Monday, November 10, 2008

European MEPS urged to rethink refugee issue

Two members of the Israeli Knesset last week put forward, before hundreds of European Parliamentarians, their proposals for the absorption of Palestinian refugees in third countries, mirorring the absorption of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The Jerusalem Post reports:

A gathering of hundreds of European parliamentarians who support Israel concluded over the weekend in Paris with a politically loaded discussion on the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees - one of the most sensitive issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

The debate, part of a conference sponsored by the Brussels-based European Friends of Israel, came amid a groundswell of parliamentary activity around the world, including in the US and Canada, to reroute funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the mammoth UN body that deals with Palestinian refugees and their descendants, towards the resettlement of some of the refugees and their descendants in third countries.

The session, which was hosted by the Israel Allies Caucus Foundation, the international arm of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus, included addresses by European parliamentarians as well as by MK Benny Elon of the National Union-National Religious Party and MK Amira Dotan of Kadima. The two co-chair a new Knesset caucus on the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - estimates range from 400,000 to 750,000 - left their homes during the War of Independence in 1948 and 1949. They, along with their millions of descendants, constitute one of the prickliest issues that must be dealt with as part of any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel flatly rejects the Palestinian demand that these refugees be allowed to return to their ancestral homes within Israel, saying that such a move would indelibly alter the character of the country.

Israel has also pointed to the 850,000 Jews who fled Arab countries after Israel's founding in 1948 and were integrated and absorbed in Israeli society as counterweight to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Recently, some Israeli parliamentarians have begun to openly advocate dealing tackling the Palestinian refugee issue after decades of avoiding it as a non-starter.

Much of the focus at Friday's discussion centered on the difference between UNRWA and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), the main UN body that handles all other refugees around the world.

While UNRWA's 25,000-strong almost exclusively Palestinian staff care for 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the UNHCR employs a staff of around 6,300 people to help nearly 33 million people in more than 110 countries.

The event also dwelt on UNRWA's definition of Palestinian refugees, which includes not only the refugees themselves, but also their descendants, which critics say only serves to perpetuate the refugee crisis.

"We are asking why the UNHCR has the mandate to solve the problem of refugees and UNRWA does not," Elon said. "There are cynical political reasons to maintain the status of the refugees."

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