by Rabbi Benny Elon, The Israel Initiative
The refugee problem can and must be solved. All peace processes in the Middle East have included elaborate declarations for rehabilitation programs for the refugees but all have delayed the development and implementation of such programs until the end of the process. This process remains stuck today and the Palestinian refugees, Israel, the Arab countries and the Western world remain unresolved.
From a Political Solution to a Humanitarian Solution
The ongoing suffering of the refugees nurtured the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Generations in refugee camps have galvanized the national consciousness and the desire to destroy Israel. Instead of resolving their suffering and dealing with the root of the problem, Israel and the international community chose to cultivate the Palestinian national consciousness and to advance the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Everyone believes that the refugee problem will be resolved when this state is created.
This policy is a profound failure. It has not resulted in peace, but rather in war. There has been no improvement in the status of the Palestinian refugees whatsoever. UNRWA continues to act under the Palestinian Authority, the refugees continue to live in camps, and Palestinian citizenship carries no value whatsoever.
Once again the refugees are being abandoned. Great sums of money have been invested not in their rehabilitation, but rather in the building up of the Palestinian Authority. The PA is a proterrorist, corrupt authority that has not brought any benefit to the Palestinians themselves, and has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an endless cycle of bloodshed.
To eliminate despair, we must change course before it is too late. We must begin now by solving the refugee problem.
How do we solve the refugee problem?
Refugee problems are solvable. The international community has amassed broad and diverse experience in doing so. In recent decades, millions of people from Asia, Africa and Europe have exited their refugee status and undergone rehabilitation. The Palestinian refugee problem is no different than any of these other refugee issues.
In order to rehabilitate refugees, there are three principle avenues upon which we can operate: (a) rehabilitation in a temporary country of refuge (b) rehabilitation within a third country (c) return to the homeland.
The State of Israel, as a Jewish State cannot allow itself to absorb these refugees. The Palestinian refugees are large in number at this point and they carry a deep hostility towards Zionism and the State of Israel. This makes the third avenue unviable, which leaves us with the first two avenues to choose from.
Rehabilitation in a temporary country of refuge
The refugees from 1948 found shelter in four major destinations: Jordan, Lebanon, Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The best absorption took place in Jordan. As opposed to the other Arab countries, the Jordanian monarchy received some of the refugees as citizens. These former refugees integrated into society, the economy and even the Jordanian government. Within the framework of a comprehensive rehabilitation program and appropriate economic incentives for the refugees and the monarchy, we can reasonably assume that most of the refugees living within Jordan will choose to remain there as citizens and continue to rehabilitate their lives. The rehabilitation process will energize the economy in the monarchy and will strengthen regional economic initiatives such as the “Valley of Peace” (Emek Hashalom).
In Lebanon, we are witnesses to the painful, ongoing process of the refugee problem, for those who have not become Lebanese citizens. Sixty years after arriving in this country, the time has come for the international community and the Arab world to demand that Lebanon take part in finding a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and cease discrimination against its Palestinian brethren. Here too, the rehabilitative process and its accompanying compensation will help in the rehabilitation of Lebanon and act as a stabilizing force for the country. It is possible that due to the many different sects and power struggles in Lebanon, that not all of the refugees currently living in Lebanon will be able to enjoy full rehabilitation. In such a scenario, the refugees will have to seek viable alternatives for settling outside of Lebanon. Very few Palestinian refugees fled to Syria. They now comprise less than 3% of the population. There is no reason that the Syrian government should prevent full rehabilitation and absorb them as citizens into the country.
The rehabilitation of the refugees in Judea and Samaria (The West Bank) presents a much more complex problem. The refugee camps in Judea and Samaria have been transformed over the years into terrorist nests and this population has become the most hostile to Israel. Were it not for the presence of the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas militias would be ruling Judea and Samaria today leaving Israel’s population centers particularly vulnerable. It is in Israel’s interest to reduce the number of Palestinian refugees that will be rehabilitated in this region. It is also in the interest of the moderate Arab states and the Western world to weaken the Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas axis and to strengthen the moderate regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. The majority of the Palestinian refugees living in Judea and Samaria, and particularly those residing in the refugee camps (about 1/3 of the refugees in Judea and Samaria), cannot be rehabilitated here. We must find another solution for them.
The possibility of rehabilitation in the Gaza Strip is dependent on removing most of the refugees from the strip. The area has become very dangerous due to the concentration of refugees who carry the deciding weight of the population. There is no viable future for the Gaza Strip without dramatically reducing the population there. Extremist elements there are causing the Gaza Strip to become a magnet for every possible disaster scenario that can take place in the Middle East.
Most refugees who are absorbed into new countries are lacking in everything and therefore become a strain on their host country. The few countries willing to absorb refugees are among the richer ones and have established an ethic to absorb a limited number of refugees each year. Naturally, those countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland) are willing to participate in the absorption of Palestinian refugees. Similarly, we should include other countries that have exhibited a willingness to absorb refugees in specific circumstances (e.g. Germany, Greece, Slovakia and France have already absorbed the bulk of the Iraqi refugees who arrived in Europe during recent years.)
Since rehabilitation in a third country involves compensation for the refugees, every Palestinian refugee family that requests to be absorbed by a third country will do so, if there is an economic base that will enable them to begin a new life. As such, even developed countries that are not necessarily ‘rich’ can be involved in the absorption of refugees and serve as a viable option for their emigration and rehabilitation.
