The Refugee Problem – here and elswhere.

The second installment of Ben-Dror Yemini‘s series on the misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the world press has appeared. No English translation that I know of yet. But I’ll update if and when. (You can find the Hebrew version here.)

This time Yemini has compiled numbers and compared treatment of refugee problems globally, and again a vast gap exists between fact and public knowledge of it. Again, it is striking how the Palestinian refugees are viewed differently, and how Israel’s responsibility for creating their predicament receives a focus incomparable to other far larger expulsions around the world.

For the most part the hawkish right had been keen to point this out, in attempts to advance its own agenda. But Yemini, senior journalist at the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, is of the dovish left, and his point in raising the question is quite other. This merits a few words of explanation.

At the opening section of piece Yemini mentions a problem well known to all who have been following the question of refugees world wide. The UN has two agencies which take care of such problems: UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). The first is responsible for all refugees around the world except Palestinian refugees, the second focuses on Palestinian refugees only. But they also operate in very different ways. In fact they operate in cross purposes. UNHCR helps people out of their refugee status, while UNRWA helps preserve refugee status. Under UNRWA, in contrast to UNHCR, refugee status is independent of residence in any country and of economic conditions, and is automatically applicable to family members. What is more striking it is also automatically hereditary, this too regardless of living conditions. Only Palestinians can inherit such a status. This is also how UNRWA has been operating in its actual policies: it helps maintain rather than dissolve refugee camps.

What does this different treatment of the Palestinian case add up to? It adds up to pointing only in one direction as a solution to the problem: the right of return of the refugees of 1948, along with all their offspring, to Israel (that is to Israel itself, not the Palestinian Authority in the territories).

As Yemini points out, no one is demanding the return of tens of millions of Muslims to India, Greece or Bulgaria, or returning the Germans to Eastern European countries, or having all the populations of the Balkans returned to where they were expelled from. Anyone can see that this would reignite conflicts which have since been pacified. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it would do something worse: it would destroy Israel without creating an independent Palestine. It would mean turning the territory within Israel’s international borders (that is, without the occupied territories) from a country with a very large Jewish majority, to a country with a Jewish minority. No Israeli government would agree to this kind of solution, because it would mean committing suicide.

So in fact, UNRWA is blocking the way for partition and helping drive both peoples to a Bosnian situation – a permanent civil war. What looks like siding with the best interests of the Palestinian refugees, actually keeps alive unrealistic maximalist dreams, breeds despair on which terrorism thrives, and, in the long run, prevents Palestinian independence.

The logic of Yemini’s piece should be clear to anyone who hopes for peace in this region. But the numbers and stories are nevertheless striking and surprising. So, hopefully a translation would come along soon…

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