Think About It: UNRWA, Palestinian refugees
It is regrettable that the chances of Dr. Einat Wilf being reelected to the 19th Knesset are slim.
Independence MK Einat Wilf Photo: CIJA
MK Einat Wilf, a well-educated and articulate member of Ehud Barak’s Independence
Party, believes that there are two major obstacles to resolving the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of a two-state solution:
continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and the perpetuation of the
Palestinian refugee problem with the help of the UN Relief and Works Agency for
Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).
When UNRWA was first established in
December 1949 there were around 540,000 Palestinian refugees, who had escaped or
were driven out by Israeli forces from the territory of Israel within the 1949
armistice lines. Today there are over five million registered Palestinian
refugees, of whom only a few tens of thousands are first-generation refugees.
The rest are descendants.
The reason that continuing to count all the
descendants as refugees is an obstacle to peace, is that the refugees demand the
right of return to the territory of the State of Israel, which if realized would
simply terminate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel’s most powerful argument against accepting this demand is that since its
establishment the Jewish state has absorbed millions of Jews from all over the
world, including well over half a million Jewish refugees from Muslim
It should be noted that the Palestinian refugee problem is the
only refugee problem in the world that has been perpetuated, at the cost of
billions of dollars to the international community. For example, after the
Second World War there were 12 million Germans who were expelled from Eastern
Europe and the Soviet Union, and though some of those who are still alive and
their descendants continue to dream of the “old fatherland,” there is today no
German refugee problem. One might say that in the case of the 12 million German
refugees they simply paid the price of Nazi Germany’s expansionary policy and
the atrocities committed by it in the course of the war, and no one really felt
sorry for them.
But with all due respect, the Palestinian refugees paid
the price of the decision of the Arab world to fight against the establishment
of a Jewish state within the 1947 partition plan boundaries, and in the final
reckoning most elements of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians who lost
their homes in 1948-49 – the so called Nakba – were a direct consequence of the
Arab reaction to the establishment of Israel, rather than to the actual
establishment of the state.
However, since it was clear that the Arab
world had no intention of doing anything about the plight of the Palestinian
refugees, for humanitarian reasons the UN decided to take responsibility, and
thus turned into an instrument for perpetuating, rather than resolving, the
But to return to MK Wilf. In recent months she has acted,
together with AIPAC, to convince the US Senate Appropriations Committee to
passed the Kirk Amendment to the 2013 Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill,
which requires the State Department to inform Congress what proportion of the
five million Palestinian refugees supported by UNRWA – a quarter of whose budget
is covered by the US, which has provided around $4 billion to the organization
since its establishment – are first-generation refugees.
The intention of
Wilf and her partners was to go much farther, but the State Department managed
to water down the original proposal.
Nevertheless, it should be noted
that the issue of annual appropriations for UNRWA was on the agenda of the US
Congress before Wilf was elected to the Knesset. In fact, criticism of UNRWA’s
operations are routinely raised by Congressmen in the form of bills and
resolutions, whose goals are to increase oversight of the Agency, to cap US
contributions to it, and/or to strengthen UNRWA’s vetting procedures, to prevent
the funds it spends from falling into terrorist hands.
However, as Wilf
herself has pointed out, while a change in the way the world in general and the
Palestinians in particular view the refugees is required before any real
progress can be made in the peace process, the continued Israeli settlement
policy in the West Bank requires change as well. In fact, a group of renowned
Orientalists warned Netanyahu in a meeting they held with him two weeks ago that
his government’s settlement policy, and the lack of determination in dealing
with extremists among the settlers – especially those engaged in attacks on
Palestinians and their property as part of their “price tag” policy – are not
only an obstacle to the peace process, but are more than likely to lead to the
outbreak of a third intifada. The Orientalists are especially worried about the
prospect of an attack by extremists on a major mosque.
likelihood of a change in the attitude of the world in general and Palestinians
in particular to the refugee issue is as negligible as a significant change in
the policy of Netanyahu’s government in the West Bank. It is also regrettable
that the chances of Dr. Einat Wilf being reelected to the 19th Knesset are
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was
a Knesset employee for many years.