNRWA.
Asked about a solution for the refugee problem, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq laughed and said: “It is impossible to return.” But she added: “We insist on return. We don’t want to give up our rights. We will leave it for the generations to come. We don’t want our grandchildren to say we sold out the land.”
Others made the same counter-productive point, eschewing any solution but a “return,” which is tantamount to a demand for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and a preservation of a conflict for which they send out new generations of children to goad or to engage in violent exchanges with Israelis. Seen in that light, the answer to their problems is not more money for UNRWA and its employees nor for a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in helping them. The only answer is the abolition of UNRWA and its replacement by an agency dedicated to giving Palestinians the same resettlement help other refugees have received. Until that happens, the refugees—still the driving force of Palestinian politics—will ensure peace with Israel can never be achieved.