Yonatan Gher
Director, Amnesty International Israel
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In service of the UNRWA defunding and the Trump genius

Sivan Rahav-Meir gets the UNRWA story wrong, cherry-picking the facts that serve the narrative she constructs

I’ve been on the fence for a little while about whether to get into Trump’s decision to defund UNRWA (I refer to him as Trump because I’m an American citizen, out of respect to the office of the presidency). I have to thank Sivan Rahav-Meir for giving me the little push I needed.

You should read her article: Trump gets UNRWA better than Israel does. This article does a great service to understanding Trump’s thinking on the matter, and is even constructed the way he thinks and writes: 554 words, in which Rahav-Meir creates an alternative reality. In Trump and Rahav-Meir’s reality, facts — insofar as they were facts to begin with — can be cherry-picked in the service of constructing their narrative.

In Trump and Rahav-Meir’s reality, there are good guys and bad guys. The five million people Rahav-Meir discusses are all fraudsters: Men, women and children who chose one day to leave the comfort of their homes to up and live in a tent for three generations for the sole purpose of making Israel look bad.

In Trump and Rahav-Meir’s reality, Trump holds a divine wisdom beyond the comprehension of common-folk, like, say, the few Israeli government officials who think that stopping all support to five million people living in extreme poverty and displacement their whole lives might be a bad idea. Or like the common-folk who work for him, who in their inability to grasp his genius seem to be under the impression that they are working in crazy town. Thank god for Rahav-Meir, for her ability to recognize that this decision is the act of hidden brilliance and decipher it for us all.

Let’s get into it a little. “Our son asked why there were two agencies,” writes Rahav-Meir, regarding UNHCR — the UN’s refugee agency, and UNRWA — the UN’s agency for relief for Palestinian refugees. “Our son asked” is a writing tactic designed to suggest that even a child could see this is silly. I wonder how old her son was on this trip, and whether he was the same age as the “fifth or sixth grader” intellectual capacity US Defense Secretary James Mattis is quoted attributing to Trump.

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“UNRWA is the only UN agency dedicated to dealing with a specific group of refugees” writes Rahav-Meir, with an undertone of “Israel is treated so unfairly. SAD.” That’s sort of true: among the UN’s many agencies, there are no others for a specific refugee group. They do have MINURSO — the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, and no other agencies for another specific referendum. They also had SCLS — the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and no other agencies acting as a country-specific war-crimes tribunal. Different circumstances require different types of action. And the baffled questioning of why Palestinian refugees are treated different from any other group builds on the reader being uneducated on the subject.

To begin with, UNHCR in Israel is held back by our government from providing even basic help to the 50,000 (mostly Sudanese and Eritrean) refugees within Israel. Rahav-Meir is flat out lying to you with the suggestion that they could be in any kind of position to support Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian refugee community is second in size only to the new crisis of Syrian refugees. Until the Syrian crisis, the Palestinian refugees could be compared to only one refugee community in history, being the Jewish refugee community. Yet theirs did not end in a country.

Rahav-Meir questions the five million number, “industry of lies” she calls it, because many are second or third generation and have not themselves been run out of their homes. By that token, should the children of Holocaust victims not be entitled to compensation? When the situation in Syria resolves and the Syrian refugees are allowed to return home, should they leave behind the children that were born in their camps?

Rahav-Meir starts her piece by saying “It looks like we have simply gotten used to the status quo with the Palestinians.” But try to find a solution, a thought in her article on how this idea might make things better, for anyone, even just for Israelis, there’s none. Just the creation of chaos. Like “Let’s build a wall,” “Let’s cancel the Iran deal,” “Let’s move the embassy to Jerusalem,” “Let’s assassinate Assad.”

Roughly 711,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes in what is now Israel in 1948. Some by force, others fled for their lives. International law forbids forcible exile. International law recognizes the right of return. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that which was written in the aftermath of WW2 as the world’s way of saying “never again,” says clearly: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Feel free to read Amnesty International’s full analysis on why Palestinian Refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their homes.

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How this decades-long crisis will ultimately be resolved lies in the hands of leaders and will most likely be a political solution demanding compromise from everyone. Until such time, people deserve the right to shelter, food and health, and in the case of many of the Palestinian refugees, UNRWA is the only body making this happen. Take away UNRWA, and refugee camps will become mini-Gazas, and desperate people do desperate things.

The guy who thought separating children from their parents was a good idea now wants to defund UNRWA. Sivan Rahav-Meir thinks we’re too daft to recognize the genius.

Are we?

About the Author
The writer is the Director of Amnesty International Israel. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Regional Communications Director of Greenpeace Mediterranean and Spokesperson for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons.
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