NEW YORK – Israeli envoy Ron Prosor publicly blasted the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Near East at a talk on Monday at the UN on whether the agency is a help or a hindrance in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East, and how it may perpetuate the refugee problem.
“UNRWA fuels false promises and gives grievance to dangerous myths,” Prosor said. “We have heard time and time again that settlements are the major hurdle to peace. In these halls, no one will admit that the real obstacle is the so-called ‘claim to return.’”
The right of return, Prosor reiterated, would “flood Israel with millions of refugees, and drown the Jewish state by sheer numbers.”
Right of return, he said, is actually a euphemism for the destruction of Israel.
UNRWA is responsible for helping fuel this “fiction” of the right of return to Palestinian children through their textbooks and schools.
“I reaffirm Israel’s support for UNRWA’s humanitarian mission – and I emphasize humanitarian mission,” he said. “We have worked together to provide essential services, education and promote gender equality. Despite our success, our work is overshadowed by the disparity in the UN’s treatment of refugees.”
That is, in addition to the right of return, the fact that the UN puts Palestinian refugees in a class of their own, separate from those from elsewhere in the world, has also fueled the problem.
“It’s worth noting that their mandate to resettle refugees was removed in 1965,” Prosor said. “They have perpetuated the problem instead of solving it.”
He added that those who fund UNRWA are, of course, enabling it to perpetuate its activities.
“Eighty-five percent of UNRWA’s funding comes from North American and Western European countries,” he continued.
Even the Palestinian government doesn’t take responsibility for its people, he said, because UNRWA’s services are already taking care of them.
“Almost 2 million Palestinian refugees live in the controlled territories. One would think that the Palestinian Authority would take the slightest responsibility for its people’s fate. Instead, they are content to use this population as political pawns rather than creating a better future for them.”
The difference in the status of the refugees comes in the differences in the definitions made by UNRWA and the UN High Commission on Refugees.
Under UNHCR, a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Under the UNRWA definition, being outside the country of one’s nationality is not mentioned, said James Lindsay, a lawyer and former general counsel to UNRWA from 2000 to 2007.
“They are, they remain, refugees. Their descendants remain refugees,” Lindsay said.
Even in countries like Jordan where the Palestinians have citizenship, Palestinian Jordanians are still able to benefit UNRWA services.
“There are no perfect parallels in history” to the Palestinians, said Prof. Alexander Joffe of the Middle East Forum. “The international community has, for variety of contingent reasons, elected to maintain this population of refugees until the General Assembly decides the Arab-Israel conflict is satisfactorily resolved. Only then will UNRWA go out of existence.”
“What if UNRWA lost its funding?” a member of the audience asked.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Joffe with the agreement of Prof. Asaf Romirowsky of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. “The Israeli government doesn’t want it to happen. The military doesn’t want the responsibility.”
It’s possible that Western countries could divert their funds to other Palestinian agencies, as Canada has done, but a full-fledged, sudden defunding of UNRWA would lead to the collapse of Palestinian society, Joffe said.
“The Nakba mentality is ingrained within them [the refugees],” Romirowsky said. “Until that is changed, they will be doing much of the same,” meaning that they will continue to elect to be dependent on UNRWA.
The Palestinian identity and nationalism is based on this idea, he said.
Einat Wilf, a former member of the Knesset, spoke on the West’s complicity in allowing the problem of Palestinian refugees to precipitate.
“Western countries don’t see that the Palestinians take the right of return seriously,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
“The West thinks that the Palestinians know that it’s never going to happen, so they feel no urgency to treat the problem.”
Since vast majority of UNRWA’s dollars come from the West, as Joffe and Romirowsky said, UNRWA would not exist without the West’s support.
“I don’t deny the Palestinians the right to dream,” Wilf said. “I take issue that the West, which says they support the two-state solution, but doesn’t realize how seriously the Palestinians take this dream.”
Steven Rosen, the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East and a former senior official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, analyzed how the American government in particular had become complicit in UNRWA’s spread.
“Washington has not insisted that the standards for refugees in general are enforced in this case,” he said. “If you are a person who is firmly settled, you are not a refugee. You’re not considered a refugee under US law. UNRWA’s practices violate American law.”
The event was arranged by The International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.