As the United States tries again to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the key sticking points in any such negotiation is getting some much-needed scrutiny in a United Nations forum this week. As Israel Hayom reports, a UN panel will discuss an effort to revise the rules under which the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operates. The pending debate is the result of an initiative pushed by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Judges and seeks to redefine who can be considered a Palestinian refugee and therefore a recipient of UNRWA’s largesse. While those made homeless by other conflicts are only considered refugees if they personally lost their homes, under current rules anyone descended from someone who fled the British Mandate of Palestine or the territory of the newborn State of Israel during the Jewish state’s War of Independence is eligible for refugee status. Thus, while the refugees of every other conflict or dislocation have ultimately all been resettled, only the Palestinians remain homeless, a tactic endorsed by their leaders and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world in order to keep the war against Israel alive.
While the chances that the UN will act on this issue are virtually non-existent, this discussion not only calls attention to UNRWA’s misguided policies but also highlights an issue that is one of the chief obstacles to peace. Though UNRWA is tasked with helping the Palestinians and is, for lack of a Palestinian government or groups dedicated to providing their people with a path to a better life, their primary source of sustenance, it actually plays a central role in their continued victimization.
The Palestinians have a unique status in the world of the UN. While all other refugees are handled by a single organization, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians have their own UN agency in UNRWA. But unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA’s goal is not to resettle the refugees and help them build new lives. UNRWA’s purpose has always been to keep them in place, living in squalid camps that long ago were transformed in concrete cities where they remain waiting for the day when they will “go home” to a Palestine that hasn’t existed for 66 years. Thus, rather than help the refugees to adjust to reality, UNRWA’s policies have dovetailed nicely with a Palestinian political identity that regards accommodation to Israel’s existence as tantamount to treason. The Palestinian belief in a “right of return” for not just the original Arabs who totaled a few hundred thousand but for the millions who claim to be their descendants is only made possible by UNRWA’s willingness to go on counting second, third, fourth, and now even fifth generations of Palestinians as refugees.
One aspect of this problem is the sheer inconsistency of international standards with regards to different kinds of refugees. In 1948, the Palestinians were counting on defeating and/or wiping out the Jewish community in the Mandate and therefore rejected the UN partition resolution that would have created the independent Palestinian state they now clamor for. Were they treated like other groups whose leaders gambled on aggression and lost—the millions of Germans who were brutally forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe come to mind after 1945—the Palestinians would have been helped to find new homes in the rest of the Arab world. Instead they were kept in place to continue to fuel the war against the one Jewish state in the world. Significantly, the roughly equal numbers of Jews who fled or were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after 1948 were given no such sympathy or UN aid. Those refugees were resettled in Israel and the West by Jewish groups and are now ignored when talk turns to restitution for the Middle East conflict.
Aside from the double standard here, the net effect of this policy is that in doing so UNRWA is serving to fuel the conflict rather than to seek its solution. UNRWA’s manifold problems—including education programs that foment hate against Israel and employees who aid terrorists—are well known. But so long as the Palestinians believe they have the support of the world in their effort to undo the verdict of the war they launched in 1948, the millions who call themselves refugees will never give up their goal of eradicating Israel’s existence. During the last 15 years the Palestinians have rejected three offers of independence and peace from Israel as well as walking away from a fourth such initiative this year. It’s clear the leaders of the Palestinian Authority do not think they have the support of their people for any treaty that will recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist no matter where its borders are drawn.
Rather than focus on forcing Israel to make more concessions that will endanger its security, those who wish to promote peace should focus their efforts on institutions like UNRWA that made a resolution of the conflict impossible. While it might be asking too much of a United Nations that is still rife with corruption and anti-Semitism to do the right thing on this issue, it is vital that the effort be made to change UNRWA before its actions help create more generations of angry refugees bent on destroying Israel. As much as the Israelis, the Palestinians would benefit from such a reform.