NEW YORK – At a small conference at the Harvard Club in Manhattan on Thursday, a
host of dignitaries and experts, including Israel’s envoy to the UN Ron Prosor,
addressed the UN’s classification of Palestinian refugees as the principal
stumbling block to a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO.
conference was the opening salvo in the direction of drafting of US legislation
meant to end the automatic transmission of refugee status to the descendents of
Palestinians that has been taking place since 1948, just as Filippo Grandi,
commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine
Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), prepared to hold a press conference on Monday
on Palestinian refugees becoming a “forgotten population” in an increasingly
Dr. Daniel Pipes, a leading international expert on the
Middle East, opened the conference, declaring that the Palestinian refugee
situation is broken, sick, and detrimental to all involved. The current approach
by UNRWA “creates a narrative of victimhood and leads to extremism,” said
The Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank where Pipes
serves as president, organized the conference, titled Changing US Policy on
UNRWA and the “Palestine Refugees.”
“No one will admit it... the real
obstacle [to a two-state solution] is the right of return for millions of
Palestinian refugees,” Prosor said. The “refugees problem is the main obstacle
to peace, not settlements.”
The return of Palestinian refugees “would
cause Israel’s destruction,” Prosor said.
In 1950, there were some
700,000 Palestinian refugees. The current figure stands at more than 5.1
million, though that depends on who is counting.
who become citizens of another country lose their status as refugees; a large
percentage of Palestinians live in Jordan or Syria, though those in Syria are
now experiencing an entirely new refugee crisis.
Many participants at the
event asserted that double standards applied to Palestinian refugees, in sharp
contrast to this general rule of thumb.
Prosor sees UNRWA policy to allow
Palestinians to “transfer their refugee mileage to their children” as misguided.
“Israel deeply opposes UNRWA’s political agenda, but supports its humanitarian
agenda,” he said, adding that “not one Arab country appears on the top-10 list
of UNRWA’s donor,” and that its funding comes mainly from Western
Although Arab countries are “saturated with petro-dollars,”
they are not donating adequately to UNRWA, he charged.
Prosor, the ration of staff to refugees at the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees, which covers non-Palestinian refugees, is 1 to 4,400. UNRWA has a
ratio of 1 to 172.
Former Labor and Independence MK Einat Wilf said it is
important to debunk the widespread image of Palestinian refugees “huddled in
She cited an EU diplomat who told her: “Do not tell anyone – I
know middle class families in Ramallah.”
She said the “EU says
Palestinians know they won’t return to Israel” but urged to the EU “to start
telling them that.”
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at
the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, discussed the
“manufactured refugee crisis” among the Palestinians and raised the question of
whether UNRWA is a “pro- Palestinian organization,” because the organization is
pushing back against reforms in Washington. He asked what a Palestinian state
would look like, and whether Palestinians could sustain it.
Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.