My Word: Meet the mythical refugee

UNRWA should gradually be disbanded. In the meantime, it should tell the truth.

A PALESTINIAN TEACHER gestures as children attend a lesson at an UNRWA-run school in the Gaza Strip in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN TEACHER gestures as children attend a lesson at an UNRWA-run school in the Gaza Strip in 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Now you see her, now you don’t – which is rather ironic for the symbol of a campaign titled #StillRefugees.
Last week, I couldn’t help but notice the photo of “Aya,” a sad-looking girl standing against a backdrop of destruction. Her pathetic image dominated an UNRWA-sponsored ad on Facebook, pleading for donations for the organization’s Ramadan campaign.
Next to Aya’s picture there was a small disclaimer that her name and location had been changed to protect her identity.
I could understand why the name and place had been changed, but what was the excuse for changing the facts about the Palestinian refugees? Alongside the photo, the text read: “Imagine being cut off from the world – for your whole life. That’s reality for children like Aya. The blockade of Gaza began when she was a girl, the occupation in the West Bank before her parents were born. Now she is 11 and the blockade goes on.”
And then, just like that, she was gone.
Now, instead of “Aya” there is “Hajjeh,” a cartoon figure of a Palestinian woman knitting a scarf, and the explanation that Hajjeh is an “honorific title for a woman who has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca,” “a respectful title used to address a middle-aged or elderly woman in Arabic” and “a symbol of resilience, family, warmth and hope.”
The new campaign asks: “Did you meet the Hajjeh? “Throughout her long life, the Hajjeh has been witness to much of Palestinian history. Through 50 years of occupation the Hajjeh has persevered. Follow the Hajjeh as she walks alongside UNRWA and marks 50 years of occupation. #StillRefugees.”
Aya’s fate soon became apparent. A fate worse than Gaza. She’d been sent back to Syria. Well, not back.
She’d been there all along. The Geneva-based group UN Watch discovered that the ever-oppressed Aya in Gaza was the same girl whose photo had been used in an UNRWA campaign emphasizing the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria in January 2015.
This is not, of course, the first time that photos purporting to be of victims of Israel in Gaza turn out to be from Syria, Iraq or some other area where Muslims are massacring Muslims by the thousands.
It’s also not the first time I’ve had reason to criticize the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, set up exclusively to deal with Palestinian refugees.
When stockpiles of rockets were found at UNRWA-run schools during Operation Protective Edge three summers ago, I noted that although the aid organization condemned “the relevant parties” that had placed them there, on at least one occasion UNRWA seems to have handed the munitions back to Hamas.
The number of the Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA, keeps on growing. UNRWA itself says that in 1948, “more than 700,000 Palestine refugees [were] displaced as a result of the first Arab-Israeli war.” No mention of who started that war, of course.
One campaign image shows, if we can believe what we see, an “emergency camp” set up by UNRWA “in 1967 hostilities aftermath & the Israeli occupation of West Bank & Gaza Strip.” Again who started those hostilities remains unsaid.
An UNRWA post mentions the Palestinian refugees who arrived in Lebanon in the 1970s as a result of Black September, when Jordan expelled the PLO leadership after it attempted to overthrow the Hashemite rulers.
The PLO presence contributed to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, but UNRWA doesn’t mention it.
UNRWA now claims to care for “five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in the Middle East, including the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.” The keyword being “descendants,” for Aya – whatever her name is and wherever she lives – was born long after the 1948 creation of Israel, when the Arab world first refused to recognize the Jewish state and declined to create a Palestinian state alongside it. And that’s the true tragedy: Instead of helping the Palestinians build happy lives, UNRWA and the Arab countries have perpetuated their miserable non-status as refugees.
People who have lived in the same place, where they speak the same local language and belong to the same religious majority, should not be “refugees” after 50 years – let alone seven decades.
Focusing on the “refugees” created by the Arab wars on Israel diverts attention (and funds) from those who really need it. The money being channeled to UNRWA could be used, for example, to help the very real recent refugees in desperate conditions in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon and other places where they ended up due to a combination of civil war and terrorism.
ISRAEL IS marking Book Week, an amazing event (sadly, less than country-wide this year) when there are special deals for all sorts of books and related items. I’ve just finished reading a remarkable and haunting novel. Wolf Dreams is written by Yasmina Khadra, the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian Army officer who now lives in France. It tells the story of an aspiring actor who, after being mistreated while working as a chauffeur for a corrupt, wealthy family, finds solace in religion – until he is drawn into the underground Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) movement, which sought to overthrow Algeria’s ruling regime.
The book offers a riveting insight into how jihadists are created and what they are willing to do: the casual killing of “infidels” and the enslavement of captive women. I suspect there is more truth in this fictional account of the attempt to establish an Islamic state in Algeria in the 1990s than there is in many UNRWA-sponsored campaigns.
I was shocked to realize how little I knew of what had gone on in Algeria in the years following an uprising in 1988, partly inspired by the Palestinian intifada. It’s another example of what happens when the world concentrates so much on the Palestinian issue that it misses what is really going on. I think one of the reasons that ISIS was able to grow is that then-US secretary of state John Kerry was busy obsessing about trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. His failure ultimately led to the 2014 war in Gaza. (And believe me, Israeli children are traumatized by massive and indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza no less than the mythological Aya suffered in the wars. I blame Hamas for the suffering on both sides.) With Islamic State attacks in London, Paris, Pakistan and even Iran in recent days, that jihadist terrorism has spread its tentacles is undeniable.
The visit to Israel this week by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was refreshing. Haley seems to truly get the picture – not the false images of UNRWA fund-raising campaigns. To many Israelis, she seems to be a superwoman, finally forcing the UN to wake up and deal with the true horrors – the terrorism that Israel was the first to suffer.
But there won’t be peace as long as countries like Lebanon – whose Palestinian population is denied even basic rights – carry on the war by any means. Last week, it banned the screening of Wonder Woman because it stars proud Israeli actress Gal Gadot.
UNRWA should gradually be disbanded. In the meantime, it should tell the truth and change its hashtag and slogan from #StillRefugees to #StillPawns.