The death agonies of UNRWA and the refugee problem

For many decades, there was an attempt to define millions of Palestinians living in the refugee camps as having the right to “return” to the territory of historic Palestine.

September 27, 2018 23:32
3 minute read.
A bag of UNRWA cement found in an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel

A bag of UNRWA cement found in an Islamic Jihad terror tunnel. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)


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The UN agency for the Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) is about to die.

The US administration is accused of killing the agency by cutting its funding, but the reality is quite different. In fact, UNRWA is nearing its end because the problem of the Palestinian refugees is becoming a historical rather than political question. It is a matter to be discussed by historians, not by policymakers and statesmen.

For many decades, there was an attempt to define millions of Palestinians living in the refugee camps as having the right to “return” to the territory of historic Palestine. The international community accepted the idea that not only those who fled Palestine or were driven out of it are eligible to return, but also their sons and daughters as well as their families and future generations. Thus, for many years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be resolved because millions of Palestinians were recognized by the world as having their right to “come back” or take refuge in Israel’s territory. Neither late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin nor Prime Minister Netanyahu could accept the demand to let these people enter the Jewish state. Now, following the bold steps made by US President Donald Trump, the refugee problem is almost dead.

It is nearly dead not because Trump decided to slash the American funds to UNRWA, and certainly not because the White House is determined to remove it from the negotiation table; the refugee problem is suffering from its death agonies because it never really existed as a true question to be rationally resolved for the benefit of those who were expelled from their homes or fled out of them. It was used by the Palestinian misleadership as an instrument to prevent any serious, genuine solution to the conflict; it was utilized by the Fatah leaders in order to make the conflict unsolvable.

The Arab states did not lift a finger to help the poor and impoverished “refugees” because the PLO leaders wanted to keep this problem alive in their ongoing struggle to reach a political solution where Israel would become a state with Arab majority and thus disappear. For decades, the refugees were manipulated by PLO leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, living in terrible poverty and hoping to materialize their dream to come “back” to Haifa or Jaffa. No one told them that it is an illusion, that they must renounce their hopes and find ways to improve their lives with the aid of the international community.

No one really wished to help them to find a better future. Now, the Palestinian refugees do not even have the hope to return to their “original” towns and cities; unfortunately, they have to convince the US and other countries to financially support them in order to survive. They were lied to by the Palestinian leaders who spread illusions and false hopes, and now they have to beg for money from the world to provide food, education and medication for their children.

The expected death of the endless Palestinian problem of refugees seems now to be delivering a serious blow to the Palestinian national cause, but a responsible leadership among the Arabs can use this timely death in order to forge a new vision for the Palestinian future embodied in a two-state solution. The refugee camps must be demolished and the refugees themselves should find their future within the states they live in. The international community should help the Arab states to contain the millions living in the camps and aid them to provide a chance to live in prosperity.

In addition, Israel itself can accept the idea that some of the refugees would be eligible to settle in the territory of the future Palestinian state to be built alongside Israel. While the dream to return to Israel’s territory is gone, new prospects for better future are open. The successor of Abbas, whoever he might be, has a true chance to revive hopes in the hearts and minds of his agonized people.

The writer is a prospective PhD student of the ancient Near East at Bar Ilan University.

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