Think About It: UNRWA, Palestinian refugees

It is regrettable that the chances of Dr. Einat Wilf being reelected to the 19th Knesset are slim.

Independence MK Einat Wilf 370 (photo credit: CIJA)
Independence MK Einat Wilf 370
(photo credit: CIJA)
MK Einat Wilf, a well-educated and articulate member of Ehud Barak’s Independence Party, believes that there are two major obstacles to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of a two-state solution: continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem with the help of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).
When UNRWA was first established in December 1949 there were around 540,000 Palestinian refugees, who had escaped or were driven out by Israeli forces from the territory of Israel within the 1949 armistice lines. Today there are over five million registered Palestinian refugees, of whom only a few tens of thousands are first-generation refugees. The rest are descendants.
The reason that continuing to count all the descendants as refugees is an obstacle to peace, is that the refugees demand the right of return to the territory of the State of Israel, which if realized would simply terminate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel’s most powerful argument against accepting this demand is that since its establishment the Jewish state has absorbed millions of Jews from all over the world, including well over half a million Jewish refugees from Muslim countries.
It should be noted that the Palestinian refugee problem is the only refugee problem in the world that has been perpetuated, at the cost of billions of dollars to the international community. For example, after the Second World War there were 12 million Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and though some of those who are still alive and their descendants continue to dream of the “old fatherland,” there is today no German refugee problem. One might say that in the case of the 12 million German refugees they simply paid the price of Nazi Germany’s expansionary policy and the atrocities committed by it in the course of the war, and no one really felt sorry for them.
But with all due respect, the Palestinian refugees paid the price of the decision of the Arab world to fight against the establishment of a Jewish state within the 1947 partition plan boundaries, and in the final reckoning most elements of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948-49 – the so called Nakba – were a direct consequence of the Arab reaction to the establishment of Israel, rather than to the actual establishment of the state.
However, since it was clear that the Arab world had no intention of doing anything about the plight of the Palestinian refugees, for humanitarian reasons the UN decided to take responsibility, and thus turned into an instrument for perpetuating, rather than resolving, the problem.
But to return to MK Wilf. In recent months she has acted, together with AIPAC, to convince the US Senate Appropriations Committee to passed the Kirk Amendment to the 2013 Foreign Operations Appropriation Bill, which requires the State Department to inform Congress what proportion of the five million Palestinian refugees supported by UNRWA – a quarter of whose budget is covered by the US, which has provided around $4 billion to the organization since its establishment – are first-generation refugees.
The intention of Wilf and her partners was to go much farther, but the State Department managed to water down the original proposal.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the issue of annual appropriations for UNRWA was on the agenda of the US Congress before Wilf was elected to the Knesset. In fact, criticism of UNRWA’s operations are routinely raised by Congressmen in the form of bills and resolutions, whose goals are to increase oversight of the Agency, to cap US contributions to it, and/or to strengthen UNRWA’s vetting procedures, to prevent the funds it spends from falling into terrorist hands.
However, as Wilf herself has pointed out, while a change in the way the world in general and the Palestinians in particular view the refugees is required before any real progress can be made in the peace process, the continued Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank requires change as well. In fact, a group of renowned Orientalists warned Netanyahu in a meeting they held with him two weeks ago that his government’s settlement policy, and the lack of determination in dealing with extremists among the settlers – especially those engaged in attacks on Palestinians and their property as part of their “price tag” policy – are not only an obstacle to the peace process, but are more than likely to lead to the outbreak of a third intifada. The Orientalists are especially worried about the prospect of an attack by extremists on a major mosque.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of a change in the attitude of the world in general and Palestinians in particular to the refugee issue is as negligible as a significant change in the policy of Netanyahu’s government in the West Bank. It is also regrettable that the chances of Dr. Einat Wilf being reelected to the 19th Knesset are slim.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.