The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East or “UNRWA was nurtured from its beginnings to avoid any permanent solution to the plight of the refugees” from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. So documented Center for Near East Policy Research (CNEPR) Director David Bedein in his previously discussed insightful 2014 book Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict—UNRWA Policies Reconsidered.
As Bedein explained, UNRWA has caused the 1948 “Arab refugee crisis to persist longer than any other refugee situation in the world.” This longevity results from UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees as including not just those who lost their homes in what became Israel in 1948-1949 but also their multigenerational descendants. Simultaneously, UNRWA has insisted that this community may only end its refugee status through a “right of return” to what is now modern Israel.
Contrary to UNRWA, Bedein observed, the “1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees makes no mention of descendants.” This convention also “exempts from refugee status a person who ‘has acquired a new nationality,’” he added. While such acquisition of new citizenship usually ends refugee status, UNRWA’s refugee “definition makes no mention of newly acquired nationality.
Meanwhile a Palestinian right of return “has no legal precedence in history and, indeed, has not been applied in other cases of wartime refugees throughout the twentieth century, which witnessed a record number of such refugees,” Bedein noted. Proponents of this claimed right often wrongly invoke the December 11, 1948, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Yet at this time, UN officials “were concerned that an international guarantee of the ‘right of return’ for refugees could be applied by the millions of Germans” who lost their homes in Eastern Europe following World War II.
UNRWA deviates in other ways from the practice of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), which handles all other refugees in the world. “While there are other UNHCR agencies that do serve the descendants of refugees, UNRWA is the only UN refugee agency that actually campaigns for the ‘right of return,’” Bedein observed. He critically noted that “UNHCR is mandated to help refugees get on with their lives as quickly as possible, which in the majority of cases means” resettlement. But “helping refugees seek asylum and a permanent resettlement, either locally or elsewhere, is precisely what UNRWA will not do.”
Instead, UNRWA has inculcated among its registered “refugees” an abiding, revisionist identification with claimed homes in Israel. A 2017 CNEPR study of Palestinian Authority textbooks highlighted this phenomenon. The authors found “noteworthy that among the second and third generation of the refugees’ descendants it is quite common to relate themselves to their forefathers’ places of residence although they themselves were born outside these places.”
Such attitudes are not accidental, Bedein noted. “When families originally registered with UNRWA, a card was filled out assigning them a registration number that included a five-digit code of origin in ‘pre-1948 Palestine,’” he noted. Additionally, UNRWA refugee
camps were originally set up according to home villages. In most cases a majority of the people who were from a particular village came together to live in one camp; areas of the camps and even roads were named after villages. So today, everyone in the camps, down to the third and fourth generation, is expected to know exactly from where he or she came. That awareness is constantly reinforced with a variety of programs.
Bedein dismissed such atavism as foolhardy, as these Palestinian “refugees” claim a “‘right of return’ to homes in Arab villages from before 1948 that no longer exist” in Israel. At a March 22, 2016, panel hosted by him and the CNEPR at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid agreed. Having grown up in an UNRWA camp in Jerusalem’s Shu’fat neighborhood, he noted that UNRWA encourages Palestinians symbolically to keep old keys to lost houses, but these now use remote control systems.
Nonetheless, UNRWA and its allies “continue to foster expectations of the ‘right of return’” among UNRWA’s “refugees,” and thereby “to confer upon them a limbo status,” Bedein stated. In Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere, “Arab refugees and their descendants live in UNRWA facilities in a state of suspended animation—they have no sense of permanency, and with few exceptions, are without citizenship,” he noted. As the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) explained in an official monograph:
In order to keep the refugee issue alive and prevent Israel from evading responsibility for their plight, Arab countries—with the notable exception of Jordan—have usually sought to preserve a Palestinian identity by maintaining the Palestinians’ status as refugees.
Bedein condemned such “inexcusable and inhuman” policies. He particularly noted how they consistently hindered the material wellbeing of UNRWA’s clients. “Amelioration of adverse living conditions is seen as a negative process if it retards or lessens the desire on the part of the refugees to go back to their original homes and villages from 1948, which no longer exist,” he wrote.
Bedein cited the experience of Israeli troops who entered UNRWA camps in the Gaza Strip after defeating Egyptian troops during the 1967 Six Day War. The Israelis “found that Egypt had allowed no electricity or running water in the camps, while forbidding UNRWA camp residents to work outside of the camps,” he explained. These conditions only changed under subsequent Israeli “occupation.”
A similar situation arose in 1985, when Israeli authorities attempted to move registered UNRWA “refugees” into permanent housing constructed with aid from the Catholic Relief Agency. The UN vetoed the program. Thus, “1,300 homes built on a hill near Nablus were still standing empty” decades later, Bedein noted.
Constituted in 1994, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has followed PLO guidance on UNRWA’s refugees. One of the first PA declarations opposed removal of UNRWA camps in PA territories, for this would violate the Palestinian “right of return.” Accordingly, in 2014 Bashar Al-Masri, the managing director of the new Rawabi urban development, confirmed to Bedein that UNRWA refugees could not move to this model, modern city.
UNRWA’s pitiful isolation of its “refugees” exposes the hollowness of the UNRWA slogan “peace starts here” introduced for several years after 2010. Rather, this population serves as a base for violence against Israel and offers the possibility of a future demographic destruction of Israel’s Jewish state through a “war of return,” as this series’ concluding article will examine.