UNRWA & the Right of Return
by Asaf Romirowsky and Louise Ellman
Chair: Good evening everyone. I am Louise Ellman MP, and on behalf of the Henry Jackson Society, I would like to welcome you to this meeting here in the House of Commons. I would like to extend a particular welcome to our guest speaker this evening, Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and the Middle East Forum. The topic of our discussion this evening is UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees; a look at the role of UNRWA in relations to the refugees and its role in trying to attain progress towards peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. Asaf, I hand it over to you. And I hope that once you finish speaking to us you will be able to answer some questions.
Asaf: Good evening, it is a pleasure to be here. I would like to thank the MP and the Henry Jackson Society for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to speak to you. UNRWA has been the focus of my research for over the past 15 years, and I have worked on these topics in Washington and in Jerusalem. I have come to certain research conclusions about UNRWA at large and about what it is that UNRWA actually does. If you look at the history of refugees around the world, since World War 2, there have been about 165 million refugees worldwide. All have been assimilated with the exception of one nationality; that is the Palestinians. In 1949 two organisations were created. One of them was UNRWA, which stands for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and the other a few months later is an organisation called the UNHCR which is UN High Commissioner for Refugees. UNRWA was created as an organisation that was solely devoted to the Palestinian refugees and it was defined by nature as a temporary organisation because the belief was that the Palestinian refugee situation was a temporary situation that would be resolved within a few months -years' time as a result of how the Palestinian refugees came about.
The topic of how the refugees came about is not something that I will go into in great detail tonight, but if people want to talk about how they came about and the actual numbers, we can talk about that.
What is important to understand vis-à-vis the definition of a refugee is that it is unique to the category of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA actually defines a Palestinian refugee as anybody who was in the mandatory area of Palestine between 1946 and 1948 and his descendants. The hereditary aspect of Palestinian refugees is unique to the Palestinian cause. In comparison, in the UNHCR you can only be a refugee for one generation after which time you do not have the refugee status anymore. If you take that into consideration, the main difference between the two entities over the past 64 years is that in UNHCR you can see a decline of refugees (the idea that the people would be assimilated and the numbers would go down), whereas in UNRWA there is actually an inflation of numbers, which is why we have today (the numbers are fluctuating) between 5-6 million refugees worldwide. I have also in my research seen numbers extending to 11-12 million refugees worldwide. Up until now, UNRWA defined the hereditary status only according to the father but now there has been a move to include the mother as well.
So if you are talking about numbers, twenty or thirty years down the road, you could be talking about over 30 million individuals claiming a Right of Return. UNRWA's entire raison d'etre is based on the existence of Palestinian refugees and on their desire to what would be considered to be a right of return to Palestine or the area that they were removed from. Again, there was never a land of Palestine that was defined of Palestinian descent. We are talking about the Palestine mandate with the foreign mandate land in the pre-mandatory area that existed up until Israel's coming of fruition up until 1948.
From a policy implication what is happening today in the public discourse and specifically an initiative that is happening in Washington today which is a lot of the work that I have been doing in the past few years as well and relates to a new amendment that has been put forth in Washington is actually questioning the hereditary status of the Palestinian refugees. If you look at the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and you look at the history of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, there are basically three issues that come about again and again. One is 67 borders, the other is the shared capital of Jerusalem and the third is the Right of Return. I would argue that what perpetuates and what exacerbates the conflict till this day is the existence of a Palestinian Right of Return. From Jerusalem's perspective, there has never been an Israeli government that has or will accept the Palestinian right of return, no matter where they are, Left, Right, or Centre on the political spectrum. The state of Israel is based on a Jewish majority and a fluctuation of numbers would alter the demographic majority of the Jewish state.
However the state of Israel has agreed over the years, even as early as 1952, to accept the original numbers of the Palestinian refugees. The accepted numbers of refugees in 1949 fluctuate. How many actually came to fruition, the numbers vary between 400 thousand and 700 thousand. Israel agreed in 1952 to accept 450 thousand of the original refugees.
The only caveat to that actual proposal was that the Palestinian refugees, or the Arabs of Palestine as they are correctly defined, would accept Israel's right to exist in peace. The Arab world opted that was not where they wanted to go with this. As such, most of the blame and most of the existence of Palestinian refugee-ness has been put on Israel and on the West.
