Knesset focuses on Palestinian refugees

Alternative to UNRWA seeks resettlement of some refugees and their descendants in other countries.

Palestinian refugees 224 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian refugees 224
(photo credit: AP)
For the first time in Israel's 60-year history, a cross-party parliamentary caucus dealing with the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees was launched in the Knesset on Tuesday. The move came amid a groundswell of parliamentary activity around the world, including in the US and Canada, to reroute funding from UNRWA - the UN body that deals with Palestinian refugees and their descendants - toward the resettlement of some of the refugees and their descendants in other countries. The new lobby, which is chaired by MKs Amira Dotan (Kadima) and Benny Elon (NU/NRP), is made up of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including lawmakers from Labor, the Likud and Shas. No Arab MKs have joined the caucus so far, although all non-ministerial members of the Knesset were invited to do so. "I am not trying to change the Palestinian narrative, but to alter the state of mind of the refugees and their descendants," Dotan said at the inaugural meeting of the Caucus for the Rehabilitation of Palestinian Refugees. "We have to see how we can work with UNRWA - not against UNRWA - on this issue," she said. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - with estimates ranging from 400,000 to 750,000 - left their homes in 1948 and 1949. They, along with millions of descendants, make up one of the prickliest issues for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as part of any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue has been largely untouched in Israel for years, due to the Palestinians' demand for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel, which the Jewish state rejects. Recently, however, some Knesset members have begun to openly advocate dealing with the issue of Palestinian refugees. "This is the first time that the Knesset is formally and openly dealing with the issue of Palestinian refugees not in a reactionary manner or as apologists, but out of Israeli interests," said Elon, who advocates dealing with the issue head-on for humanitarian reasons. "Without the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees, no peace will come," he said. The right-wing MK has proposed dismantling UNRWA and resettling the Palestinian refugees in countries outside of Israel, in keeping with long-standing government policy that an influx of refugees would demographically damage Israel's character as a Jewish state. Labor MK Colette Avital said at the Tuesday meeting that getting rid of UNRWA now would be "throwing out the baby with the bath water," noting the agency's humanitarian work. Despite the divergent views voiced at the meeting, all the MKs pointed to the vast differences between UNRWA and UNHCR, the main UN body that handles all other refugees throughout the world. While the UNRWA's 25,000-strong, almost exclusively Palestinian staff cares for 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the UNHCR employs a staff of about 6,300 people to help nearly 33 million people in more than 110 countries. UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said Tuesday the issue of Palestinian refugees had to be resolved within the context of a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, a much-anticipated visit by UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Abu Zayd to the Knesset for a committee meeting on the issue is now slated to take place this fall, after Abu Zayd postponed an earlier visit due to scheduling issues, Dotan said.