UNRWA: Time to start planning for resettlement

UNRWA: Time to start planning for resettlement

The Miami Herald

Kenneth Bandler

October 20, 2010

With Israeli-Palestinian talks aiming for a permanent peace agreement in a year, shouldn't UNRWA -- the United Nations Relief and Works Agency -- start planning to evolve from a refugee support agency to one devoted to resettlement? After all, the final status talks will need to resolve refugees along with borders, security, water and other issues to end the conflict.

UNRWA is the only international refugee agency dedicated to exclusively benefit one population group, the Palestinians. All other refugees worldwide are covered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which not only provides sustenance but, importantly, also strives to resettle them, to ensure that their refugee status is not a permanent condition.

Originally envisaged as a temporary agency, UNRWA's mandate, which does not call for resettlement, has been regularly renewed. UNRWA's original roll of 700,000 refugees grew to include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, some 4.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The agency's staff, some 27,000, is four times the size of the UNHCR workforce, deployed in every other conflict where refugees need help.

Sadly, this human tragedy was preventable. Arab leaders squandered the first opportunity to establish an independent Palestinian state by rejecting the 1947 U.N. plan to divide British Mandatory territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean to create two states, one Jewish, the other Arab. The 1948 war Arab nations launched to snuff out the fledgling Jewish state produced the refugees.

The Arab world's refusal to integrate Palestinian refugees and the generosity of Western governments in providing more than 95 percent of UNRWA's funding has assured its existence. The United States provides more than 25 percent of UNRWA's $500 million annual budget. Arab nations, often first to rally for the Palestinian cause, account for about one percent, which speaks volumes about their genuine concerns for Palestinian well-being.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has perpetuated the illusory vision that one day the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees will ``return'' to what is now Israel. PA President Mahmoud Abbas began his U.N. General Assembly speech in September by praising UNRWA for aiding ``the Palestine refugees, who for more than 60 years still await the redress of their plight and the realization of their right to return to their homes and properties.''

Israel may accept, as it has done in the past with family reunification, a limited number of Palestinian refugees as part of a durable peace accord. But the new Palestinian state will have primary responsibility for developing and implementing the incentives and opportunities to move the 1.4 million in Gaza and the West Bank off of UNRWA handouts. UNRWA dependents in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria will need to be integrated by those countries, or find other willing hosts.

With vast experience spanning decades, UNRWA should have a vital role in its transformation into an agency that enables self-reliance rather than fostering a dependency culture across generations. Success will depend on international will and Palestinian leadership, with all involved recognizing that this task is essential to building the foundation for a viable Palestinian state that is part of a sustainable two-state solution.

It is feasible. Remember that in sharp contrast to the Palestinians, the 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands, also a product of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, were successfully absorbed in Israel and other countries around the world.

Abbas and other Palestinian leaders now must muster the courage to honestly disabuse Palestinians of the myth that one day they will return en masse to places long part of the sovereign state of Israel. Removing the so-called Palestinian right of return from the lexicon of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will enable creative solutions for the refugees to be seriously discussed.

How all of this will be achieved by September 2011, the date President Obama told the U.N. General Assembly he hopes to join in welcoming the State of Palestine as a member of the world body, is an immense challenge. Yet, it was creativity that established UNRWA and has sustained it for nearly 61 years. The same resourcefulness can facilitate its transformation.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee's director of communications.

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