Analysis from Israel

Hundreds of Palestinian refugees demonstrated outside the Canadian Embassy in Beirut on Sept. 5 to request asylum in Canada or the European Union, the second such protest in the last month. The most surprising aspect of these demonstrations is that they have been so long in coming. Only now, after more than 70 years, are Palestinians publicly protesting the fact that they alone, of all the world’s refugees, are denied the most basic of refugee rights—the right to seek resettlement in a safe third country.

All other refugees worldwide are handled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which resettles tens of thousands of refugees in third countries every year. But Palestinian refugees aren’t allowed to apply to UNHCR; they are handled by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, an agency created exclusively for them. And UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single refugee in its 70 years of existence.

The only option it offers the refugees and their descendants is eternal limbo: awaiting a “return” to Israel that will never happen. Thus it’s unsurprising that the protesters also assailed UNRWA for depriving them of “their most basic rights.”

Moreover, this refusal to grant Palestinians a right of resettlement enjoys the full support of so-called human-rights organizations and self-proclaimed advocates of human rights like the European Union. Thus it’s equally unsurprising that groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch completely ignored the demonstration.

Of course, one could legitimately argue (as I frequently have) that most Palestinians simply aren’t genuine refugees. Granted, those who demonstrated in Lebanon face discrimination due to their nationality: Not only are they denied citizenship, but as the Associated Press noted, they have “no access to public services, limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership.”

But they’ve never faced the kind of threat that would drive them to flee. Most Palestinians in Lebanon—like most of those in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan—were born there and have lived there all their lives. And the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly defines a refugee only as someone who has fled his country due to “well-founded fear” of persecution or, if he’s stateless, is “outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of” such a fear. So it’s understandable that even Palestinians who manage to reach Western countries and apply for asylum there are usually rejected, unless they’re from war-torn Syria.

Yet no Western country actually makes the argument that Palestinians aren’t real refugees; they all accept UNRWA’s definition of refugeehood—an inherited status bequeathed to every new generation of Palestinians in perpetuity even if the “refugees” have citizenship in their country of residence, like most of those in Jordan, and even if they reside in what the United Nations itself has recognized as the Palestinian state, like all those living in the West Bank and Gaza. And as long as the West insists on defining Palestinians as refugees, it has an obligation to grant them the same rights as other refugees, including the right of resettlement.

Moreover, resettlement is what many of the refugees themselves want—and not just in Lebanon. Repeated polls show that more than 40 percent of Gazans want to emigrate (the figure hit 45 percent in one 2018 poll), as do around 20 percent of West Bankers. And many of these would-be émigrés are certainly refugees, given that more than 70 percent of Gazans and almost 30 percent of West Bankers are registered as refugees, and that refugees are generally among the worst-off members of Palestinian society. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have deliberately kept them in squalid camps and denied them basic services to generate Western sympathy for the demand that they all be resettled in Israel.

So why has the West, with ardent support from “human rights” organizations, continued to deny Palestinian refugees a basic refugee right that they themselves want to exercise? The answer can be found in an astonishing conversation that journalist Yoav Sorek recounted in Mosaic back in 2014. He and a colleague asked an official from ECHO, the E.U.’s humanitarian aid agency, why it didn’t help Gazans who so desired to resettle in other countries. The official replied, “Because if they leave, it’d be like releasing Israel from its responsibility for the ‘nakba,’ ” the Palestinian term (meaning “catastrophe”) for the refugee crisis spawned by the Arabs’ war to prevent Israel’s establishment in 1948.

In other words, the West has kept Palestinian refugees in miserable limbo for 70 years and deprived them of their basic right to resettlement in order to hold a gun to Israel’s head: Either make enough political concessions to the Palestinians and/or Arab states that they’ll deign to grant citizenship to their own brethren, or risk being flooded by millions of “refugees” and their descendants, who will destroy the Jewish state demographically. Just like the Palestinian Authority, the West has been treating these Palestinians as political game pieces rather than human beings with needs, wants and rights of their own. And as the protests in Lebanon show, Palestinians are increasingly fed up with this role.