A phrase that has been quoted time after time even by individuals who worked for UNRWA was basically that UNRWA itself was there to keep the refugee cause alive, to keep it as an open wound, in order to blame the state of Israel on an on-going basis. The original quote was given by the director of the office of UNRWA in the 1950. A British General by the name of Sir Alexander Galloway who made this comment and gave this testimony in Congress in the early 50s when there was a lot of debate about the existence of the Palestinian refugees and why they continued to exist from generation to generation.
Ultimately I would argue that if you understand the historical context of the Palestinian refugees; if you understand what it actually means and how it actually plays into the Palestinian narrative.
The desire for a Right of Return and the status of Palestinian refugee-ness is synonymous to Palestinian identity. That is to say that you will rarely find a Palestinian who will say: I am not longer a refugee. As it connotes, the fact that they have gone through the terrible environment that led them to become refugees, as a result of that they will be refugees forever.
Part of the problem is that there has never been an attempt to actually say: there has to be a cease and desist to the Palestinian refugee problem, and UNRWA at large has been able to perpetuate that. UNRWA claims that it does not get involved in actually creating re-settlement, but UNRWA claimed all along that while there are still refugees, it will continue to attend to their needs. As such, UNRWA has a vested interest in actually maintaining the refugees because as long as UNRWA exists, the Palestinian refugees exist and vice versa. Economically speaking, I will give UNRWA credit that basically from its early days, from the mid-50s until the early 60s, UNRWA actually tried to stay true to its mandate and not get involved in local politics, but what UNRWA learnt over the years is that if UNRWA does not become a full-fledge advocate for the Palestinian cause, money will not come in.
In fact, when UNRWA decided to become a full-fledge advocate for the Palestinian cause, money from the Arab world started to come in in millions of dollars in order to insure the fact that UNRWA will be the soul care taker of Palestinian refugees.
And the flip side of that argument, which is very important to note in this debate, is the fact that no Arab country with the exception of Jordan has ever invited or agreed to grant Palestinians citizenship. They have always kept this alive in order to say, 'it will go on and on', but the resolution has only happened within the confines of the geographical state of Israel today. Even the late Queen Rania of Jordan who was of Palestinian descent has made vocal comments on these matters and she, as a Palestinian, said that the resolution of this problem is only going to happen on the other side of the river bank even though Jordan demographically speaking is 70% Palestinian. What is happening currently in Washington and what is unique to this entire debate is the fact that the debate on hereditary status of the Palestinian has come to the forefront. That is to say that Washington and the United States at large which is the second to third largest contributor Western country to UNRWA, giving about 240 million dollars annually of tax payer dollars towards regular contributions to UNRWA (without any kind of special contributions), is questioning the fact: who are we actually funding, and who is a refugee? If Palestinian refugee-ness is basically all those who claim refugee status and their descendants, then the money that is going to be required to give to UNRWA is going to grow instead of actually decrease, and so what has been put front and what the senator from Illinois, Senator Mark Kirk, has put forth is the idea that now going forward there should be an end to a Right of Return; that is, that Palestinians can no longer claim hereditary status. It does not mean, and this is where there has been a lot of confusion in this entire debate, that the current individuals who are now receiving UNRWA services will receive less. It simply means that from this point forward there has to be an end to the right of return.
The challenge, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, is of course the issue of Palestinian identity. Even if one looks at the recent claim or attempts at Palestinian statehood through the General Assembly this past September, through Mahmoud Abbas, you will see in his comments that Abbas basically argued: "yes I want a Palestinian state tomorrow, but I also want a Right of Return." The right of return they are never willing to give up as a result of the correlation between Palestinian identity and Palestinian refugee-ness. It was very common to see over the years, if you look at the traced history of Palestinian identity, for example you would see pictures in the 80s in the West Bank and Gaza of Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein on massive billboard. The statement was: I have Palestinian refugees, you have Palestinian refugees. We are not going to stop until there is some kind of resolution to the Palestinian refugee cause. At large, Arafat in his day wanted to make the entire cause the flagship of the entire Arab world, and the argument was basically that nobody should rest until there is a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even in its day, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda advocates argued time after time that we should look and seek resolution for the Palestinian refugee problem. However, in practical terms, beyond making these grandiose statements, they never took any measurable steps to decide what was going to happen.
