UN to blame for keeping Palestinians as refugees

June 8, 2012
Sarah Benton

For previous coverage of this issue see:Palestinian refugee problem solved at a vote

Palestinians: Refugees forever?

The UN looks after millions who are classified as refugees, minimizing incentives to solve the Palestinian refugee issue and constituting an obstacle to future peace negotiations.

By Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, Haaretz

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed the Kirk Amendment as part of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2013. The bill requires the State Department to specify to Congress, for the first time, what proportion of the five million Palestinians who are supported by UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, are refugees who were actually displaced from their homes and what number are descendant of those refugees.

Every year, a sum of $240 million of US public is channeled to the assistance of Palestinian refugees via UNRWA. The Kirk Amendment challenges the notion that being a Palestinian refugee can be passed down through the generations, and thereby questions the ever-expanding numbers of Palestinians that are UNRWA’s target group. The original proposal by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), would have made personal displacement from one’s home necessarily for the definition “refugee” as well as the absence of any other citizenship.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and company should be commended for their sincere efforts to tackle one if not the main ingredients that ensures and exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UNRWA claims that its services will no longer be needed when there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is UNRWA – set up as a temporary agency – that advocates an unending narrative of occupation and a perpetuation of refugee-hood.

UNRWA is an open-ended educational social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But in what sense are any of these individuals truly refugees, those who should fall within UNRWA’s remit?

Publicly, UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” In reality UNRWA has continually expanded the definition to include “the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA’s operations, and (c) in need.” The best estimates are that perhaps 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-1949. By UNRWA’s accounting, however, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions.

This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades. The result of this 60 year long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to ever end its operations.

UNRWA states that the Palestinians are occupied – indefinitely. UNRWA has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. Of the 30,000 people that UNRWA employs, the vast majority are Palestinian: UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Contrast this to the UN High Commission for Refugees, that only employs 5-6,000 people globally, and which focuses far more clearly on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees and building new lives, and not on maintaining services that prop up the status quo.

In 2009, then U.S. Congressmen Mark Kirk (R – IL) and Steve Rothman (D – NJ) introduced provisions for UNRWA Accountability into appropriations bills. They called for transparency and responsibility from UNRWA and sought to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United States did not fund acts of terrorism in any way, thereby bringing the funding of Palestinians into compliance with the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The provisions died in committee.

Now, for the first time, Israeli politicians are proposing that UNRWA adopt limits on the numbers of refugees it serves. Inspired by Kirk, Israeli MK Einat Wilf (Independence) has launched a new, international parliamentary campaign to restructure UNRWA and “combat the inflation of numbers of refugees” in order to make a two-state solution possible. Wilf has called for the international community to address the continual inflation in refugee numbers, and plans to appeal to parliamentary committees that are responsible for approving budget contributions to UNRWA.

It is long past the time that limits should be set on the never-ending expansion of Palestinian refugees. With initiatives in play in the US Congress and internationally addressing the core of UNRWA’s rationale and operations, there is finally a possibility that the international community can take a serious look at UNRWA’s role in helping perpetuate the Palestinian refugee number question, which will have a decisive role in any future negotiations towards a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a historian and writer in New York.

Wilf to ambassadors: UNRWA an obstacle to peace
MK launches international parliamentary campaign to restructure Palestinian refugee agency

By Lahav Harkov, JPost

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the peace process, MK Einat Wilf (Independence) said at a meeting with 65 ambassadors and senior diplomats from around the world in Bar-Ilan University on Tuesday night.

Wilf launched a new, international parliamentary campaign to restructure UNRWA and “combat the inflation of numbers of refugees” to make a two-state solution possible.

“When I hear a Palestinian say that there is a ‘right of return’ into the sovereign State of Israel, I question whether they want peace and accept the idea of a two-state solution that includes a state for Jews and a state for Arabs,” Wilf explained at a Bar-Ilan University Ambassador’s Forum discussion on UNRWA.

“Only UNRWA grants an unparalleled automatic hereditary refugee status,” she added.

Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which deals with all refugees that are not Palestinian, UNRWA provides services to the descendants of refugees of the 1948 War of Independence, thus increasing the amount of refugees reported each year.