Palestinians are among the most educated and talented members of Arab society and Arab countries beyond Israel’s borders could very well be encouraged to absorb these educated and talented refugees who could contribute economically and enjoy a reasonably facile integration into their Muslim-Arab societies.
The rehabilitation authority
The rehabilitation process will not take place on its own. Solving the Palestinian refugee problem demands an integrated and concentrated effort on the part of the international community. The resolution of this problem deserves a concerted effort considering its influence on the stability of the Middle East and the peace of the entire world. An international body comprising Israel, Jordan, the United States of America and other countries should be created to serve alongside representatives of the refugees. This will provide a way to resolve the cycle of refugee status, complete the rehabilitation process of all the refugees and find appropriate arrangements for the refugees over a period of ten years. This body cannot be established until UNRWA is dismantled and the issue of the refugees is properly lifted in importance before the international community.
To ensure that such a body will not work against Israel’s interests, it is imperative that Israel be the primary force behind its establishment. This initiative is not a lost cause or a last chance, but rather a historical mission.
Creating the right conditions
For many years, the resolution of the refugee problem has been delayed simply for the sake of convenience. The Arab countries and the terrorist organizations have wanted to keep the refugee situation alive in order to undermine Israel. Successive Israeli governments have feared raising the issue and therefore have not questioned UNRWA’s status.
Today, there is a window of opportunity to stop this devastating cycle of refugees and terror. Arab countries are fearful of the Iranian-Hamas axis and prefer compromise with Israel over strengthening radical Muslims. Palestinians, Israelis and the world understand that a “Palestinian State” will not bring either peace or prosperity and it will most certainly not provide a solution to the refugee problem. Israel is strong enough to deal with the refugee question and to bear some of the cost.
Surveys conducted over the years indicate the willingness and desire of refugees to rehabilitate themselves, even if this means emigration. Many economic and political obstacles obstruct this path for the refugees. These barriers must be broken down within the framework of a rehabilitation process.
The Key: Dismantle UNRWA
The key to advancing this new approach to the resolution of the refugee problem is to end the historic role of UNRWA. Palestinian refugees who meet international criteria (those who left their homes in 1948) would subsequently join the UN commission for refugees, UNHCR. An international authority will be established to administer the rehabilitation of the refugees for a period of ten years. The primary role of this body will be to rehabilitate the second and third generations of refugees either in their current locations or in host countries and eliminate all of the temporary refugee camps. They will draw upon resources from Israel, USA, the Arab world and the international community.
In actuality, the refugee camps exist because of UNRWA. The moment their mandate is negated and their resources dry up, those countries currently hosting refugees will have to contend with the new reality and take part in the rehabilitation program. The refugees themselves will have been freed from their dependence on UNRWA and they will be able to break the refugee cycle. This will allow them to seek a better, more permanent existence either independently or through a rehabilitation agency.
The dismantling has already started
Bringing about a cessation of UNRWA’s activities is not an impossible feat. One possible course is to conduct public relation campaigns in various countries whose annual donations keep the organization afloat. Another possibility is to pursue diplomatic channels by preventing the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate or to agree upon a final date for its cessation.
Last year, a group of Senators and Congressmen began working towards the halting of American funding of UNRWA. This particular agenda is being coordinated by the Israeli Initiative through its representatives in the U.S., whose expertise is working with the Congress. This is not the first program of this sort. The House of Representatives raised a proposal to limit America’s funding of UNRWA and stipulated that progress be made towards finding a permanent solution for the refugees by providing more stringent supervision of the funds that are transferred to UNRWA.
The recommendation for a law as stipulated in the 109th Congress and in the House (HR 5278 IH): “UNRWA was established in 1949 as a temporary agency to provide welfare services to Palestinian refugees: this is the only UN agency that is devoted to only one specific group of refugees.”
Since 1950, the United States has contributed more than $2 billion to UNRWA. In 2005, the United States contributed $108 million dollars to UNRWA, one fourth of the agency’s annual budget.
UNRWA has never permitted an independent audit. The last report of the internal auditor of UNRWA provided only general, vague numbers, and even within this framework, at least $48 million of expenses have no explanation.
It is imperative to note that one of the reasons this initiative has failed in the past was due to Israel’s official objection. Successive Israeli governments have feared the dismantling of UNRWA as part of their continual avoidance of correctly dealing with the refugee problem.
If we are successful in changing this policy, UNRWA will have to deal with the absence of American funding, the primary motor for the agency. This situation would once again open the discussion on UNRWA’s mandate and as such would then lead to exploring new ways of dealing with the refugee problem.
What should Israel do?
Israel has the power to change the refugee problem. The Ministers Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Palestinian Refugees operated in 1983 until changes in the government coalition resulted in the cessation of its activities. Since then, no other government has developed any other program with a vision of refugee rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, the finest Israeli minds have been occupied with developing different versions of a Palestinian National Authority, in effect cultivating a bitter enemy. The resolution of the refugee problem has always been postponed until the end of the process.
Israel must establish a committee to clearly define the refugee issue and to seek ways to rehabilitate the refugees. At the same time, the UNRWA mandate and its problematic involvement in the Middle East refugee issue should be stopped. This will pave the way for a new situation in the Middle East. Sixty years after the establishment of the State of Israel, peace in our region is possible.