The other challenge, I would argue vis-à-vis UNRWA, and one of the biggest challenges for us in the West, is of course what is considered to be accountability and transparency as it relates to UNRWA's money and what it actually does. UNRWA when it goes and asks for money from governments, from Congress, from the EU, from Australia, and now also from Britain, all UNRWA has to say is basically: we take care of the betterment of Palestinian refugees. As such if you care about their social services, then you should give us the money.
When you ask where that money is actually going, then there is a lot of push-back to say: well we take care of the betterment of Palestinian refugees; we make sure they have schooling, social services, and whatnot, but they don't actually give you a full-fledged audit, which is what Washington asked for as early as 10 years ago. Washington actually asked for an audit showing exactly what this money is actually funding. If you want an example of a country that looked to see if it was actually committed, if money was actually used in the right place, I would turn to the Canadians. Canada has become the first Western country to defund from UNRWA based on a recent EU report that spoke about the incitement for violence in Palestinian textbooks. Canada took it upon itself to say that as a result of the use of perpetuation toward violence, jihadism, martyrism, they would not give money to UNRWA. Instead, they give money to Palestinian projects, but not to UNRWA. It is important to understand that if we care about resolutions for the Israeli-Palestinian dynamics, and if we want to see some kind of attempt of peace in the region, where UNRWA has acted as an anomaly to other UN agencies, and really has acted as catalyst for the perpetuation of the problem, as UNRWA has transformed itself basically into a shadow government of the Palestinian authority today [sentence needs restructuring].
I would argue that all of the services that UNRWA currently provides, if the Palestinian authority truly cares about its people, should be services that come out of the Palestinian Authority. Currently what you have within this agglomeration of moneys that go to the Palestinian Authority are monies that go in through aid from the West, U.S.A, E.U., other forms of alliances, and UNRWA's monies. What you see is a double dipping of moneys that have actually worked to perpetuate the problem. You will rarely find a Palestinian who would advocate against UNRWA services because of what I am describing to you today. But what I would also argue is that if you interview Palestinians in refugee camps, which I have over the years, from a practical standpoint, there have been numerous attempts to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem over the years. The other kind of dissonance that plays into this imagery of who is a Palestinian refugee is the one of the people who is fleeing and living in tents without any running water or electricity. That is not the case when it comes to the refugee camps at large. Yes there is poverty but these camps have become neighbourhoods of the Palestinian cities. If you talk to Palestinians today, they will tell you that they understand very well that they may not get an actual Right of Return, but they also understand that because their Right of Return has been used in these negotiations year after year, that it will in turn translate into monetary compensation. As a result, a very common thing to see is that Palestinian families leaving a shack or a little garage inside of the camp, knowing that there is debate about monetary compensation – predominantly money that will come out of the West. They can prove the fact that they are Palestinian refugees, and here we are today.
UNRWA's numbers continue to inflate. You should understand that Arab Israeli's, who are citizens of the state of Israel, are considered to be according to UNRWA's count, Palestinian refugees. The largest diaspora of Palestinian refugees in the West and North America are located in two metropolitan cities Dearborn, Michigan and Jacksonville, Florida. All these individuals who consider themselves to be American-Palestinian still believe that they will be able to attain a Right of Return. However in practical terms, they have been told over the years that if they can't physically be there to support the revolution – quoting Arafat – then they should write large checks. And that is how this perpetual sense of refugee-ness has gone forward. On a positive note, I wish to add that it was in those diasporas in North America that for the first time, we came across documentation dating back to the early 1950s in which Palestinian communities asked: "How come we are not turning towards the Arab world. They put us in this situation. How come we are not turning to them? We are blaming the West and Israel for our situation." That was a unique commentary that came out of that community that was actually looking to see what actually happened in 1949 and who was actually responsible for the creation of the refugee problem at large.
