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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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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