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Western states have failed the Palestinian ‘right of return’

Time to shut down UNWRA

The issue of Palestinian refugees, and the Arab and Palestinian demand that those refugees be allowed to exercise what they call a ‘right of return’, attracts scant attention. Neither Israel’s leaders nor its public, and certainly not the international community, spend very much time discussing it. This is in stark contrast to other core issues. For example, there is endless discussion of the settlements and the military occupation of the territories, which are indeed important; but the Palestinian refugee issue has barely been subjected to any real strategic discussion. There have been no serious attempts at a resolution, or even efforts to place it on the agenda. The problem, in spite of always being cited as one of the core issues of the conflict, has been essentially hidden from view, relegated to the sidelines, left for some vague future date when all other core issues are resolved.

Yet we discovered that perhaps of all the core issues it is the refugee issue that actually deserves to be front and center. Our research revealed that the Palestinian refugee issue is not just one more issue in the conflict; it is probably the issue. The Palestinian conception of themselves as ‘refugees from Palestine’, and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews. And the UN structural support and Western financial support for these Palestinian beliefs has led to the creation of a permanent and ever-growing population of Palestinian refugees, and what is by now a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace.

The Palestinian demand to ‘return’ to what became the sovereign state of Israel in 1948 stands as a testament to the Palestinian rejection of the legitimacy of a state for the Jews in any part of their ancestral homeland. Our research led us to conclude that practically nothing could be understood about the Palestinian position in the peace process and the conflict itself — and no effective steps could be taken toward its resolution — without delving deeply into this issue.

Realizing this, we resolved to research, analyze, and describe this issue from its very beginning in the war of 1948 to the present day. By following key historical figures, unearthing new documents, examining key decision points, and providing analyses, our book raises, and answers, the key questions about this overlooked, yet fundamental, issue. Why are there still Palestinian ‘refugees’ from a war that ended 70 years ago? Why do the Palestinians insist that each and every Palestinian refugee, for generations into perpetuity, has an individual and in fact ‘sacred’ right to return to the sovereign state of Israel, de- spite there being no actual legal basis for it? Who and what prevented the Palestinian refugees from being rehabilitated as the Jewish refugees from 1948 were? Was it a lack of interest or money, or were there other, ideological, motives? Is the ‘right of return’ a real demand or just a Palestinian bargaining chip, which can be bargained away when other demands are met? When Palestinians march for ‘return’ from Gaza in the direction of Israel, what is it they are actually marching for? What does a ‘right of return’ mean in the context of a comprehensive peace accord? And if this demand is real, can we move forward and, if so, how?

In answering these questions, we tell a tragic story of Western policy repeatedly shooting itself in the foot and working at cross- purposes. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the very agency charged with caring for the original Palestinian refugees in the immediate aftermath of the war, and that has been sustained for decades by Western funding with billions of dollars, has instead become a major obstacle to peace and a vehicle for perpetuating the conflict.

Reaching the conclusion, step by historical step, that UNRWA is part of the problem, and not part of the solution, we call on the international community to dismantle and replace the agency. To that end, we offer specific policy proposals on how to accomplish this without depriving Palestinians of the social services currently provided by UNRWA.

The policy of Western donor countries should therefore be to secure alternative providers of services so that UNRWA would be fully phased out. The obvious place to begin is the territory governed by the Palestinian Authority. Currently, the Palestinian Authority provides the same educational and social services as UNRWA and in the same territory. This means that in the same cities in the West Bank, PA and UNRWA schools and hospitals work side by side. The PA’s services are presented as a crucial part of a state-building effort, in preparation for peace based on a two-state vision, whereas at the same time and in the same territory UNRWA operates a parallel system that preserves the dream of a ‘Palestine from the River to the Sea’. If donor countries are serious about the promotion of peace, it makes no sense to preserve a parallel UNRWA system in the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA’s operations should be merged into those of the Palestinian Authority. Donor states could divert all financial support earmarked for running UNRWA schools and hospitals toward the Palestinian Authority. From a practical perspective and from the perspective of the aid dispensed, nothing would change but the sign on the door. UNRWA schools would become PA schools, but the pupils, teachers, and curricula would remain the same. The same goes for hospitals. The same quantity and quality of aid currently provided by UNRWA would continue, but it would come through the Palestinian Authority. The donor states could continue supporting these services as much as they want, but the funding would go through the Palestinian Authority.

If tensions between Hamas and the PA mean that the Palestinian Authority cannot assume responsibility for the provision of services, donor countries could push for the establishment of a new umbrella organization, or one based on existing organizations, whose only purpose is the rehabilitation of Gaza. All international donations for rehabilitation and local needs could be funneled through this new organization, which would be charged with dealing with the entire population of Gaza and would operate schools and hospitals and dispense other forms of aid without reference to refugees and without refugee status being a determining factor in the provision of its aid.


In Jordan, the path to dismantling UNRWA is the most straight-forward. There are 2.2 million registered refugees in Jordan, nearly all of whom are also Jordanian citizens — so not actual refugees, under internationally accepted definitions. Most of them do not even use UNRWA services, and UNRWA’s budget for its operations in Jordan is relatively low, compared to the number of refugees it registers there. There is therefore no actual reason for UNRWA to operate in Jordan at all.