To sum it up and I will open up to floor to as many questions as people have, I know I threw a lot of information out here. I think that we in the West have a vested interest in solving the Palestinian refugee problem and what we also have a vested interest in creating peace in the region. There is a great deal of pressure on trying to solve the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. Unless we are able to resolve and create some kind of end to the right of return, this conflict is not going to end. The right of return is inherently entrenched in every possible debate about Palestinian identity. There is a belief that we are all refugees forever and our kids and our grandkids are going to continue pushing the conflict forward. It is the same mentality that argues basically why we need to up-rise against Israel and the West. The argument is: my grandfather threw rocks in the 80s, I'm going to through rocks now, and this is how the cycle continues on. This metaphor has been detrimental to the conflict itself. Peace in the region is not easy. I have been involved in my career in Jerusalem and in Washington in trying to work on these matters. But I can tell you for a fact that one of the sticking point is the belief Palestinians are refugees for eternity.
What we see today and the larger issues that are coming about in the refugee camps is a symptom of a larger infrastructural problem that is UNRWA's dichotomy for terrorist activities. We have seen it over the years and UNRWA openly admits it. Even the former Secretary General of UNRWA, Peter Hansen in 2004 went on record on Canadian TV saying, of course we hire member of Hamas. Hamas is a legitimate member of Palestinian society. When one applies for a job within UNRWA there is no question about whether or not the applicant was a former member of an FTO that is a terrorist organisation. And the challenge that exists in addition to the mandate of UNRWA is that UNWRA's mandate is to teach or to work with what they define as the host country. If the host country is the mini- state of Gaza, under Hamas, then there is no surprise that the incitement and the textbooks that they are using are being used by Hamas textbooks. UNRWA schools have been corrupted; UNRWA vehicles have been abused by basically giving up their humanitarian integrity by allowing those vehicles, to transport munitions, to transport suicide bombers, to use their schools as launching pads for terrorist activities. All of these are a larger symptom of a larger infrastructural problem. But the bigger issue is that if we want to see an end to the refugees and if we want to see an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, we have to start with the Palestinian right of return and with the discussion about weaning the Palestinian society off of UNRWA services and looking at least for now, as we try to start talking about what can be done providing services by other UN agencies that are providing duplicate services like UNICEF and WHO in order to see some kind of transparency and accountability and to see where these moneys are going. Otherwise UNRWA will continue to have a monopoly over social services within the Palestinian authority and will continue to perpetuate the on-going right of return. Thank you very much.
Chair: Thank you very much, Asaf, for that analysis. Questions; I will take about three together and ask everyone to give their names before they speak. Thank you.
Question: Tim Horton.
The question that I would like to ask you would probably require another meeting. Don't you yourself benefit from the right of return having the American citizenship and the Israeli citizenship? You have exercised the right of return which makes far less obvious sense to Bin Laden then the average Palestinian. So even though your argument is very good, you discredit yourself because you yourself have exercised a right of return that you want to deny to other Palestinians.
Question 2: Name undecipherable – House of Lords
I can understand why the speaker can argue for Palestinian Authority to take in Gaza or West Bank but how can you justify the Palestinian Authority taking over from UNRWA's operations in Jordan or Lebanon. It does not seem to add up to me…
Question 3: [ name undecipherable] – Parliament
The UNRWA definition of a Palestinian refugee… (25:46). What the reason is for that? Secondly, I have an old book that quotes population figures of Palestine here as being two hundred thousand souls. About 40 thousand Jews against years versus 20 thousand twenty years ago this is 1898. And that reference is US official. [Part of the question was undecipherable]
It was published in the New York Times in 1898 that the whole of the population of Palestine which I think even included Jordan at the time was of 200 thousand people. Is the whole Palestinian refugee issue not just a made up construct and the real issue is jihad?
