by Sondra Oster Baras
September 4, 2018
We were treated to wonderful news last week as US President Donald Trump declared that the US would no longer fund UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and criticized the agency for hindering rather than helping efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians. UNRWA’s 2017 budget, according to the Washington Post, was $1.1 billion and the US provided more than 30% of that annual budget. Without US support, it is assumed that UNRWA will be forced to make changes and perhaps even cease its operations. That is the hope of the US government in any case.
UNRWA represents one of the most poorly handled issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict and is probably the least understood by the general public. In 1948, as Israel battled against five invading Arab armies intent on destroying Israel even before it had a chance to begin a new independent life, Arab leaders in and outside of Israel called upon Arabs living in Israel to flee from their homes. These Arab leaders assured their followers that they were about to destroy the nascent state and throw the Jews into the sea; therefore, they surmised, the local Arabs would do well to flee to safety in neighboring Arab countries only to return to their homes once Israel had been destroyed. Fortunately for the Jews and unfortunately for these fleeing Arabs, the Arabs did not destroy Israel and those who had fled their homes in Lod, Haifa, Ramle, and other areas that became part of the State of Israel found themselves refugees in their new countries of residence. There were approximately 600,000 such refugees at the time.
A parallel refugee situation arose at the same time. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab countries in 1948, in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. When Israel became a state, most of these Jews were immediately expelled from countries they had called home for centuries. Homeless and penniless, most of them turned to the only country that was eager to take them — the new State of Israel.
In 1948, therefore, there were two parallel refugee situations created as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel. Some 600,000 Jews fled Arab countries while some 600,000 Arabs fled Israel. But there the similarity ended. While the Jews were absorbed into Israel, given immediate citizenship and whatever assistance the young state could offer, including housing, social service assistance, free education and medical care, the Arab countries refused to absorb their refugees. They denied them citizenship and put them in refugee camps. While the Arabs fled to countries that shared their language, culture, religion and national identity, which would have made integration easy, the Jews came to Israel with very different languages and cultures, although they did, indeed, share a religion and national identity with their absorbing society. The struggle to absorb these new immigrants was not easy but Israel rose to the challenge. Today, there is no way to identify an Israeli whose parents were refugees from Arab countries. They are all Israelis.
Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which has been charged with looking after refugees all over the world since the end of World War II, UNRWA was established for the sole purpose of looking after the Palestinian refugees. And while UNHCR’s objective has been to help refugees find permanent homes and free themselves from refugee status, UNRWA has done everything it could to perpetuate the refugee status of its charges. Refugee camps are still in existence more than 70 years after they were first created. There has been no attempt to permanently resettle these refugees in their current countries. The Palestinian refugee situation has been blatantly manipulated by the Arab world to create a population of people who hate Israel and whose misery is used to blame Israel for their plight. Palestinian refugees are the only refugee group in the world who have passed on refugee status from generation to generation, so that rather than a dwindling refugee population of perhaps 100,000 at most, UNRWA has more than 3 million refugees listed on its books.
UNRWA does provide food and education to many Palestinians, particularly in Gaza and there is a concern that with the cessation or decrease in UNRWA activity, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will become exacerbated. But UNRWA facilities have also been used by Hamas as missile launching bases and weapons depots and some of UNRWA’s employees are Hamas operatives. For these reasons and more, the US finally decide to call it quits.
We are all concerned for the plight of the Palestinian Arabs in Gaza held hostage by Hamas, an evil terrorist organization disguising itself as a government. But UNRWA is not the answer.
Many years ago, a dear friend of mine, the late Rabbi Benny Elon, began to write and talk about the need to resettle the Palestinian refugees in their host countries and to dismantle UNRWA. At that time, no one paid any attention to what he was saying. I remember him saying to me in his office: “UNRWA is the biggest obstacle to peace!” I had not thought about it until then but immediately understood how right he was. Today, the United States has finally understood how right he was and I can only hope and pray that other nations will follow suit.
Dismantling UNRWA will be the first step towards an honest approach to the Palestinian issue and will force humanitarian agencies the world over to look these people in the eye and figure out what is best for them. Not what is best for their corrupt leadership or for the Arab nations who have used them as pawns for years to further their anti-Israel agenda. When the so-called Palestinian refugees can receive permanent housing and citizenship throughout the Arab world and abandon any dreams of returning to a Palestine built on the ruins of the State of Israel, then we will have moved much closer to peace.