Exile: voices of loss and longing – and hate
Neirab, Syria’s largest official camp for Palestinian refugees
By Noah Browning, Reuters
BETHLEHEM – Three generations of Palestinians displaced by the founding of Israel in 1948 know only life in U.N. refugee camps, going to schools beneath the blue-and-white U.N. flag and drawing their food stocks from U.N. warehouses.
For these Palestinians whose long-cherished goal is “right of return” to the lands they lost 64 years ago, the camps must be seen as temporary no matter how permanent they might seem to others.
Which explains why the latest programme by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to upgrade the camps’ dilapidated facilities is such a delicate operation.
The United Nations and other agencies have been providing essential services in the camps for decades without implementing permanent institutions, but say the time has come to do more for the growing populations of residents.
“People have a right to be proud of where they are…,” said Sandi Hilal, the director of UNRWA’s carefully named “camp improvement program” in the West Bank, adding that providing just basic needs “is not enough when we consider people have been living in a place for 60 years”.
“Improving the daily life of refugees doesn’t jeopardize their right to return back home. Living in dignity is the main goal of the improvement program,” she said.
Some 700,000 people fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was created after the 1948 war, but now as many as five million refugees and their descendants live in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, many of them in squalid camps.
Founded in 1949, UNRWA is almost as old as the U.N. itself. Given that prospects for a resolution to Israel’s disputes in the Middle East continue to be dismal, it appears to have a long future ahead.
With the help of German government funding, the agency is improving health clinics, sanitation and advanced education in coordination with local committees in five camps in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and two in Jordan.
Clinging to hope
The 13,000 residents of Bethlehem’s Deheishe camp, a warren of cinder block hovels clogged with traffic and electrical wires, are a focus of UNRWA’s efforts.
The agency leased the site months after some 2,000 original refugees quit towns and villages around Jerusalem in 1949.
The fate of refugees clinging to the right of return has been one of the toughest issues facing negotiators in two decades of on-off talks aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel says the demand for a right to return is a deal breaker in any peace accord, arguing that allowing the refugees into Israel would increase the proportion of Palestinian Arabs living within its borders and thus undermine its nature as a Jewish state.
It also disputes the legal basis of the right of return set out in a U.N. resolution of December 1948 and says the world has not taken into account the plight of Jews forced from their homes across the Arab world in the last 65 years.
Peace talks have been frozen since 2010, with the Palestinians saying they will not re-engage until there is a halt to Jewish settlement building in the occupied territories.
The dejection found in Deheishe has not been reversed by the UNRWA plan to improve it or by the work of 20 non-governmental organisations in its one-km-square area.
As walls turned from felt to cinder block over decades, houses squashed together, pushing community life out into the surreally narrow streets. With no parks for children to play in and few jobs to keep youths busy, people of all ages mingle in its crowded alleyways.
“Standards of living here are plunging,” lamented part-time labourer Othman Abu Omar, puffing idly on a cigarette.
“We hope one day to be done with dependence. Everybody should depend on himself,” he said.
Hoping “to disappear”
Some residents complain that the decades of U.N. sponsorship have amounted to nothing more than charity, without addressing the underlying political cause of their plight.
“We’ve gotten health and basic services, but there is no end to the crisis,” said Habis al-Aisa, a camp dweller whose family hails from Zakariyya, a town in what is now central Israel.
“We’re refugees, and the U.N. should be totally responsible for our needs and our situation, because our status is an international political issue.”
The United Nations recognises as refugees those who registered with UNRWA after fleeing their homes and their descendants. They are covered by the U.N. resolutions and eligible to receive the agency’s services even if not resident in the camps, but not if they attain citizenship or asylum in another country.
Historically weak and cash-strapped governments in Palestinian-governed Gaza and the West Bank have provided little in the way of infrastructure or subsidies to the camps or their inhabitants. Many remain in the camps for lack of better options.
