Analysis from Israel

Why are Palestinians the only refugees in the world denied the right of third-country resettlement?

Last week, I argued that the growing importance of demographic arguments for ceding territory makes it vital for Israel to determine what the demographic facts really are. This, incidentally, is true even for supporters of a two-state solution: There’s a big difference between having to withdraw immediately, at any cost, to avoid imminent demographic doom and having another few decades in which to seek an agreement.

But the lack of hard data is compounded by another problem: the assumption that demographic facts, whatever they may be, are largely immutable.

In reality, there are three ways to change demographic balances: immigration, emigration and natural increase. But only the first receives any attention at all from Israeli policy-makers, because in a brilliant feat of brainwashing, the other two have been successfully branded as racist, anti-democratic and contrary to human rights.

With regard to natural increase, this could be due to simple ignorance of what a rational policy entails (which I’ll explain next week). But with regard to emigration, it’s downright Orwellian. Because what really violates human rights is the fact that Palestinians are the only refugees in the world denied the fundamental right of resettlement.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which deals with all refugees worldwide except Palestinians, resettles tens of thousands of people every year (about 70,000 annually from 2008-2012). But UNRWA, the agency created to deal exclusively with Palestinian refugees, hasn’t resettled a single one in 66 years, because resettlement isn’t in its mandate. Instead, it seeks to keeps both the original displaced persons and all their descendants as perpetual refugees, vainly awaiting a “return” to Israel that will never happen unless Israel ceases to exist. And the rest of the world – especially the “enlightened” West, which funds most of UNRWA’s budget – shamefully abets this gross violation of Palestinian rights.

To understand the nature of this abuse, consider Yoav Sorek’s account in Mosaic of what ensued when he and a friend, citing surveys showing that 40 percent of Gazans want to leave, asked a representative of ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian aid agency, why the agency didn’t try to help them do so.

His reply was startling in its candor. “Are you kidding? 40 percent? It’s probably 99 percent. All of them want to leave!” Well, we repeated, have you thought of helping them? “No, never.” Why not? “Because if they leave, it’d be like releasing Israel from its responsibility for the nakba.” 

In other words, Palestinians are being denied a fundamental right enjoyed by all other refugees for the sake, as Sorek aptly put it, “of a political vendetta.” Or to put it more bluntly, in a vain effort to undo Israel’s establishment in 1948. For on that very day, five Arab armies aided by Palestinian irregulars invaded the newborn state, resulting in the refugee crisis Palestinians term the Nakba. Only by deeming Israel’s very creation a crime could you hold it responsible for the outcome of a war started by the Arabs themselves with intent to annihilate it.

But whether or not Sorek’s 40 percent figure is accurate, many Palestinians clearly don’t want to be sacrificed on the altar of this vendetta. Even PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi inadvertently admitted as much in an October 2012 interview with Haaretz: “The worst thing that can happen to Palestinians is to keep having this hemorrhage of people leaving,” she complained. And if Palestinians are “hemorrhaging” even in the absence of any resettlement aid, more would likely leave if offered the same assistance given other refugees worldwide.

My fellow columnist Martin Sherman has argued that Israel should simply provide this aid itself: The country can afford it, and the long-term benefits would outweigh the costs. But Palestinians would more readily accept aid from an international organization like UNHCR than from Israel; other countries would more readily accede to resettlement requests from UNHCR than from Israel; an UNHCR declaration that the refugees were refugees no longer would carry more international weight than an Israeli one; and an Israeli-run program would likely generate massive international opposition, because it would be portrayed as mere jockeying for advantage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than as giving Palestinians a basic right that they have been denied for far too long. Thus while Israel could and should contribute to such an effort, attempting to resettle Palestinian refugees all by itself probably wouldn’t work.

But at the very least, Israel and its overseas supporters should be demanding loudly and clearly, in every possible venue, that the “international community” give Palestinians the same rights as other refugees. While forcing Palestinians to leave if they don’t want to would obviously be unacceptable, it’s neither “racist” nor “anti-democratic” to demand that they receive the same resettlement assistance given to other refugees. Indeed, it’s racist and anti-democratic to deny them this right.

Granted, this argument has an obvious flaw: Aside from some 540,000 Palestinians caught in Syria’s civil war, most of the five million listed as refugees by UNRWA aren’t actually refugees at all. They’re descendants of genuine refugees, but they themselves were never displaced; they’ve lived all their lives in the same spot. In fact, most of them live in their very own state, if you believe the 138 countries who voted to declare “Palestine” a state at the UN just 18 months ago. Consequently, they don’t qualify as refugees under UNHCR’s definition, which applies to everyone in the world except Palestinians; they’re considered refugees only because under UNRWA’s warped definition, refugeehood is inherited by a refugee’s descendants in perpetuity.

Personally, I’d rather end this anomaly, dismantle UNRWA and strip these fictitious refugees of their status. Among other reasons, the world’s real refugees would benefit greatly if all the money now wasted on fake refugees were spent on them instead.

But since the “international community” shows no signs of being willing to do this, Israel should at least stop letting its hypocrisy go unchallenged. If the world insists on treating these Palestinians as refugees, then Israel should insist it grant them the same right granted to all other refugees – the right to internationally assisted resettlement.

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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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