First of all let me just specify the gentlemen's question here. I was talking about the areas that were defined in the Right of Return related to the West Bank and Gaza, the real geographical Palestinian concern vis-à-vis UNRWA. When it comes to Jordan, there is a huge debate. First of all, Jordan being the only country that afforded Palestinians some level of citizenship, there is a question of larger assimilation of Palestinian within Jordanian society. In 1951-52 there was a Palestinian Prime Minister! There is actually a huge debate on Palestine and whether or not Jordan actually formulates a Palestinian state based on demographics, but that is a much larger debate. That is why I mentioned the comment of Queen Rania, and how she views the assimilation as it relates to Palestinians only as it relates to the other part of the river bank. The west of the river bank and not the east of the river bank as it relates to Jordan. That is part, relating to those issues. But again, in the Jordanian camps, where there are refugees, if they receive citizenship and they become Jordanian citizens; under Jordanian law might kingdom and not part of the camps and UNRWA services. And it's very different actually as far as the kind of services that are received in the Jordanian refugee camps verses those in the West Bank and in Gaza. They do very limited services there in comparison to what they do in the West Bank and Gaza because there it is more an issue of education, it is more skills in regards to employment issues but still funds come in based on where the refugees are located. That includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. UNRWA provides actual services.
In regards to the question that was raised in the back concerning the right of return and the issues of population. At the same time where there was a right of return, where there was a demand for a right of return, there were also Jewish refugees in Arab lands that were estimated at about 900,000 of Jewish refugees that were forced to leave Arab lands and on that note it is important to understand that not only were they forced to leave, but they were forced to sign documentation stating that they would never come back. If they came back they would be killed. And they left behind all of their properties. Morocco, Syria, and other countries; there is an issue of swapping of population throughout worlds. Now, the core of the issue as it relates to a Right of Return is also a lack of internalizing the creation of a state of Israel. Let's talk about the historical element. I mean if the Arab world and the Arab partition of 1947 would have been an Arab state and there wouldn't have been what led to the war of 1948. So the fact that the war took place and the fact that there was a lack of acknowledgment of what happened in the aftermath of the war, I mean again that is a lack of understanding what is going on the ground. So it is not to say that there were not attempts to try and find some kind of compromise. I mean even the newly founded state of Israel. Imagine the fact that the newly founded state of Israel, in 1951 already accepted to take in a significant majority of those who became refugees because remember those who did not flea throughout the war of independence, those became Arab Israelis by process of naturalisation. That was the goal of [name undecipherable] in the pre-state era, so there was an agreement at the time saying we'll take in the 400 thousand but you have to accept Israel's right to exist, and the fact that they decided not to and basically keep on fuelling the United Nations, fuelling the West, and basically fuelling the sense that Israel's creation is such a catastrophe, quoting the Palestinian narrative referring to the Nakba, that we have to keep it as a perpetual wound that we have to few, that I think is truly an anomaly to me as also to see how these things happen; but also quite telling about the existence of Palestinians today in the way that this narrative has been sold from year to year and generation to generation.
To the question of the numbers. First of all, what is significant about your consulate document is that it shows you that it was the United States at large that actually adopted UNRWA's definition of refugee and not vice versa. As far as who is a Palestinian refugee, and that is why it relates to my earlier comments tonight about why they continue to fund UNRWA and again because of the adaptation of that definition and not having their own definition of who is a refugee, and that is a larger question that needs to be addressed. The issue of the numbers themselves, again you are talking about at large, in the mandatory area of Palestine at the end of the war, you are not talking about 700-800,000, not including the on-going immigration that happened after World War II. There is a question of numbers and what they could contain. The biggest debate relating to the numbers is of course, how many numbers actually came about at the end of 1948-1949 as it relates to the Arabs of Palestine. And those numbers fluctuate between 10 and 15% between 400-450,000 that were forced to leave and there is a question about what actually influenced their actual move. But that is not part of this debate.
Question 2: But surely…
Chair: I'm sorry but we have a lot of hands up so we are going to have to move on.
Question: Michael Wright, Abraham Fund and Science Federation
I think one of the big problems here is whether we can talk in realpolitik rather than looking at something in a bubble which never seems to be changing. We've had this situation with the Arab Spring which is becoming an Arab nightmare and here we are continuously talking about the same problems, time and time again over 50 years, with no change whatsoever taking place. UNRWA is in position there in a quasi-form of Palestinian authorities. Do you really believe that we are ever going to get into a situation with any movement whatsoever unless there is a realisation of real situation rather than an imaginary one which always seems to be the situation when Palestinians are in question. Israel is not going away, Israel is not going to change its course specifically, and so unless the refugee situation is changed then there will never be a peace situation.
