Why is it that all of the world’s refugees, wherever they are located are dealt with by a single UN Agency – the UN High Commission on Refugees (the “UNHCR”) – and the Palestinian refugees have another – the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA)? One diplomatic answer can be found on UNRWA’s own website, which states that UNRWA is mandated to provide the Palestinian refugees with humanitarian assistance, whereas UNHCR has a mandate “to seek permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments.”

Thus, UNRWA itself provides the crucial single explanation for the failure of the Camp David talks in August 2000, when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat brought up at the last minute his uncompromising position on the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. Funded by billions of dollars of aid from the UN and from the international community, UNRWA was never meant to actually solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees, but rather to perpetuate it.

This sacred mission of perpetuating the refugee problem was taken for granted by the UN secretary General Kofi Annan when he outlined the terms of reference for the UN’s Jenin “fact-finding” committee. There was nothing in the mandate of the committee, which required it to examine the serious violation of international law committed by the Palestinian Authority, which was the party in control of the refugee camp. As such, the PA was prohibited, under the Geneva Convention, from abusing the civilian population by locating military facilities and objects within civilian residential areas. Arab newspapers published accounts stating that “more than 50 houses within the camp were booby-trapped” – a clearly military and very non-humanitarian use of civilian residential buildings.

In 1976, the Lebanese ambassador to the UN, Edward Ghorra, had warned the international community of the fact that UNRWA camps in Lebanon had been taken over by terrorist organizations. In his letter to the then UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, the Ambassador said that “the Palestinians acted as if they were a state within the State of Lebanon… They transformed most, if not all, of the refugee camps into military bastions… in the heart of our commercial and industrial centers, and in the vicinity of large civilian conglomerations.” (The letter was published as an official UN document.)

In reality, UNRWA camps, with 17,000 employees, had come under PLO control, and under the UN flag they were functioning, for all intents and purposes, as military camps. In October of 1982, UNRWA released a most comprehensive report, which related in great detail that its educational institute at Siblian, near Beirut, was in reality a military training base for PLO fighters, with extensive military installations and arms warehouses.

The tragedy of the Palestinians cannot be addressed by existing UN policies and practices. Any comprehensive peace plan dealing with Israeli withdrawal and new borders with a Palestinian state must include as a major component a thorough political and humanitarian solution for the Palestinian refugees. While the borders and security arrangements are obviously issues that need to be concluded, the refugees’ situation must be addressed first, and a realistic practical solution must be developed which is based on dealing with the real conditions of their daily lives. The issue of the Palestinian “right of return” cannot be left in limbo, looming over every peace initiative, including the most recent Saudi proposal, which did not address the refugee issue clearly.

In August of 1958, Ralph Garroway, a former UNRWA director, made the following statement, which remains very relevant today:

The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.

Polls taken in Israel in recent days show that a significant majority of the Israeli public is prepared to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state, the dismantling of settlements and the making of far-reaching compromises for a sincere peace.

As President Bill Clinton said on July 28, 2000, the refugee problem in the Middle East is two-sided, and includes the Jews from Arab lands “who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.” The Jewish post-1948 refugees, whose number was about the same as that of the Palestinian refugees from the same period, were resettled and rehabilitated in their new home – Israel.

The Palestinians of the UNRWA refugee camps have not been offered any form of rehabilitation anywhere, and this is precisely the reason that the camps have become the incubators for so many suicide bombers. Thus, a peaceful resolution of the conflict continues to be stymied by the violent consequences of a decades-old policy of deliberately neglecting the Palestinian refugee problem and of deferring its resolution until some far-off future date.

Today, for the sake of peace, the UN and the international community must reverse their long-standing and destructive Palestinian refugee policies and offer a dramatic and new humanitarian vision to the Palestinian refugees in the UNRWA camps and elsewhere.