Wilf called for the international community to address the inflation in refugee numbers, and plans to appeal to parliamentary committees that are responsible for approving budget contributions to UNRWA.

Her proposal is for those committees to move funding to UNRWA from core funding, for general purposes, to targeted funding, for specific purposes.

For example, Wilf said, if Gaza is indisputably part of a future Palestinian state, a baby born in Gaza today should not be considered a refugee. Donor countries could continue to fund hospitals, schools and welfare in Gaza, but the aid should not be connected to refugee status, rather need.

The Independence chairwoman also accused UNRWA of undermining efforts to bolster the Palestinian Authority as the future government of a Palestinian state, and suggested that funds directed towards UNRWA programs in the West Bank be transferred to the PA to strengthen its future state.

In addition, Wilf called for UNRWA programs in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan be merged with those of the UNHCR.

Once these steps are implemented, she explained, the amount of refugees will be “deflated,” and lowered to approximately 30,000.

According to Wilf, the “real number” will pave the way for a two-state solution, in that “even a right-wing government” could accept those refugees into Israel, if they agree to live in peace with their neighbors.

A number of the diplomats present, who hail from six continents, opposed Wilf’s proposal that these steps be taken before a final peace agreement, saying that core issues must be dealt with via negotiations.

The MK, however, said that if the process is not inverted, negotiations are much less likely to be successful.

Campaigners strategize refugee return during South Africa visit

Nora Barrows-Friedman, The Electronic Intifada

Berkeley—In February, a delegation of activists and scholars working on the Palestinian right of return came together in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss the practicalities of return, 64 years and counting since the forced expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48. Participants also learned from South Africa’s experience of implementing its return of internally-displaced Blacks after White minority rule officially ended in the mid-1990s.

Delegates were affiliated with Badil, the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Center for Residency and Refugee Rights, and Zochrot, the Israeli anti-Zionist organization dedicated to educating the Israeli public about the Nakba (the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the 1940s) and the right of return. Following the workshops in Cape Town, delegates worked on discussion papers on the right of return, which have been published in Badil’s English-language quarterly magazine, al-Majdal.

Hazem Jamjoum, a delegate to Cape Town and the editor of al-Majdal, was interviewed by Nora Barrows-Friedman for The Electronic Intifada.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Talk about your visit to Cape Town. What were the intentions and expectations of working in collaboration with Badil and Zochrot against the physical and historical backdrop of South Africa’s struggle against racism, colonialism andapartheid?

Hazem Jamjoum: For years now, South African apartheid has been one of the most important comparison cases used both to understand and explain Israel’s regime over Palestinians. A central part of the South African struggle, one that’s usually not talked about, is that mass forced displacement was central to the South African apartheid regime.

The difference between the South African experience and ours in Palestine is that displacement in South Africa was almost completely internal, in the sense that millions of Blacks classified into different racial groups under the law were forcibly removed from areas zoned for other racial groups under the Group Areas Act, or outright carted off to theBantustans — that is, they were not expelled from the country. Most of Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians has been external, beyond the borders of territories that came under Israel’s control.

The reason for this difference is at the core of the difference between these two versions of apartheid: the South African version was based on an institutional segregation where Blacks would be concentrated in the reserves/Bantustans, policed by their own native authorities for the purpose of reproducing an army of cheap labor for white South African business. The Israeli version incorporates some of these aspects (especially these days with the Palestinian Authority policing Palestinian reserves), but Palestinian labor, while used as a cheap labor force especially in the 1970s and 80s and still until this day although less so, was never central to Israeli apartheid.

Israeli apartheid is used as a means of continuing the forced displacement of Palestinians, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the maximum of Palestinian land is under exclusive Jewish-Zionist control, and that the minimum of Palestinians remain on that land.

This said, because forced removals were so rampant (and central) to the South African regime of apartheid, the struggle against South African apartheid, like the Palestinian struggle, was also a struggle for return of the displaced and a struggle to get back the stolen land. It was this experience, the experience of actual return since South Africa’s liberation in 1994, and the lessons that South African activists had drawn from return that we hoped people would share with us to help us develop our vision for what our return could look like, and maybe some of the things we should stress or avoid.