Question 2: [name undecipherable] William…
I would like to put this in a historical context. When the Jews left Spain in 1492, they carried the keys to their households; they were rescued by the Ottomans who [rest of the sentence undecipherable]. A great model for change is what Germany did. Germany granted citizenship to the children and grandchildren of the victims and compensated them. There is an insurance trust set up in the United States to make sure that restitution is given to the families of deceased murder victims. I would suggest putting a much better use of the $200 million a year the US is giving to UNRWA is trivial compared to the 3 billion dollars a year and the $30 billion a year we are giving towards the further militarisation of Israeli economy and the Israeli society. I believe that there are solutions that we can look at. I think that we ought to look at a higher calling and that is justice. The biblical tradition of Abraham calls for restitution. There are 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, living in the most magnificent beautiful houses that I have seen lately. Those are houses for the people who return. If we are not going to let them return and we are not going to give them citizenship, we should look at compensating them. And I suggest that the United States' citizens would support the reallocation of our tax money to restitution as opposed to the militarisation.
Chair: Thank you.
Question 3: Works in the office of … MP. [name undecipherable]
I have often thought that the resolution of the conflict is stalled because, to my understanding, the source of water to Israel, comes through the West Bank and Israel is not comfortable with the idea if you like an enemy or a potential enemy having full state of jurisdiction over that land where the source of water comes into, because obviously every country needs a source of water. And I was wondering if that was something you were aware of and something that actually the geography of the area needs to be in question because every country needs natural resources and water.
Asaf: The issue of water and politics (37:42). First of all, the source of the water coming from the Jordanian northern river comes in from the Golan Heights in the northern parts of Israel and continues to go through the Golan Heights all the way into Israel up until in sea of Galilee so that water itself is not what is going to the West Bank cities. The question is about the pipe lines and how the water is coming from the northern part of Israel to the entire state. The issue of water is not per say important to this part of the debate. It relates to the debate about the Syrian track and about potential peace with Syria because mostly it is about the Banias River which relates to the geography and who controls the money and where that source of water is coming from. But it is relevant to the entire concept of water and what is happening. On the issue of water on the side bar, it is important to note that the only country that has some kind of peace initiative between Israel and Jordan, sponsored by the US about irrigation is amongst those three countries centred around the issue of water and trying to create more water. Those issues that came about during the peace talks of 1994, sponsored by Cornell University in the United States.
The comment that was raised here earlier, I think it needs to be understood at greater length. It is an issue about, if you want to see resolution, you are comparing the fact that US tax payer dollars are continuing to fund an on-going endemic problem and there has to be an issue about what the reality is. We also give $2.3 million to Egypt where there is now going to be an Islamist government on the borders of the Arab Springs. I am not going to ensure that this kind of rhetoric is something that we are going to be happy with trying to contain the conflict at large. What I am saying is, and the Muslim Brotherhood for that matter is not known for its friendliness or kindness towards the West or towards Israel for that matter.
But if we want to see some kind of resolution about peace and about specifically resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, this resolution that I am talking about does not relate to the cessation of the right of return. And the movement towards a potential peace process where there will be if we accept the construct that the motto is a two state solution and if that two state solution is going to work, there has to be a cessation to the Right of Return. In order to move along a valuable Palestinian state to be, and the idea that refugee-ness continues to grow. I mean here is a great example for you, last year during May it was the current [phrase undecipherable] who was receiving exactly the same kind of actions that are occurring now in Syria, opened up the borders of Syria into Israel, asking Palestinians to actually go into Israel to say, you want a right of return, go into Israel and try and put pressure onto the Israelis to accept the right of return. There has been a use of trying to deflect internal problems of what has been happening in respective Arab states to say let's tone in Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, as if to say that is the source of all of our problems today. Now if you want to talk about settlement construction and issues that have been resolved, capital… I am saying that settlements and Jerusalem are all tangible issue. The core issue that perpetuates the on-going conflict is the right of return and that is something that needs to be resolved and looked at as far as moneys that have been coming into it, and as far as seeking out an independent Palestinian identity that is independent from the animosity towards Zionism and whatnot.
Chair: Okay, lots of hands.
