By Yoav Sorek, The Israeli Initiative

The Palestinian Refugee issue is unique on two counts. First, in that it is still unsolved after six decades, with no serious attempts at being solved – unlike countless other refugee situations that have come and gone.

Second, unlike most refugees, which are under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency (UNHCR), Palestinian refugee camps are run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

UNRWA was founded after the 1948 War of Independence to provide relief and employment to the roughly 600,000 Palestinians that became refugees as a result of the war. The agency defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood” in the 1948 war… plus their descendants.

It is important to note that the inclusion of the descendants of the uprooted people in the ‘refugee’ status is unique. By all other definitions, refugees are exiles fleeing their homeland for safety – not including subsequent generations. Since the Palestinian refugee problem remained unsolved, UNRWA changed the criteria for refugee registration. While all other refugee populations declined as years passed, the number of Palestinian refugees continues to grow. Today, UNRWA provides education, health, relief and social services to over 4.6 million registered refugees in the Middle East, according to the agency’s likely inaccurate numbers.

UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees does not have the mandate to solve their problem. It can provide services within UNRWA camps, but cannot find the refugees new homes. This is one reason that the Palestinian refugee problem has existed for 61 years. UNRWA has only served to perpetuate the issue and preserve the refugees as they are: waiting for the state of Israel to disappear and for the ‘Right of Return’ to be realized.

Other refugees around the world receive aid from UNHCR, and are rehabilitated within a few years. In keeping with UNHCR’s charter, these refugees have either returned home or settled in other countries. This is how the international community has handled millions of refugees from wars in Africa, Yugoslavia, Southeast Asia and, in recent years, Iraq. This is true everywhere except in Israel. What makes Palestinian refugees different from the others? Why haven’t they been rehabilitated? The answer is simple: UNRWA.