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JANA ELAZAR: UNWRA AND THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE QUESTION : A HINDRANCE TO PEACE

Jana Lazar, a grade 12 student at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education

 

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is immensely complex. The larger conflict can be broken down into many issues, all of which are controversial and disagreed upon within and between Israelis and Palestinians. One of these issues is the problem of the Palestinian refugees.

This problem began as the Independence War was brewing. Arab leaders told the Arabs living in Palestine at the time to leave their homes. They proclaimed that within weeks their armies will have wiped the Zionists off the face of the earth, and that they would be able to return to their homes unthreatened. Some Palestinians were forced out by Israel’s forces, and some did leave because of the exaggerated rumors of the Deir Yassin massacre. But, this number represents a minority, with the majority leaving voluntarily because their leaders told them to do exactly that.

However, this is not the reason that this problem has perpetuated for sixty two years. The problems truly started with how the Arab leaders dealt with the displaced Palestinians. Rather than giving them automatic citizenship, and giving them a path to become contributing members of society, they instead dumped them into decrepit refugee camps on the border. Upon realizing their resounding defeat in the war, this living situation did not change. The Arab leaders failed to deliver on their promises, and then threw the Palestinians they vowed to defend so thoroughly under the bus and left their brothers to fend for themselves.

This is completely opposite to what Israelis had done. Upon Israel declaring independence in May 1948, thousands of Jews living in Arab countries were either forced out, or fled for their lives due to growing anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments on the rise. Many were very affluent, and left an extremely wealthy, upper class lifestyle. These Jews were given immediate citizenship in Israel, without thought to the economic burden or any political advantage. At first, these Jews did live in refugee camps. But, without the help of any international aid, Israel managed to get these people on their feet. Today, many of these Jews remain in Israel, and are entirely integrated into Israeli society, government and military. They are no longer refugees.

Decades later, it still has not changed for the Palestinians. Generations later, Palestinians are still living in the same cramped, dilapidated refugee camps. The question is: why have Arab leaders let this problem go on for so long?

The answer to this question is extremely unsettling. The reason that the Palestinians are still refugees is because it is simply convenient. Not only does that desperate environment serve as a breeding ground for extremism, it also serves a greater political

purpose. The ’poor Palestinians’ serve as a powerful card to play in the eyes of the media, and in the eyes of the world. It is much easier to sway world opinion when there seems to be a clear David-Goliath dichotomy. Using the Palestinians in unbearable living situations as political pawns rather than helping them get out of those situations is clearly preferable to their leaders. Now, more extreme factions within the Palestinians call for the Right of Return, to allow all Palestinian refugees as well as their descendants to be allowed to return to their place of living prior to 1948 or 1967 when they had lived within Israel proper. This would clearly be a one state solution in which a demographic annihilation of Israel would take place. If all five million Palestinian Arab refugees return to Israel, it will no longer be a Jewish majority, but will rather be a hostile Arab majority.

The international sympathy garnered by the Palestinian refugees led to the creation of UNWRA. According to their website, their mission is:

“UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight.”

However, what this description does not mention is the way the Palestinian refugees are defined. Unlike any other refugees from any other conflict, as defined by the UN during the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:

"A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.."

Palestinian refugees are defined as the following:

“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 services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration.”

Unlike all other refugees from any other conflict in history, the descendants of Palestinian refugees are also defined as such. This is perpetuated by their inability to rise up from their current situation, as well as their own leaders keeping them at the status quo, which is politically convenient for them.

I would like to say that there is a clear and simple way to resolve this issue. I do believe that for there to be an end of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Palestinians can only be given the right of return to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, not within Israel itself, except for possibly a very small number of  cases for family re-unification. A peace deal could also possibly give compensation to both Arab as well as Jewish refugees from Arab countries. However, I am not sure that resolving the individual issues that make up the conflict is necessarily the answer to creating peace. Even if the final status of the refugees is resolved, the status of Jerusalem, land swaps for Jewish settlements in the West Bank are agreed to, I am still not sure that there will necessarily be peace. The conflict is greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, the underlying causes of the conflict must be dealt with. The culture in the Palestinin territories is so rife with corruption and deceit, such that a government uses its own people as political pawns, and encourages martyrdom and terror. A total lack of human rights is the norm and this culture needs to be dealt with simultaneously in order for there to be a possibility of peace. With luck, good politicians and G-d’s help the issues may be worked out eventually in negotiations between governments. However, the underlying cultural tensions that have perpetuated this conflict may not be resolved so easily.

 
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