Question: [Name undecipherable]
I am still not clear why the Arabs have this special status. My parents were refugees from Tunisia and Libya and they were made refugees at about the same time and they did not have refugee status, I don't have refugee status and neither do my children. We never received compensation from Libya or Tunisia bearing in mind that both my parents had to leave everything behind. So I was wondering why the Arabs got this special status. I mean you talk about it at length but it is not clear, to me anyway, why they have this special status.
Asaf: The special status of UNRWA was created prior to UNHCR. The belief was that they were a special case because of the circumstances that created their environment. There was a belief, an on-going belief, that their land was wrongfully robbed from them by the catastrophic take-over of Israel, and the fact that this was a problem of the West, America, and the State of Israel, and is the result of them coming to fruition. Not looking at the formal document or at the statements that were clearly made about why they were forced to leave and predominantly, most of the refugees that became refugees left, not under their one volition, because they were told to leave by the Arab states. Leave the country and once we eradicate and destroy the Zionist, you can come back to your homes. When that did not happen there was a lack of acceptance of the reality. There have been since 1945, a numerous amount of NGO that have been involved, from the Red Cross to the Quakers, to other groups who were involved even before UNRWA's coming to fruition, and before the United Nations came to fruition, and every one of these groups that was surveying the Arabs of Palestine, the question was an underlined lack of acceptance of the new reality and the fact that they were told to blame everyone beside their own leadership. I mean look, these large families that existed in these areas, on the east of the rivers were large Palestinian families that became the west bank: the Nashashibis, the Husseinis, the Hadouis, (44:40) they have come to comprise those nationalities of Palestinian nobility, Arab nobility. They still claim to that kind of clannish like environment, without the understanding of how to move forward.
I mean you are a perfect example! You were forced to leave, with no compensation and never to come back. That is the biggest discrepancies between Jews in Arab lands and Arabs who became the special case study, and that is why it is so unique. But it goes even deeper by the fact the United Nations actually created a double standard within the UN and actually fuelled that idea that Arabs of Palestine are special. How is it possible that according to these standards, UNRWA and UNHCR don't go hand in hand? To even go further UNRWA is the largest employer of Palestinians to date. 30,000 employees are Palestinians that are employed by UNRWA. Whereas UNHCR global refugees worldwide only employs a maximum of 6 thousand individuals. Just to give you the large discrepancy of where we are 64 years later without any kind of movement towards resolution because there is an-going sentiment that "we are refugees forever". To add one more point, the first person to raise this in Congress in the United States was actually the late Tom Lentos, who was the only Holocaust survivor in Congress and he wrote to say you know: I am an American, I am a refugee, but I want to solve the refugee problem. He wrote this in 2000, just to give you the larger historical context that needs to be put out there.
Chair: Right, we will try and get just a few more people in.
Question: [Name undecipherable]
I was in Israel recently and I heard an address by a member of the Knesset. He raised an issue which I had not heard before, which was after Syria follows Egypt in its course, which he thinks is inevitable, the next in line to follow that path will be Jordan, which he says is largely made up of Palestinians. When that happens, the Palestinians will have acquired a two state solution. At that moment, Israel's only solution will be to annex the West Bank and to grant foreign military status to all … In effect what he was saying is that Israel can impose this two state solution at that junction and that will be its only solution given the Islamisation of the region. Would you care to comment?
Question 2: (john Curtis)
I think one of the great challenges for Islam is how to work and live with people who are not Muslims. In the past there was tolerance, but since 50, 60 years, that tolerance within society has considerably decreased and the result is that, not only in the Middle East where the focus is today, but in Nigeria and many other parts of the world, there is a great deal of tension between those who are very strong in their belief and those who are more tolerant. There is definitely a struggle there. I think when that is solved within Islam; there will be a much better chance with Israel. I don't think that we have begun, in all of this discussion; the real issue is how do we find a way for Islam to accept Israel, the return of Jews, the return of Zionism to the same of Israel, which in fact preceded…
Chair: I think you have made your point; I want to go to someone else as we are very short on time.
Question 3: [name undecipherable]
I am writing a master student at the London School of Economics writing my dissertation on UNRWA. Your argument seems to be essentially that UNRWA is an enemy of Israel. I want to know how you would reconcile that with the fact that not only does Israel funds UNRWA, which I am sure you know as you are a scholar. When an AIPAC campaign put pressure on the US to withdraw its funding from the UN, the Israeli government intervened and asked him not to because the occupying zone of Israel is responsible for the UNRWA and UNRWA is actually doing its job.
