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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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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