UNRWA is the only U.N. organization devoted to the refugee problem of a single people. Its spokesman, Chris Gunness, said it has no set policy on where the refugees are to go, or how the Middle East crisis might end.
“UNRWA would like nothing more than to disappear and not be needed anymore. It provides services pending a just and durable solution to the conflict,” he said.
The agency’s current improvement scheme, subsidized by 19.5 million euros from the German government, stresses close coordination with local parties.
A gleaming new clinic aims to provide services to sufferers of diabetes and hypertension, which afflicts around a sixth of refugees in the West Bank, who previously had few options for treatment.
Living conditions will be improved by shoring up collapsing houses, mending roofs and improving sewage and trash collection.
In a college-level education program, dubbed the “House of Wisdom” after a Baghdad library in the Islamic golden age, young camp dwellers choose their own curriculum and are visited by guest lecturers in small, Socratic learning circles.
“194, 242, 338,” student Alaa al-Homuz rattles in staccato, naming U.N. Security Council resolutions dealing with Palestinian refugees which he is studying in a class on international law.
These students disagreed that improving the conditions in the camps would interfere with the concept of the right of return or dull their determination to return to their ancestral homes.
“When you live better and have your essential needs met, it leads to a better way of thinking and to finding better strategies to get our rights,” al-Homuz said.
Brussels —At a major international conference convened by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), there have been high-profile calls on the international community to support the UN agency that works for Palestine refugees.
At a two-day meeting in Brussels, Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, said, “We are gathered here because we have recognised the potential of the youth of Palestine. Against all the odds, they continue to learn, to work, to dream and aspire to a better future.”
The conference in Brussels was attended by over 400 delegates who heard speeches on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. The Belgian Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, and his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh, also spoke. Ronan Farrow, the youth adviser of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, also participated.
“Over the coming years,” Ashton continued, “the EU will continue providing support to UNRWA’s General Fund as the Agency makes progress in its reform process. We believe that UNRWA is essential to the development and well-being of all the Palestine refugees and we believe that it needs strong support, financial support from all the parties that are able to do that.”
Echoing Ashton’s call, Nabil El-Araby, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, urged the international community to pay attention to the rapidly-shifting reality of Palestine refugees by investing in youth.
If current trends continue, there will be 1.5 million young Palestine refugees between the ages of 15 and 29 by 2020, about one-quarter of whom are likely to be unemployed.
“There is no doubt that we are at a critical juncture. The intersection of forces — political uprisings, conflict, the rise of social media, the unprecedented numbers of young people, economic uncertainty — have all created volatility, and at the same time, great potential,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi.
“For refugee youth, the broader transformations amplify the profound stresses of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian situation, of the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, of rights often violated or not granted, of the vulnerability and anxiety generated by lives in exile in a region plagued by repeated conflicts, even as we speak. At the same time, young people across the region have proven that they are not ready to give up – that in spite of all odds — they have hope.
UNRWA provides assistance, protection and advocacy for nearly five million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight. The Agency’s services encompass education, primary health care, poverty alleviation for the poorest of the poor, camp infrastructure and improvement, community support, microfinance, and emergency and humanitarian response, including in times of armed conflict.
By Jennifer Rubin, Right Turn, Washington Post
There are many reasons to detest the United Nations. It treats proponents of genocide as legitimate world leaders. It is among the most anti-Semitic institutions on the planet. By inaction it has contributed to mass atrocities in Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Syria. Its oil for food program made Bernie Madoff look like a Boy Scout and feathered the nest of human rights abuser Saddam Hussein.
Now Cliff May alerts us to another reason for wondering if we (the Western world) would be better off without the U.N.: It perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Palestinians’ misery. May explains that unlike other refugees (whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees oversees), Palestinians were assigned to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which deals exclusively with the Palestinians. As one might imagine, bad things ensued :
In 1950, UNRWA defined a refugee as someone who had “lost his home and his means of livelihood” during the war launched by Arab/Muslim countries in response to Israel’s declaration of independent statehood. Fifteen years later, UNRWA decided — against objections from the United States — to include as refugees the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who left Israel. And in 1982, UNRWA further extended eligibility to all subsequent generations of descendants — forever.
