The question of who should qualify as a Palestinian refugee has recently received renewed attention due to an initiative by US Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) that will require the State Department to report how many of the roughly five million Palestinians serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were actually displaced during the Arab war against Israel in 1948 and how many are descendants.
Alluding to the ensuing controversy, Zvika Krieger, Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and an Atlantic contributor, posted a tweet recommending a piece by Leila Hilal “on why UNWRA services refugee''s descendents .”
It is indeed useful to know Hilal’s views on the matter, because as a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Negotiations Department, she is now often quoted when the subject of Palestinian refugees comes up.
Given Hilal’s background, it is perhaps not surprising that the piece recommended by Krieger is entitled “Israeli Leader Wrongly Blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian Refugees.”
Hilal begins her piece with a somewhat lengthy attempt to discredit the Israeli leader mentioned in her title: Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is described as a “Knesset member representing Yisrael Beitenieu [sic], an ultra-nationalist party” and Hilal claims misleadingly that Yisrael Beitenu “advocates the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of a political settlement.” Presumably, this is meant as a reference to the so-called Lieberman Plan that envisages a land swap including populated areas – an idea that was first formulated in the mid-1990s by a left-wing researcher who, like many Israelis back then, mistakenly believed that all the rhetoric about how strongly Israel’s Arabs identified with their Palestinian brethren meant that they would be eager to become citizens of a Palestinian state.
Hilal then takes aim at Ayalon’s You Tube clip about the plight of Palestinian refugees, noting that it was removed from a French website for supposedly “violating guidelines against racist postings” – though, as Hilal’s own link to a post on the Point of no return blog shows, this is again a somewhat misleading claim, because the French website failed to explain what was “potentially defamatory” or “potentially racist” about the clip.
Once Hilal gets around to spelling out her specific objections to Ayalon’s video, her readers encounter quite convoluted arguments. Let’s look at her first point:
“Ayalon''s primary criticism of the UNRWA is that it has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency -- the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) -- so that Palestinians can be treated somewhat like refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur. This would actually subvert his own argument for resettlement, though; UNHCR''s long-standing policy, based in international law, is that the preferred durable solution for refugees is voluntary return. […] In other words, if Palestinians were to be treated like refugees from Bosnia or other conflict zones, the international community would be forced to address their long-standing demand to choose whether to return to their place of origin -- namely Israel.”
The first problem with this argument is that Israel is not considered the “place of origin” of the UNRWA-serviced Palestinians. UNRWA itself provides this definition:
“Under UNRWA''s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”
UNRWA’s definition of refugees is of course unique because it requires only two years of residency and confers refugee-status even on people who actually remained in “Palestine” – that is to say, they would usually be considered internally displaced persons. But irrespective of the designation, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians who fled the Arab war against Israel’s establishment since late 1947 left an area that became the territory of a state whose existence Palestinian and Arab leaders violently opposed for decades – up to now. This precluded their “right of return,” which is based on the willingness to “live at peace with their neighbours.”
Moreover, given UNRWA’s definition of “Palestine refugees”, one could argue that also Jews “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict” should qualify for UNRWA assistance, since “[no] Jews were allowed to live in territories held by the Arab forces. Therefore the remaining Jews of Jerusalem, and those of Gush Etzion, Atarot, Neve Yaakov and kibbutzim in the Gaza strip were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their property without compensation.”
But unsurprisingly, Hilal objects to arguments “equating Jewish and Palestinian refugees” and at one point, she even asserts that there is a “fundamental distinction between the vast majority of Jews who left Arab countries and Palestinian refugees: whether Jews fled out of a fear of persecution or out of a desire to settle in Israel, they did not face a similar denial of the option of return.”
What she is trying to say here remains a riddle, since she cannot possibly be trying to claim that the Jewish refugees from Arab countries had “the option of return” to the ancient communities they fled due to officially sanctioned efforts to drive them out.
Hilal’s point is not much clearer when she claims that Ayalon’s criticism of UNRWA “ignores the fact that the agency is not mandated to find solutions for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA''s authority, given to it by the UN General Assembly, is limited to providing humanitarian and development assistance.”