Any resettlement program would have to be led by an international agency like UNHCR. Though an Israeli official ludicrously asserted in August that Israel is actively promoting emigration from Gaza, in reality, this isn’t something Israel can do much about. As I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, neither Palestinians nor other countries would feel comfortable cooperating with Israel as part of such an effort.

But what Israel and its supporters can and should do is wage a full-throated campaign to demand that the international community finally choose: Either admit that the Palestinians aren’t actually refugees or finally start treating them as real refugees. If the former, it should dismantle UNRWA and use the agency’s $1.2 billion budget to encourage the places where Palestinians now live to start providing them with citizenship and basic services. And if the latter, it should dismantle UNRWA, transfer responsibility for Palestinian refugees to UNHCR and finally grant them the basic right of resettlement.

After 70 years, it’s long past time to stop treating millions of Palestinians as nothing but perpetual pawns in a war to destroy Israel.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 11, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

2 Responses to Palestinians are tired of being the only refugees denied the right to resettlement

  • Robert Blum says:

    Evelyn, i usually love your writing and i know that this wasnt the focus of your piece, but you do a grave injustice to your argument by not adding a paragraph about the great and even population exchange of ancient community Jews from Arab countries for the Palestinians, like many others that occurred at that time period and were accepted by the world (pakistani muslims for indian hindus, greeks-turks, getmans-poles and czechs etc). These jewish communities were chased out by violent antisemitism and massive wealth stolen by Muslim Arab communities, to no words by the world of their entitlement to justice. Indeed, in the colonialist-native narrative, many of these jewish communities in Africa were the indigenous ones, pre-dated the Muslim colonialist occupiers of the 7th century, much as thry did in the land of israel. They and their decendents make up half of israel’s population — make use of their story. Dont be blinded by ashkenaz blindness or indifference to their plight, whoch also makes for a damned good argument.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Excellent article! Let me add a few random notes:

    1. One legal issue to overcome would the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Article 1.D. is a show-stopper because it states: “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance.” UNHCR was created by the convention, and that article means it has no legal jurisdiction over Palestinians who were under UNRWA, which pre-dates the 1951 convention. This is not just semantics. Fortunately it’s not an insurmountable challenge. It’s just something to keep in mind as a first step.

    2. An important distinction is that UNRWA sees itself as a social agency. They provide schools and medical care to the Palestinians. They’re accused of perpetuating the Palestinian problem and not seeking a solution–and that’s because solutions are not in their DNA. In contrast, UNHCR sees itself first and foremost as a legal entity. That’s where its mandate and capacity for viable durable solutions (including resettlement) comes from. It would be good to combine the two entities, but that probably would not work given the history and corporate cultures. It’s probably easier to eliminate 1.D. above, and then beef up UNHCR’s capacity to work with a group it has no experience with. Then leave the schools, clincs, etc. with an UNRWA that’s reformed (or at least renamed).

    3. Palestinians actually have been resettled to third countries by UNHCR, but in extremely small numbers, and under extraordinary circumstances. It’s usually one by one, although small-ish groups were resettled from Iraq.

    4. A bottleneck worth mentioning is the PLO. Their vitriolic response to any dissent to any Palestinian movements (i.e. anything that would dilute the “right to return”) is a huge issue. This is directly related to your “perpetual pawn” statement.

    5. Another problem is public sentiment in the resettlement countries. In both Europe and the USA, the fear of terrorists among Syrian refugees has become a major issue. Can you imagine the reaction if Palestinians are put into the resettlement mix? Politicians in those countries AND Israel would need to stop demonizing the Palestinians in order to get public support.

    6. In better times, the second Bush administration floated the idea (“offered” is too strong a term) to accept Palestinians in very large numbers: up to a hundred thousand. http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=188889 .

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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