Under UNRWA’s rules, even if the descendant of a Palestinian refugee has become a citizen of another state, he’s still a refugee. For example, of the 2 million refugees registered in Jordan, all but 167,000 hold Jordanian citizenship. (In fact, approximately 80 percent of Jordan’s population is Palestinian — not surprising, since Jordan occupies more than three-fourths of the area historically referred to as Palestine.) By adopting such a policy, UNRWA is flagrantly violating the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states clearly that a person shall cease to be considered a refugee if he has “acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.” . . .
According to UNHCR projections, by 2030 UNRWA’s refugee list will reach 8.5 million. By 2060 there will be 25 times the number registered by UNRWA in 1950 — even though not one of those who actually left Israel is likely to still be breathing.
The point of this charade is clear. May observes, “By increasing the number of refugees, by maintaining that population in poverty, dependence, and anger, by understanding that the ‘right of return’ will be demanded by some Palestinian leaders, UNRWA is helping the extremists to prevent peace and continue to wage a war of annihilation against Israel. This anti-peace policy is being funded largely by Americans: We’ve always been the largest donor to UNRWA, contributing about $4.4 billion since 1950.”
As May notes, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is trying to do something about it. A Kirk spokesman explained to me, “Senator Kirk believes U.S. taxpayers deserve to know whether their money is being used to provide relief to actual Palestinian refugees or to perpetuate a conflict narrative while subsidizing a welfare society in the West Bank and Gaza. As a long-time advocate for UNRWA accountability, Senator Kirk’s proposal seeks basic truth in accounting from Foggy Bottom.”
Kirk has therefore requested language in the State Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that would do two things. First, it would, as a matter of U.S. policy, define a Palestinian refugee as a person whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, who currently does not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who is not a citizen of any other state. Second, it would require the secretary of State to report on the number of Palestinian refugees (as defined above) eligible to receive UNRWA services; the number of residents of the Palestinian Authority living in the West Bank and Gaza who are expected to become citizens of a future Palestinian state and who are eligible to receive UNRWA services; the number of citizens of other countries eligible to receive UNRWA services; and steps being taken to incorporate U.S. policy into the annual Framework for Cooperation between UNRWA and the United States government.
In essence, Kirk wants to call an end U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare in the West Bank and Gaza that directly undermines the objectives of building a Palestinian state capable of providing basic services for its own citizens. If Palestinian leaders want to undertake “statehood building,” (a big “if”) they need to be held accountable for their residents who should, but do not now, receive basic services from the Palestinian Authority rather than UNRWA. And taxpayers should stop helping to magnify and indeed exaggerate the Palestinian refu¬gee problem.
You have to wonder why this has been allowed to go on for so long. Might it be that the Islamic states and their partners in the nonaligned movement (who combined hold the majority of seats in the General Assembly) don’t want a resolution of the Palestinian issue? Hmm. It just might be that perpetuation of that conflict and using it to beat the U.S. and Israel over the head are their real aims. In that, they are certainly “succeeding.”¬
India’s ‘lost tribe’ dreams of ‘return’ to Israel
CHURACHANDPUR (India): In a synagogue in northeast India, a group of men pray for the chance to “return home” to a country they have never seen and which their ancestors fled nearly 3,000 years ago.
“India is not our country,” says Haniel Reuben, 72, one of the eldest members of a tiny community that claims to have descended from the Manasseh — one of the biblical “lost tribes” of Israel exiled in 720 BC by Assyrian conquerors.
“Our forefathers migrated and settled here. Our home is Israel and we will be reunited with our people one day or another,” Reuben said.
The Bnei Menashe, as the community is known, comprise around 7,200 members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe who live in the northeast Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur near the border with Myanmar.
Their oral history tells of a centuries-long exodus through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and China, all the while adhering to certain Jewish religious practices, like circumcision.