NBF: What were some of the most meaningful and strategically-important discussions and plans that came out of the workshops?

HJ: I think all of them were very meaningful and important. I can speak the most about the part that I was most involved in, which was the discussion on reparations. The other two main topic areas were on the various aspects of the work needed in preparation of the return of Palestinian refugees and on attempts to propose mechanisms, processes and ideas for the post-colonial and transitional stage in Palestine involving things like reconciliation, justice and trauma healing that we learned a lot about in Cape Town, as well as really interesting discussions on “de-Zionizing” things like culture and education.

The reparations discussion started off as a discussion on restitution, which is a legal term for getting back something that was wrongfully taken from you. I think the shift from a discussion of restitution to one on the broader notion of reparations was significant in itself. NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and “rights based” discussions on the right of return focus on restitution because it is really strong in international law and integral to the right of return. The reason it’s so strong is because international law is largely premised on a capitalist world order, so the right to property is held to be almost as sacred as the right to life. If someone takes your property, and the law doesn’t do anything about it, capitalism can’t function; it falls apart (of course this may apply in law but not in practice if the one stealing your property is the representative of global capital and empire in your neighborhood).

The right to restitution was made a constitutional right in South Africa, and it kind of became the central axis for post-apartheid reparations, and people who’ve been following the reparations process in South Africa have come to see this as a problem.

I can explain the problem using Palestinian examples. A Palestinian village depopulated by Zionist forces in 1948 that had, let’s say, 1,000 inhabitants would now have tens of thousands of Palestinians who want to return to it as their home. If we think only in terms of restitution, only those who owned property before they were displaced would have a strong claim for restitution; and even that claim would have to be divided up between all the heirs of the refugee landowner who initially had title to the land.

So we’d end up with a massive majority of returning refugees who would be completely landless, a minority who would end up with small bits of land divided between their siblings and cousins, and a very tiny minority, the descendants of the biggest landlords, who would have land that you could do something with. (Rich refugees would also have an upper hand with things like access to top lawyers and resources to ensure they got the most out of a restitution process.)

Another aspect of the discussion was that if the focus was just on land and property, you could end up destroying things like productive farms, factories, et cetera that would be essential for ensuring that returning refugees can live off the resources of their stolen land; you could also end up turning the lands of once beautiful villages into concrete jungles the way Israeli settlements violate the landscape wherever you look in the West Bank today.

Some of the other discussions focused on the fate of Israeli settlers and occupants on Palestinian lands and in Palestinian houses. This is a particularly thorny issue because it would contradict everything our struggle stands for if we take the position that we have to throw people out of where they live.

The South African experience was one where the government and the market acted as the mediators, the government would try to see what price the White occupant would accept to sell the property, and if it could be done, the state bought the property and gave it back to its rightful owners. This ended up, to some degree, rewarding perpetrators of apartheid, diverting important state funds for individual cases, and creating a kind of reliance on the government that has many Black activists today describing it as a “nanny state.”

Related to all of this was that the transition from racial apartheid in South Africa, although being a major victory for peoples’ struggles everywhere, hasn’t changed much of what is a clear case of economic apartheid. Blacks made up the lower classes, and today the areas that were for “Blacks only,” are for “poor only” so it feels like it hasn’t really changed much. Black people can walk round the rich areas without being asked for their IDs, and if they’ve been part of the very few who’ve joined the middle or upper class they can buy property and live in these areas (although the only Black folks I saw in these areas were domestic workers walking white folks’ dogs or babysitting their children), and we didn’t see any White folks in the townships other than tourists with very expensive cameras (eerily reminiscent of what goes on in places like Palestinian refugee camps).

Some of our most meaningful discussions with South African activists were about the struggle going on in South Africa today against the different aspects of the ongoing economic apartheid like poverty, landlessness, evictions, anti-migrant xenophobia and how the post-apartheid transition was largely managed by major corporations, the IMF and the World Bank, and how this has contributed to some of the failures of the return process.

