The Palestinian Authority is extremely disappointed with a senior UNRWA official who recently said that Palestinian refugees should acknowledge that they will almost certainly not be returning to Israel, officials said last week.

Andrew Whitley, outgoing director of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency’s New York office, was quoted earlier this month as saying, “If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be – for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes – then we are storing up trouble for ourselves.”

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Whitley added: “We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent.

“It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”

Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat strongly protested against Whitley’s remarks in a letter to UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry.

Erekat praised UNRWA for quickly distancing itself from Whitley’s remarks.

“The Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes and lands is one of the most important rights,” Erekat stressed in his letter.

“The Palestinians haven’t given up this right since the nakba [catastrophe] that happened in Palestine in 1948, when Israel expelled more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees. And they will never give this right up.”

Erekat said that “despite Israel’s insistence on denying the Palestinians’ right of return to their homes and lands, the right of return was legitimate in accordance with international law and UN resolutions, first and foremost [General Assembly] Resolution 194.”

Erekat added that it would have been better had Whitley defended the rights of the Palestinian refugees instead of asking them to accept harm and displacement and relinquish their rights.

Zakariya al-Agha, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the organization’s refugee affairs department, condemned Whitley’s remarks as “extremely dangerous.”


Agha said that Whitley should have demanded that Israel implement the UN resolutions that it’s refusing to comply with. He also urged donor countries to fulfill their financial obligations to close the deficit in UNRWA’s budget.

Agha too said that sooner or later the refugees would implement their right of return.

“Those who think that the Palestinians would give up the right of return or accept resettlement are living in an illusion,” he said, calling on the UNRWA official to apologize for his statements.

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