(photo credit: )
In 1949, the UN established a special agency for Palestinian refugees, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). All other refugees, regardless of degree of plight and objective hardship, are looked after by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
According to UNRWA's Web site, here is the difference between the UN's two refugee organizations: "UNRWA is mandated to provide the Palestine refugees with humanitarian assistance, whereas UNHCR has the mandate to provide international protection to refugees who fall within the scope of its Statute and to seek permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments." (emphasis added)
In other words, UNHCR's job is to help governments settle refugees. UNRWA's job is to help governments perpetuate a refugee problem which, UNRWA points out, has now been extended over four generations.
Last week UNRWA launched a drive to increase contributions and divulged that the Arab countries - their inflammatory rhetoric notwithstanding - are the most tightfisted of UNRWA donor countries.
Of UNRWA's $462 million 2006 budget, $137m. came from the US, $41m. from Sweden, $27m. from the UK and $12m. from Denmark. Saudi Arabia, the world's richest oil-producer, managed to scrape a mere $1.2m. Smaller Kuwait managed a tad more with $1.5m., still a drop in its overflowing oil bucket. The rest of the Arab states are even less generous. Oil-rich Bahrain spared no more than $30,000. Indeed the Arab world's share has declined. In the 1980s it financed 8% of UNRWA's outlay. By 2006 it put in less than 3%.
There's something inordinately wrong with this picture even by the standards of realpolitik. The very nations responsible for keeping the "refugees" displaced, who spur them to pursue irredentist goals and who whip up lust for revenge, do least for them. But the paucity of Arab contributions to UNRWA is just the tip of the iceberg of Arab cynicism with respect to the refugee question.
What possible reason, for example, could there be for the Palestinian Authority, together with UNRWA and the Arab world, to maintain "refugee camps" in the Gaza Strip? Israel, after all, has withdrawn completely from Gaza, including dismantling settlements and even moving cemeteries.
This was the moment the Palestinians claimed to be waiting for - complete territorial contiguity and not a single Israeli settler, roadblock, or military base in sight. Israel's withdrawal freed up substantial tracts of prime real estate. Yet nothing has been done to help these people find permanent homes.
By unnaturally perpetuating a problem for generations, the Palestinians give the lie to their own claims to promote a peaceful two-state solution. This becomes self-evident when we consider the different definitions for "refugee" to which UNHCR and UNRWA resort. UNHCR's refugee is one who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecutedâ€¦is outside the country of his nationality." By this definition the refugee's descendants aren't refugees. Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.
The only exceptions are the Palestinians. UNRWA classifies as refugees any Arabs, native or not, who sojourned "in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, and lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." Not only could an itinerant foreign Arab laborer claim Palestinian refugee status, but UNRWA stipulates that the right extends to "descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948."
By UNHCR's yardsticks, over 95% of those whom UNRWA regards as refugees are nothing of the sort.
The time has come not to sway Arab oil-moguls to loosen their purse-strings but to impress on Western donors, particularly the US, to cease shelling out millions that only impede peace, to bring the UNRWA travesty to its overdue end and transfer its residue responsibilities to UNHCR. The Arab states need to start showing that peace, not Israel's destruction, is their solution to the refugee problem, and to stop doing their best to perpetuate the problem themselves.