This was why so much of our discussion focused on redistribution, refugees leading the process of how we want our communities to look and operate, how we think we can make sure people can have a decent life after we return, and not just be the poor and unemployed class of a post-facelift Israel.

NBF: Talk about the implementation of the right of return — its feasibility and what the first step is. How are organizations such as Badil and Zochrot working on a practical level to realize the right of return?

HJ: Essentially all the work of Badil and Zochrot is for the implementation of the right of return, so if I was to list these things I’d sound a little bit like the “about” page on their websites. I can’t speak so much for Zochrot, which does amazing work on breaking the Zionist taboo on opening up discussions on the Nakba and the centrality of refugee return. Badil works on several levels including advocacy at the UN and other international forums, education activity among Palestinian activists and especially younger people, doing the research and documentation work that supports much of the right of return movement. Both organizations are heavily involved in mobilization and activism as part of the return movement, and Badil is particularly invested in the campaigns for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as one of the ways to support the different aspects of the Palestinian struggle.

In terms of feasibility, the issue of refugee return has never been about a lack of space or resources. It’s political. Israel was founded on the idea of being a Jewish-democratic state, which means a democratic system that requires a Jewish demographic majority that could only be achieved by ensuring that the actual native majority is excluded from the political system, much like the way South Africa was a democratic system for Whites that required that the native majority be excluded. Israel achieved this in two ways, the first by expelling and not allowing the native population to be physically present to participate in this democracy, and second by ensuring that Palestinians in the part of Palestine occupied in 1967 have been excluded from the political system by keeping them under occupation.

Israel has been able to keep this going through a combination of military force, international support and integration into the global economy, as well as continually growing domestic support and participation in the continuation of the Israeli apartheid regime that maintains Jewish privilege; and a Palestinian “partner for peace” that allows Israel to deflect any criticism through a combination of blaming Palestinians for not doing enough and the ability to point to the ongoing “peace process” charade that acts as a smokescreen for ongoing Israeli crimes.

So the struggle for return and the struggle for the liberation of Palestine are one and the same, a struggle to be re-included by physically returning and being part of the political system — which we think of as a struggle to get our country and land back — by undermining each of the pillars of Israeli power that enable it to maintain itself as an apartheid regime. The first steps in this struggle have already been taken, the point now is to ensure that it grows to the point where it is able to achieve its goals, and to ensure that it is not co-opted along the way in the way that it has been in the past.

NBF: After the work that was done to address all of this in Cape Town, what’s the next step? What are you looking forward to, or are most concerned about?

HJ: Regarding the Cape Town discussion documents, I just hope people will read and discuss them. There have always been two main tendencies in the Palestinian struggle, and these aren’t two groups of people, they exist to varying degrees in every one of us. One tendency dreams of kicking out the colonizer in the way that anti-colonial movements in the past fifty years have done in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere. This is the strand that grows stronger every time Israel commits a massacre or an atrocity, every time an Israeli politician talks about how Palestinians are cockroaches, every time a house is demolished, an olive tree uprooted, a prisoner tortured.

The other tendency is the one that sees a future in which Palestinians’ rights are restored, and where all those who consider Palestine home, regardless of their religion, can live and struggle together as equals. The discussion documents are an attempt to start thinking about the practicalities and challenges facing this second tendency.

In many ways, the discussions were very lofty, and some will no doubt call them idealistic — perhaps even romantic. But if we’re serious about return, we need the space to take a brief step away from the demonstrations and agitation of everyday to also think about what it will look like, what could go wrong and what could go right.

Studying other examples of struggles for return, especially ones that achieved combinations of success and failure, is one way of doing this, and obviously it’s a privilege to be able to do this directly by visiting a place like Cape Town. In many ways, the questions raised in these documents are at least as important as our attempts to answer them. By reading them and thinking about the questions they pose, we move from a conception of return as a kind of slogan (or in the case of Zionists as a bogeyman) to thinking about return as a concrete reality.

Shifting our thinking in this way allows for discussion of the kinds of things that we can be doing that are in many ways quite different from what the return movement looks like now, and the hope is that by making this shift, we take a step closer to transforming return from a dream to a reality.

The documents referred to in this article can be found on the Badil website.

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