The civil war in Syria has produced more than 3.2 million refugees creating an intolerable burden for neighboring countries. With so many languishing in camps, the refugees are beginning to voice frustration with their plight with some seeking to flee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and head to Europe as illegal immigrants. Stepping into the breach is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is seeking to extract pledges from Western nations to accept some of the Syrians for resettlement. Its initial goal is to have these nations permanently take in at least 130,000 Syrians in the next two years. But what is missing from accounts of this effort is the obvious contrast with the other famous refugees in the region, the Palestinians. Unlike the Syrians they won’t be resettled.
That the UNHCR is seeking to find permanent new homes for as many Syrians as they can is unsurprising. That is what this agency has been doing for refugees since its inception in 1950 as it has helped tens of millions of people survive the ordeal of homelessness and then seeks to find new places for them to live and put down roots. While some Syrians are just waiting out the war hoping to return to what’s left of their homes after the fighting eventually stops, many are logically thinking that their best option is to look elsewhere for safety and sustenance. This is normal behavior for any refugee population, but as the world struggles to deal with the human tragedy that is the byproduct of the war that is being fought between the Assad regime, ISIS, and rebel groups, it’s worth comparing the halting and by no means sufficient efforts to help the Syrians with the utter lack of interest in resettling a single Palestinian during the same period that UNHCR has been operating.
Blame for this does not belong to UNHCR, the agency that is responsible for aiding all refugee populations in the world save one: the Palestinians. The Palestinians have their very own UN refugee agency to help them, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. But UNRWA doesn’t resettle anyone. Its purpose is not to solve the Palestinian refugee problem but to perpetuate it.
Though UNRWA operates as if it is a humanitarian agency, its purpose has always been primarily political. The population of Arab refugees from the former Mandate of Palestine was created by the war waged by those acting in the name of those Arabs to strangle the State of Israel at its birth. Rather than accepting the UN partition of the land into what were explicitly called Jewish and Arab states, the Arab and Muslim world chose to wage war to prevent the creation of any Jewish state, no matter how small its territory. With a few exceptions, several hundred thousand refugees fled because of the spread of the war as well as the explicit instructions from some Arab leaders that they flee in order to ease the path of invading Arab armies. When the War of Independence ended with the new Jewish state alive, albeit existing in truncated and unsafe borders, the tactics of Israel’s opponents shifted. From that point on, their efforts sought to highlight the plight of Arabs who had fled in order to promote a military or diplomatic attempt to continue the war. Indeed, even as Syrian refugees in camps in neighboring nations are allowed to resettle elsewhere, Palestinians still stuck in Syrian refugee camps remain in place unable and unwilling to budge from the site of their misery.
The result of this policy was not merely to render all efforts to make peace between Israel and the Arab world impossible; it also ensured that the Palestinians would live in misery in increasing numbers and growing squalor. At the same time, a nearly equal number of Jews were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world as pogroms and discrimination made their plight intolerable. But while UNRWA kept the Palestinians in place to suffer, Jewish groups ensured that their refugees would not suffer in this manner and all were resettled in Israel or the West.
This is a familiar story. The world ignores the legacy of the Jewish refugees who deserve compensation for their losses every bit as much as the descendants of those Arabs who were displaced in 1948. At the same time the Palestinian refugees remain an immovable obstacle to any peace settlement since they have been told endlessly that they will go back to their old homes (or those of their parents and grandparents) in what was once Palestine. Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas’s recent embrace of the right of return makes it clear that no Palestinian leader will dare make peace with Israel since they are wedded to a “right of return” which is synonymous with the destruction of a Jewish state.
While we wish good luck to the UNHCR in their gargantuan task of aiding and resettling Syrian refugees, the lesson here is that treating the Palestinians differently from other such populations has come at a perilously high price in suffering to those involved.