Fiction and reality are often indistinguishably juxtaposed in the Middle East. This week, when Hamas called on Palestinians fleeing Syria to come to the Gaza instead of risking their lives at sea, it seemed a surreal caricature.
The call — made by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh — came after the Libyan coast guard opened fire at a boat carrying 374 Palestinian refugees from Syria. The irony is that the Syrian refugees are indeed facing a real human tragedy, but it's not just the Palestinians among them. The Hamas offer — on the surface a generous humanitarian gesture — is in fact a none-too-subtle attempt to refocus global attention on the Palestinian refugee issue while turning a blind eye to the plight of non-Palestinians fleeing from Syria.
By all accounts, over a million Syrians have crossed the border seeking safe haven from the deadly violence there, which has killed upwards of 100,000 people in the last three years. The refugees have largely poured into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan. These are areas which can ill afford to either house the refugees or endure the destabilizing economic, demographic, and potential political forces for which they become a catalyst. Other Arab nations — Gulf states with the petro-dollars to finance substantial aid efforts — have either refused to host Syrian refugees altogether (Bahrain) or sent token amounts of aid (Qatar, Saudi Arabia) to assist them.
The influx of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon (by August 2013, over 670,000) has challenged all conventional wisdom regarding the Palestinians refugees. Lebanon is singularly unequipped to absorb the refugees; the long memory of the shattering effects of an influx of Palestinians displaced by the Black September (1970) campaign of Jordan's King Hussein, and the subsequent decades-long bloody civil war that followed, lingers. The consequences of that war — a total devolution of Lebanon's political, economic, social, and religious infrastructure, a long occupation by Syria's Assad regime, and a shadow-state run by Shi'a dominated and Iran-financed Hezbollah — reverberate through Lebanon.
Jordan, which had (in August 2013) absorbed over half a million Syrians, has set aside separate refugee camps for Palestinians and forcibly repatriated some others. Accommodating by far the greatest number of Syrians, Turkey's resources are stretched to the limit and its government has begun accepting international resources; but Ankara is acutely concerned about the potential unrest fomented by the refugees (as well as Syrian rebel and Assad loyalist forces lurking among them).
Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey share another dilemma – that of how best to house the refugees. Refugees placed in camps are more easily organized and provided with services. Funding can be more transparently accounted through recognized agencies like UNHCR as well as other NGOs such as the Red Cross. The host countries also seem to believe that such camps can limit the potential political destabilization that rampant assimilation of the refugees into mainstream society may cause.
To date the United States has pledged more than $800 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees. None has been specifically earmarked for Palestinians. Yet UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) continues to press for more money, arguing that its mission to 'provide emergency assistance to Palestine refugees' is endangered by the crisis. Another illustration of how UNRWA attempts to highlight the Palestinians as a "privileged group" that is the only group deserving attention from the world.
Unlike Lebanon, the 470,000 Palestinians in Syria have over the decades been granted the right to work in any profession; yet they are not citizens and cannot own property besides the houses in which they reside. Most Palestinians in Syria have never known another home and are effectively Syrian, as other groups in that country's ethno-religious patchwork. Unlike Christians, Druze and other groups now being turned into refugees or internally displaced persons, Palestinians have UNRWA to provide support and act as their advocate.
The Syrian refugee crisis highlights not only a temporary jurisdictional conflict between UNRWA and UNHCR; it also brings into focus questions over UNRWA's continued role. More than a bureaucratic snafu, the mandate of UNRWA – to protect and (at least ipso facto) perpetuate the status of Palestinians as refugees – is sharply at odds with that of UNHCR, which seeks to protect, integrate and resettle refugees so that they are no longer considered refugees. It is incumbent on the United Nations to reevaluate UNRWA's continued role. Hamas' exclusive offer reflects a larger 'truism' in global politics: Palestinian refugees – and the Israel/Palestinian dispute – are the fulcrum of conflict in the region and should necessarily draw special attention. The violence in Syria (as well as in Egypt) and the very real human tragedy visited upon over a million people, vividly underscores the spuriousness of the myth of Palestinian centrality.
Nicole Brackman is a historian who writes extensively on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics. Asaf Romirowsky, is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.