With much international media coverage, a photo exhibition called “The Long Journey” opened at the end of November in the old city of Jerusalem. A few dozen black and white images from the archives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) will be on display until the end of January, when they will move on to Europe and North America.
These images of Palestinian refugees are part of a digital archive compiled by UNRWA, a project that was hailed by the agency’s commissioner general, Filippo Grandi, as “a contribution to building a national heritage for the Palestinians.” On UNRWA’s website, the exhibition is considered part of the Palestinian “collective memory” and “communal identity.”
While a photo exhibition in itself is hardly a problem, it serves nonetheless as an excellent example of the negative and non-constructive role that UNRWA-supposedly a neutral organization-plays in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even the date chosen to launch the exhibition, Nov. 28, one day before the day commemorating the 1947 UN Partition Plan, is symbolic for the pro-Palestinian stance this UN body adopted.
It was the Arab rejection of the 1947 proposal to divide Mandatory Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab, that caused the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians (the number of the refugees has since swollen to 5 million). UNRWA’s mere existence, therefore, is a result of the Arab rejection of the 1947 proposal, but you won’t find this piece of information in UNRWA’s publications.
UNRWA’s role was to distribute humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees and to provide them with healthcare and education. Along the years, however, the UN agency has perpetuated the refugee problem, which is probably the most difficult sticking point in the conflict, since the Palestinian refugees insist on their right to return to Israel. Any sober observer understands that no Israeli leader would ever let in so many Palestinians, as it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinian refugee population is the only one in the world that keeps growing after 65 years. Palestinian refugees are the only ones with a separate UN agency taking care of them; the world’s other downtrodden have to make do with only one agency (UNHCR). The Palestinians even have a separate definition for their refugee status, which has no cessation clauses (the international definition has six). Palestinians are the only ones in the world who can be at the same time citizens of a country and refugees.
How is it that not a single Palestinian refugee was resettled in 65 years? How is it possible that 1.5 million Palestinian “refugees” are at the same time Jordanian citizens? Why are there refugee camps today in the Gaza Strip, which is fully controlled by the Palestinians? How can they be considered refugees by UNRWA, if they live in their own land?
The answer to all these questions is that UNRWA has sided with the most intransigent Palestinian view that calls for the return of millions of Palestinians and for the destruction of Israel. Absurdly, Western donors are financing an organization which prevents any possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict: total contributions to UNRWA have risen from $330 million in 2000 to $1 billion in 2009. This UN agency, the representative of the family of nations, is sponsored not by Iran or Hezbollah, but by Western governments, even though the outcome runs contrary to their interest.
The new exhibition sheds light on another problematic aspect of UNRWA – its participation in constructing a Palestinian “national heritage,” “collective memory” and “communal identity.” Since when is a supposedly neutral UN body involved in constructing a collective memory of one side to a conflict? Why should the international community strengthen an identity built on the negation of Israel’s right to exist, which is what the “Right of Return” means?
Israeli construction of settlements in the West Bank is rightly considered by the international community a unilateral step that could affect the final status agreement. But so is the absurd continuation of the refugee problem by UNRWA: each day there are more refugees, and each day their refugee status is being reinforced and perpetuated by UNRWA. Since the refugee problem is the single biggest obstacle to a peaceful territorial two-state solution, it is high time the international community changed UNRWA’s mandate and pushed for more constructive solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem.
Adi Schwartz is an independent Israeli journalist and researcher.