In Jordan, however, the path to dismantling UNRWA is also the most sensitive politically, given that the issue of the Palestinian refugees is considered directly related to the stability of the Hashemite regime, a valuable Western ally. On July 21, 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist from the Husseini clan while visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem because, among other things, he was willing to make peace with the young state of Israel without demanding return, and even naturalized all the refugees in the West Bank and Jordan toward that end. Given that 70 percent of Jordan’s citizens are Palestinians (rather than members of the Bedouin tribes), the Hashemite kingdom has become deeply wary of addressing the Palestinian refugee issue ever since the king’s assassination.

It is precisely because of the Jordanian monarchy’s desire to preserve its own stability and support, certainly among the kingdom’s Palestinian majority, that it sees a need to keep the status of the registered refugees on its soil ambiguous. It is difficult, bordering on impossible, to get a consistent answer from Jordanian officials to the question of how the Jordanian state sees its own citizens. Some say that they are unambiguously Jordanians while others say that they are unambiguously Palestinians, who will one day return west of the Jordan River.

The Jordanian regime sees its ability to entertain both these claims simultaneously as a condition for its own survival. For donor countries, therefore, there is a genuine fear that drawing attention to the status of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and dismantling UNRWA’s operations there would have major consequences for the stability of its regime. But the fact that some political considerations dictate the need to register Palestinians as refugees cannot conceal the basic reality that they are simply not refugees. Moreover, the long-term stability of the region would be served much better by solving the conflict and removing the greatest obstacle to its solution by ending the fiction that there are millions of Palestinian refugees with a right of return to the state of Israel.

As for registered refugees in Syria and Lebanon, a different policy is required. Whereas it is clear that Jordan’s citizens are not refugees, and those living in Gaza and the West Bank are living already in the Palestine for which they seek recognition, the refugees registered in Syria and Lebanon are in a different situation.

Syria’s approach to the Palestinian refugees has enabled them and their descendants to be integrated with great success over the years into the local economy and to enjoy effective residency status, albeit without official citizenship. Between 1949 and 1956, the Syrian government passed laws specific to Palestinian refugees, granting them civil rights on par with those of Syrian citizens, with the exclusion of the right to vote and the right to citizenship. This process culminated in a 1956 law that stated that Palestinians living in the Syrian Arab Republic are on equal footing with Syrian citizens ‘in all the laws and valid regulations regarding the rights of employment, commerce and military service while retaining their original nationality’.

It is worth noting that the civil war in Syria highlighted even further the paradoxes inherent in the unique manner in which Palestinian refugees are classified and treated differently from every other group of refugees in the world. The civil war has forced millions of Syrians, including Palestinian refugees living in Syria, to flee to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, where UNRWA has official operations. In those countries, the Syrian citizens are cared for by the UNHCR, which is making efforts to find solutions to end their refugee status, whether by integration in their host countries, resettlement in third countries, or repatriation when the conflict ends and if it becomes possible.

The Palestinian refugees from Syria, however, continue to be registered as refugees from Palestine rather than Syria and cared for by UNRWA rather than UNHCR. This, despite the fact that they were habitually residents in Syria, where they had legal status and had fled their homes due to the Syrian civil war. Whereas UNHCR would happily consider Syrians who fled from Syria and gained citizenship in Germany as no longer refugees, UNRWA would still register them as Palestine refugees.

Lebanon is also a unique situation. Out of all the Arab countries to which the Palestinian refugees fled during the 1948 war, the country in which they were treated the worst is Lebanon. It neither naturalized them like Jordan, nor integrated them economically like Syria.

In reality, Lebanon created a system of extreme state-sanctioned discrimination against the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Lebanon have been prohibited from employment in over 20 professions and their ability to enter and exit the country is highly limited. Around half live in refugee camps (a similar rate to Gaza) and many live in dire poverty. It is no coincidence that Lebanon hosts far worse forms of Palestinian extremism than either Syria or Jordan. This is a strong indication that the true moderating force with respect to Palestinian refugees is not UNRWA but naturalization or economic integration.

The policy with respect to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should be, as with the refugees from Syria, to transfer responsibility for Palestinian registered refugees from UNRWA in Lebanon to UNHCR, with a view to ending their refugee status by means other than return. Donor countries would transfer the funding that currently goes to UNRWA in Lebanon to UNHCR.

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We must also challenge traditional thinking about the role of diplomats and negotiators in extended conflicts. Whereas the traditional view looks at diplomats and negotiators who do the work of peacemaking by shuttling between capitals, and forcing reluctant sides into one room where they are strong-armed into making concessions, The War of Return argues that in order to be effective, these diplomats and negotiators must first and foremost correctly analyze the root causes of the conflict, and then work continuously over time to remove the real obstacles that stand in the way of making peace.

Our book demonstrates that in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, decades of shuttling, strong-arming the sides, and endless hours of negotiations came to naught because none of the diplomats or negotiators truly understood and dealt with the root causes of the conflict, choosing instead to turn away and focus on that which appeared easier. If, as the Jewish sages say, we are not expected to complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid it, then diplomats and negotiators must move away from fruitless pursuits of sham peacemaking in favor of the hard work actually required to attain true peace.

Our interest in Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace is not theoretical. We both live and raise families in Israel. Being in a perpetual state of war with the Palestinians and the Arab world means that every day bears the prospect of a loved one being wounded or killed because of the conflict. It means that we raise children knowing that each one will have to join the army and certainly face war and possibly death. Peace for us is not a dinner-table discussion subject but an existential necessity. It is our fervent hope that in writing this book we contribute in a meaningful way to real and lasting peace.

Adi Schwartz is an author, academic and former senior editor at Ha-Aretz. Einat Wilf served in the Knesset for the Independence and Labor parties, and is the author of six books. This is an adapted excerpt from The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace. 


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