Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose a school in Yad Binyamin, a community which absorbed some of the 8,000 Israelis uprooted from their homes in Gush Katif 13 years ago, to demonstrate how Israel treats its own “refugees” and to praise the US decision to cease its funding for UNRWA.
“This is a very welcome and important change, and we support it,” Netanyahu said of US President Donald Trump’s policy to cease funding UNRWA. Last year, the US provided about $360 million of the organization’s $1 billion budget.
The organization, founded in December 1949 and formally called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was created not to absorb refugees but rather to perpetuate their plight, Netanyahu said.
“We have to cancel the refugee institution. We have to take the money and really help to rehabilitate the refugees, whose real number is only a tiny fraction of the number reported by UNRWA,” Netanyahu said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was harshly critical of the American move, which he said would harm the well-being of the more than five million refugees serviced by UNRWA in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
“The US wants to totally sabotage UNRWA,” Abbas told a visiting delegation from the left-wing Israeli NGO Peace Now.
Some “70% of Gaza residents are refugees. Most of them are dependent on UNRWA assistance. Now [US] President [Donald] Trump wants to get rid of UNRWA but offer Gaza residents humanitarian assistance,” Abbas said.
Palestinian refugees angry and dismayed at U.S. for halting funds to U.N. agency, September 1, 2018 (Reuters)
But how, he pondered, will the US take away UNRWA while still helping the Palestinians?
Peace Now publicized some of Abbas’s statements to the media after the meeting.
The IDF has long held that UNRWA has an important role to play as a social service agency for the Palestinians. Behind the scenes, the Israeli government has often concurred and has in the past spoken up in the defense of UNRWA with the US.
However Channel 10 reported recently that Netanyahu encouraged the US to end its assistance to UNRWA. Netanyahu reportedly did this, against the wishes of the IDF and without consultation with his security cabinet.
Right-wing Israeli and US politicians have argued that UNRWA has helped perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it recognizes as refugees not just the approximately 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 War of Independence, but also their descendants. Today, according to UNRWA, the number of Palestinian refugees has swelled to more than 5 million people.
UNRWA critics argue that this hereditary status as refugees has made the Palestinian demand for their “right of return” into a stumbling block to any peace resolution. Israel could never absorb that many refugees, and maintain its identity as a Jewish and democratic state.
MK Mossi Raz (Meretz), who was in the meeting with Abbas, said that even the Palestinian leader said that he is not expecting Israel to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees. He understands that a just solution for the refugees would be found in negotiations between Israel and the PA, Raz said.
On Sunday, Netanyahu contrasted UNRWA’s treatment of Palestinian refugees with how he said Israel provided a solution to its citizens uprooted from their homes during the 2005 Disengagement, in which 21 Gaza settlements were destroyed along with four in northern Samaria.
“The uprooted from Gush Katif were absorbed in this community,” Netanyahu said while visiting the Breuer Elementary School in Yad Binyamin to mark the first day of the new school year.
“The lives of those uprooted from Gush Katif could have been a tragedy, a horrible disaster,” he said. “It started with horrible pain, but the State of Israel and all of its citizens worked together so that the uprooted from Gush Katif would not be refugees in their land. We absorbed them, and they renewed their lives to create wonderful lives. The memory persists, but there is the present which has already changed, and [the future] that gives new life and great hope.”
Netanyahu stressed that while he opposed the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, once it happened, Israel “dealt with the problem.”
He then talked about other Jewish refugees which Israel has absorbed.
“Didn’t people uprooted from all different lands come to us?” he asked. “Holocaust survivors who were uprooted from their lands, from communities where they live – like in Lithuania for 500 years or in Poland for 1,000 years. They were uprooted, survived and came here.”
The premier said the same thing happened to hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands who came to Israel – penniless and without possessions – after the War of Independence.
“Did we leave them as refugees?” he asked. “We did not leave them as refugees, we turned them into productive, equal citizens in our country.”
The same, he said, cannot be said of the Palestinians. UNRWA was created almost 70 years ago “not to absorb the refugees, but rather to perpetuate the refugees.” For this reason, he said, the US “did something very important” in canceling its funds to the agency.
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