In India they were converted to Christianity by 19th century missionaries and, in reading the bible, recognised stories from their own traditions that convinced them they actually belonged to the Jewish faith.
“We are the lost tribe,” insists Reuben, who lives in a ramshackle two-storey wooden home set against a scenic background of the misty, ash-coloured Manipuri foothills.
A lunisolar Jewish calendar hangs on the wall of his living room, while a mezuzah, or parchment, with verses from the Torah is fixed to the front door frame of the house in Manipur’s state capital Imphal.
He prays three times a day with his eyes facing west “towards Jerusalem.” LOST AND FOUND: The ancestral claims of the Bnei Menashe — rejected by other members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo — began to draw attention in the 1980s from Jewish organisations dedicated to identifying “lost Jews.” In the late 1990s, groups of Bnei Menashe were brought to Israel where they formally converted and settled.
But the real breakthrough came in 2005 when Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar officially recognised the entire community as “descendants of Israel” — a crucial step in securing their “right of return.” The process was halted by new Israeli government policy in 2007, but last July the Ministerial Committee on Immigration and Absorption, agreed to the return of the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe.
“It is a huge project,” said Yochanan Phaltual, the Indian representative for Shavei Israel, an Israeli-based organisation that reaches out to descendants of Jews around the world.
“It is very complicated as it requires the involvement of all government departments,” Phaltual said.
The head of Shavei Israel, Michael Freund, who has lobbied hard for years on behalf of the Bnei Menashe, said he was confident the immigration would finally happen.
“This is simply a bureaucratic process, and like all bureaucratic processes, it takes time,” Freund said in an e-mail.
“I hope that we will soon hear good news, and that the Bnei Menashe will be allowed to return to the land of their ancestors.”
MIXED IDENTITY: Living as a tiny minority poses numerous problems for people like Talya Bem, a 45-year-old widow and mother of three, particularly when it comes to observing orthodox customs and rituals.
“I was born as a Jew,” Bem says. “I live in India but my heart is in Israel.
“I want to go there as soon as possible. We can’t follow all the commandments of the Torah here,” she adds tearfully, comforted by her 18-year-old daughter, dressed smartly in a long black skirt and purple top.
According to Phaltual, Bnei Menashe families almost never go out to eat in local restaurants or buy food from street vendors.
“Nothing is kosher here. All the eateries serve pork and we fear that our food will get mixed up with that,” he said.
Manipur has a primarily agrarian economy and is one of the least developed states in India — one of only five with a per capita income of less than 30,000 rupees ($600).
But Phaltual bristles at the suggestion that the Bnei Menashe are motivated less by religious feeling and more by the prospect of a more comfortable, material life in Israel.
“Most of our community is well-settled. It is a very wrong conception that economic considerations have fuelled our dream of return,” he said.
Phaltual and Reuben both converted to Judaism in the 1990s.
“We studied the Bible the way Christians do,” Reuben said. “But slowly as we grew up, we started discussing how some of our customs matched with the tradition followed by ancient Israelites.”
PREPARING FOR THE RETURN: At the Churachandpur synagogue, which boasts a small “mikveh” or pond used for ritual purification, Shlomo Haokip, 26, has been giving Hebrew classes for the past four years to help people prepare for life in Israel.
“Knowing Hebrew is one of the pre-requisites for formal conversion to Judaism in Israel,” said Haokip, who lives with his family in the premises of the synagogue in Churachandpur town, 60 kms from Imphal. “I hold classes for children during the summer vacation. We also organise Hebrew learning camps every now and then. It’s a difficult language, and even I am not an expert. But once I go to Israel, I will become more fluent.” Some Bnei Menashe are less sanguine about the issue of return, and feel impatient about the delays in the immigration process and the religious and bureaucratic hoops they feel forced to jump through.
“The British baptised us during their rule of the country and we corrected the mistake by taking up Judaism again,” said 31-year-old Moses, who gave just one name.—