Of course, this is exactly the point of Ayalon’s criticism: UNRWA isn’t there to find solutions for the Palestinian refugees; instead, the agency’s work allows the Arab states – whose war against Israel created the refugees – to dodge their responsibilities and maintain them as refugees for generations.
Hilal also complains that Ayalon “relies on archaic public statements from former pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and long-passed UNRWA commissioners. Rather than quoting Arab leaders in 1969 or UN officials from the 1950s, Israeli officials should be honest about where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today.”
Again, it remains unclear what she means. I think many Israelis would agree that when it comes to “the political conflict on the refugee question…today,” the views expressed at the beginning of this year by Israeli politician Einat Wilf are not only “honest”, but also realistic:
“MK Wilf shared her own experience as a member of the peace camp who has grown skeptical in recent years, saying that when she hears Palestinian leaders insist that there exist five million refugees possessing a ‘right of turn’ into the sovereign state of Israel, she questions whether the Palestinians truly desire peace and accept the idea that the two state solution means two states for two peoples: Jews and Arabs.”
Moreover, when it comes to the question “where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today,” it is revealing that veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly feared for his life in early 2011 when the leaked “Palestine Papers” seemed to indicate that among some other compromises, the Palestinian negotiating team considered “limiting the number of Palestinian refugees returning [to Israel] to 100,000 over 10 years.”
In this context, it is also interesting to note that both Europe’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Commissioner-General of UNRWA Filippo Grandi recently emphasized that UNRWA was proud to instill a sense of identity among the “refugee” children who are educated by the agency – and the context of the two relevant speeches leaves no doubt that both officials referred to a distinct “refugee” identity that would forestall the children’s desire to seek assimilation in the states they were born. This is particularly ironic given the fact that the Palestinian constitution of 2003 prominently asserts in Article 1:
“Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation.”
If this is the case, what is wrong with calling on the “Arab Nation” to integrate the Palestinian refugees who have been living in their midst for generations?
Yet, Hilal concludes her piece by claiming:
“Ayalon''s video series simplifies and distorts the conflict with the hope of manipulating public perceptions in favor of rightist Israeli views. […] Whether Ayalon''s criticism is part of the traditional Israeli narrative on the refugee question or signals an intention to escalate attacks against the UN agency [i.e. UNRWA], his extremist interpretations and misrepresentations of the historical record and international law are a dangerous addition to the discourse on the conflict.”
But very different from what Krieger suggested when he recommended Hilal’s piece, her attacks against Ayalon in no way explain why UNRWA should be supported in the efforts to keep generations of Palestinians as “refugees” with only limited rights in the countries they were born. In one of the most candid and substantive articles published on this issue in the mainstream press in recent years, Judith Miller and David Samuels argued in 2009 in the Independent:
“After 60 years of failed wars, and failed peace, it is time to put politics aside and to insist that the basic rights of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries be respected – whether or not their children''s children return to Haifa anytime soon. While Saudi Arabia may not wish to host Israeli tourists, it can easily afford to integrate the estimated 240,000 Palestinian refugees who already live in the kingdom – just as Egypt, which has received close to $60bn in US aid, and has a population of 81 million, can grant legal rights to an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One can only imagine the outrage that the world community would rightly visit upon Israel if Israeli Arabs were subject to the vile discriminatory laws applied to Palestinians living in Arab countries. Surely, Palestinian Arabs can keep their own national dream alive in the countries where they were born, while also enjoying the freedom to work, vote and own property?”
For UNRWA supporters like Leila Hilal, these are apparently “extremist” views.
Last but not least, given the fact that Zvika Krieger is now Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and that he recommended Hilal’s bizarre defense of UNRWA, it is interesting to note that in August 2008, Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar published a fascinating profile of S. Daniel Abraham under the title “In the business of peace - U.S. billionaire pursues his dream of Mideast peace.” Eldar claims that during a meeting with Abraham, he was shown two documents:
“One described a fascinating conversation Abraham had held with one of Israel''s leading rabbis. The second was a record of a meeting Abraham held half a year ago in the United States with a senior, influential Arab figure. The Israeli prime minister himself [i.e. Ehud Olmert] is very familiar with this document. Without violating the promise to keep its contents a secret, it can be said that it contains a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem - an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing.”
Sounds good – pity that it is kept a secret.