(With thanks: Niran)
Writing in The Guardian, Karen AbuZayd, the outgoing commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) calls to address the Palestininan refugee question. While apportioning responsibility to Israel, she fails to acknowledge the fate of Jewish refugees in 1948, her own organization's role and the neglect of Palestinian refugees by their own leadership and fellow Arab states.
Make no mistake, not a single conflict of contemporary times has been resolved, no durable peace achieved, unless and until the voices of the victims of those conflicts were heard, their losses acknowledged and redress found to injustices they experience. The precedents of recent peacemaking efforts and the methodology of contemporary conflict resolution affirm that giving high priority to resolving dispossession and the plight of refugees is a necessity, an international obligation and a humanitarian imperative.
While UNRWA may be concerned solely with the plight of Palestinians refugees (more on this definition later), how can AbuZayd make the above statement without reference to the Jewish refugees who were forced to flee from their homes in Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel? As Avi Beker writes:
Although they exceed the numbers of the Palestinian refugees, the Jews who fled are a forgotten case. Whereas the former are at the very heart of the peace process with a huge UN bureaucratic machinery dedicated to keeping them in the camps, the nine hundred thousand Jews who were forced out of Arab countries have not been refugees for many years. Most of them, about 650,000, went to Israel because it was the only country that would admit them. Most of them resided in tents that after several years were replaced by wooden cabins, and stayed in what were actually refugee camps for up to twelve years. They never received any aid or even attention from the UN Relief And Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or any other international agency. Although their plight was raised almost every year at the UN by Israeli representatives, there was never any other reference to their case at the world body.
Referring to an April 2008 US House of Representatives resolution on Jewish refugees, Lyn Julius argues that it:
is about recognition, not restitution, although Jewish losses have been quantified at twice Palestinian losses. Such resolutions could lead to a peace settlement by recognising that there were victims on both sides. Thus justice for Jews is not just a moral imperative, but the key to reconciliation.
While AbuZayd appears to place responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem on Israel and others in the international community, what of UNRWA's own role?
Unlike the millions of refugees around the world who are the concern of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only the Palestinians have their own dedicated UN agency. While other refugees (including Jewish refugees from Arab lands) are successfully integrated and absorbed into other countries, why do Palestinian refugees still exist over 60 years after Israel's creation? As Lanny Davis writes:
UNRWA's definition of the refugees to whom it devotes its time and attention are well beyond the original 900,000 Palestinian refugees who were identified in 1950. Today the number served is over 4.5 million. Why? Because UNRWA has defined its mission to serve the descendants of the original 900,000. This means grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees are the focus of UNRWA's attention — in refugee camps located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. (Some might ask: Why haven't the Saudis, with all their oil money, contributed to finding homes for the great-grandparents, parents, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees over these 60 years?)