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.

The 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 turbulent region.

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 Pipes.

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.

Historically, refugees 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 countries.

Although Arab countries are “saturated with petro-dollars,” they are not donating adequately to UNRWA, he charged.

According to 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 tents."

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.

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