Asaf: I'll start with the last question. The relationship between UNRWA and Israel is a Catch 22. The government of the state of Israel believes that UNRWA services are needed, and we can talk about what kind of services are required for Palestinian society but the argument is that the reason that they are committed to concede to UNRWA's existence is that the belief is that if UNRWA doesn't do these services it is going to be Israel's responsibility. On the question of UNRWA and the State of Israel, I would like to correct you on one of your points. Israel does not contribute to UNRWA. Israel votes in the General Assembly that UNRWA will continue with its services, but does not give any monetary contributions to UNRWA.
Question 3: Yes it does! I can show you sources.
Asaf: I can show you sources as well. What is happening now as it relates to UNRWA and Israel is actually an initiative by an Israeli MK on the Left who has actually also adopted the same resolution that came out of Senator Marc Kirk in Washington about the cessation of the right of return. UNRWA claims that UNRWA services will cease to exist when there is an actual resolution, whatever that means, whatever that final solution is going to be. The only time and what we've been seeing coming out, concerned about also has to do with UNRWA's ties to terrorism, and now there have been a lot more questions about the kind of services UNRWA provides, how the schools are being used. This happened very much so after this engagement in Gaza I 2005. Where UNRWA has been able to say I am a neutral party is now under Gaza and under Hamas whereas Hamas is now stealing UNRWA goods and selling them to the Palestinians saying that UNRWA used to get it for free for the Palestinians. So there is actually a catch 22 that plays out here. That is the sole reason that Israel does not advocate openly/publicly, in an active way that UNRWA services should stop. But the fear for the Israel is an issue mainly of dependency. Mainly that those services that are coming out of the state of Israel and we are going to need money to make that happen. Now those moneys are coming out of contributions out of the west and the Arab world to say provide for the Palestinian refugees that is part of this on-going dynamic
The question that was raised here about the fragmentation of Palestinian society and the issue of geographical environment we are facing. I would argue that even before there is any kind of collaboration with Jordan, between the east and the west of the river bank, you are actually talking about a three state solution. You are talking about Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. If you are talking about western foreign policy, Western foreign policy is pretty much synonymous to Israeli foreign policy that is we do not negotiate with terrorist organisation, Hamas terrorist groups. The same environment as it relates to Israel. The Catch 22 for Israelis is that they are forced to negotiate by being blackmailed vis-à-vis kidnapped soldiers; even the whole Shalit negotiations at large was perceived by Hamas as legitimate negotiations without changing their internal mandate because it was perceived as legitimate. I would argue that you have a better chance if Fayyad stays in power, bolstering Palestinian economy, empowering their society, there is a better chance Israel can create some kind of peace, whatever that two state is going to be between the West Bank and Israel. I will leave Gaza off of the table because I do not see any time soon that Hamas is changing their mandate and accepting Israel. That is just a reality on the ground.
The debate about Islam, theology and politics go hand in hand in the Middle East. That conflict that you were talking about started predominantly with the fall of the Islamic empire, the Turkish empire and the rise of Arab nationalism whereas there is a growing sense that it is not about being a Muslim, being Arab and speaking Arabic, we have to create a nationalistic identity and part of that issue has to do with acceptance versus recognition and mutual recognition. There has been an on-going fuelling rejectionism towards the recognition of a Jewish Zionistic state within these confines. That is why this debate which actually started which came out of British delegation, American delegations, trying to create what would be defined as peace in the region going back to the commission, the partition of 1922, and all of this boils down to the acceptance of a Jewish state and a Jewish presence in the area. That is part of that dynamic. You can talk about the fact that until there is a sign of mutual recognition and putting aside of rejectionism, we are never going to see that. You can argue that. There certainly a lot of that going around in the Arab world and in the Arab Spring with the Muslim Brotherhood and within many fragments of the Israeli society at large from the mufti who met with Hitler all the way to Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat.
Chair: We have to end here because our time is up. But thank you very much Asaf for you fascinating contributions, and thank you everyone for your intelligent questions. Thanks for all of you for your contributions.