Palestinian identity is rooted in three basic ingredients: the "right of return" to Israel for all Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants; permanent, sanctified struggle with Israel; and permanent recognition of their status as refugees, dispossessed at the hand of Israel with the participation of the international community. A corollary demand is that the international community must sustain all Palestinian "refugees" through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) until the Palestinians themselves, somehow, declare the "refugee crisis" resolved.
This fundamental element of the Arab-Israeli conflict has eluded both many Western observers and Israelis, who have focused on the territorial aspect of the conflict. In fact, it is the right of return that fundamentally powers the conflict, while UNRWA serves as captain of the ship.
Both Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, authors of The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, have a liberal Israeli background and are supporters of the two-state solution. Wilf is a former Israeli politician who served as a member of Knesset for the Independence and Labor parties, while Schwartz is a former staff writer for the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz turned academic.
To Wilf's credit, she was one of the few Israeli politicians to take on the UNRWA issue when she was in office; she launched an international parliamentary campaign to restructure UNRWA and "combat the inflation of the numbers of refugees" in order to make a two-state solution possible.
Historically, there has been more criticism of UNRWA emanating from North America (including the author of this review) than from elected Israeli officials. There has been an understanding among Israeli decision-makers that while UNRWA is indeed problematic, it does something useful in providing services to Palestinians. When Wilf entered the scene, she challenged this Israeli zeitgeist, calling attention to UNRWA's administrative decisions to extend refugee status to additional generations of Palestinians, creating more "refugees" and thus extending its own mandate. She also correctly noted that UNRWA's endorsement of the Palestinian "right of return" lies at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, not coincidentally, also ensures UNRWA's continued existence.
Getting people to understand the centrality of the Palestinian right of return and UNRWA's role in it has not been easy. Yet since the US Trump Administration cut funding to UNRWA last year – reducing the US contribution to zero – the agency's fortunes have plummeted and there has been renewed interest in the topic, which adds to the timeliness of the book.
To the authors' credit, they raise a lesser-known story which relates to US foreign policy towards Arab-Palestinian refugees – Israel's reaction to the Economic Survey Mission (ESM) in the winter of 1949. The ESM's mission was to assess what could be done regarding these refugees. It was anticipated that this US-led regional development program would help raise the overall economic level of the region and thereby facilitate resettlement of Palestine Arab refugees, something the authors show the Israelis favoured.
The orientation of the commission, particularly under former Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) chairman Gordon Clapp, signalled to all parties that Washington would back large-scale regional development that could benefit both the major states and the refugees.
The mission's primary task – to investigate and make recommendations for regional economic development – had also raised the prospect of large-scale resettlement. Though the mission used the same "repatriation, resettlement, and economic and social rehabilitation" formula which is part of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 – the 1948 resolution generally cited as the legal source of the claimed Palestinian "right of return" – the implicit resettlement implications of regional economic development plans were clear.
These appeared to divide both the members of the Clapp mission and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who were engaged in refugee relief operations.
For the Israeli team, led by then-foreign minister Moshe Sharett and then-finance minister Eliezer Kaplan, the solution was clear and rested only within the framework of resettlement; repatriation was not part of the equation. Even today the Israeli perspective has been consistent: that UNRWA has prolonged and exacerbated the problem rather than working towards real solutions that would have resettled the Arab-Palestinian population.
The ESM rarely gets exposure in Israeli literature and Schwartz and Wilf unpack some of this key story. It would have been useful to also include reviews of other early relief programs, such as the one conducted in Gaza by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and its relationship with Israel, in order to highlight the layers of early relief initiatives.
In 1948, the AFSC was at the height of its international prominence. Further, the AFSC's 18 month-operation in the Gaza Strip was exemplary. The organisation provided food, set up schools and clinics, and faced down the Egyptian military. Unlike any other relief organisation, at the time or since, the AFSC conducted an accurate census and reduced its rolls of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, the AFSC understood that even if the refugees did accept resettlement, no Arab state would accept them. The only possible solution would be political, not economic. And such a solution did not seem likely in the near future.
To its credit, the AFSC could not countenance participating in an open-ended relief program, which it believed would intensify the "moral degeneration" of the refugees and the degradation of their skills, self-reliance, and self-respect.
As a result, the AFSC withdrew from Gaza in early 1950, turning its responsibilities over to the United Nations organisation UNRWA. By the 1960s, the AFSC began to take a more explicit and fervent pro-Palestinian stance, embracing the growing radicalism and developing a willingness to accommodate the use of violence in the Middle East conflict.
Schwartz and Wilf's book is a welcome addition to the corpus of writings on the Arab-Palestinian refugee problem, opening a door to the Israeli decision-making processes which at times have avoided tackling the problem, allowing it to grow. However, understanding the relationship between Israel and other religious and non-religious NGOs is especially important.
Schwartz and Wilf are also right to end their book with a chapter devoted to what to do with UNRWA.
If the goal is to create a Palestinian state, the refugee ideology and structures such as UNRWA make this almost impossible. The agency should therefore be dismantled if possible, or otherwise defunded by Western donors. Resources and responsibilities should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, both within its own territories and in neighbouring countries. Oversight mechanisms must be dramatically enhanced to prevent financial corruption and to ensure above all that UNRWA's educational curriculum promotes peace instead of hatred and the "right of return", as it does now.
Local resettlement of Palestinians must be encouraged. Pressure must be exerted, in particular on Lebanon, to permit Palestinians to own property and work in their professions. Similar measures must be taken for Syrian Palestinians as an integral part of the negotiations that end the civil war in that country. West Bank Palestinians whose health and welfare is provided for by UNRWA must become the full responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.
But until the Palestinian leadership gives up, however reluctantly, the "right of return," by declaring their struggle against Israel at an end, and by declaring that an independent Palestine means no Palestinian is a refugee, there will be no peace.
At the end of the day, as there are more books in support of the Palestinian "right of return" and of UNRWA at large, this book is a welcome contribution to counterbalancing the fallacies and myths about this so-called "right". It is especially useful for students of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli decision-makers who seek to understand the larger goals and objectives of what has become a canonical axiom in Arab Palestinian identity.