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Who is a refugee?

The international community must resolve to put an end to expansionism on both sides if there is to be any hope of two contiguous, viable states

Will we ever have peace with the Palestinians? Israeli public debate is largely divided between those who have given up and those who will never give up. MK Einat Wilf is one of the latter. Harboring no illusions about the current potential for successful peace talks, she ambitiously promotes thinking that may lead to productive negotiations in the future.

Wilf’s perspective is refreshing because she has moved beyond what often passes for policy these days — the endless recounting of Oslo’s failures and the dysfunctions of current players. She suggests that this difficult period provides an opportunity to address parallel flaws in the actions of the two sides. The Israelis persist in growing the population of the settlements, thereby convincing the Palestinians that they do not seek peace. The Palestinians, meanwhile, persist in growing the population of what UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency) erroneously calls “refugees” whose “right of return” is a pillar of UNRWA policy, thereby convincing the Israelis that the Palestinian goal remains the destruction of the Jewish State. Wilf’s originality lies in juxtaposing these problems as mirror obstacles to the peace process. Each side, she argues, manipulates demographics and geography.

MK Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset plenum (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
MK Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset plenum (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

The key pragmatic argument against the settlements is that they expand Jewish populations across much of the West Bank, cutting geographically and demographically into the space needed for a contiguous, viable Palestinian state. The mis-definition of Palestinian “refugees” to include all the generations of the descendants of genuine refugees from 1948/49 creates a similar obstacle to peace, artificially expanding a demographic that demands a Palestinian “return” to a geography where their ancestors lived three and four generations ago. From a base of around 700,000 displaced by fighting in the 1948/49 war, six decades later UNRWA provides assistance to about 4.5 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It openly promotes the hereditary “right of return” to geography needed for a viable, contiguous Jewish state, a geographic and demographic manipulation that mirrors the Israeli settler movement.

Wilf proposes to distinguish between bona fide refugees — those elderly persons who actually lost their homes in the 1948 war — and the “stateless persons entitled to UNRWA support” who are among their descendants. She enjoyed an important success when the US Congress, convinced on the merits, enacted the Kirk Amendment, which seeks to ascertain how many actual refugees there are among the 4.5 million beneficiaries of UNRWA. If successful, this initiative will not take a grain of rice from the mouth of a stateless Palestinian child, but it will provide analytic clarity.

It will make clear that the international community understands, first, that the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are already in their nascent state; and second, that Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin are no longer stateless refugees. These two clarifications alone would go far to specify the true status of 80% of those UNRWA serves. For Palestinians living in the Palestinian diaspora, the right of return is best understood as President Clinton defined it: a right to move to the Palestinian state so as to alleviate statelessness. It is not the mythical “return” of fourth-generation descendants of refugees to a place where they never lived. It is not the displacement of the Jewish population of Israel, which is itself made up mostly of refugees and their descendants.

There is an aspect of fairness involved in this clarification, a balanced and single law for all comers that is lacking in current UN approaches to the Israeli/Palestinian refugee issues. For example, my family became refugees in 1905 following the appalling Odessa pogrom. No agency of the UN suggests I have a right to claim damages as a third-generation “refugee” or that I passed that right on to my children and grandchildren. Inquire of almost any Israeli Jewish family and you find similar histories. A single definition would humanize and equalize the standing of refugees on all sides. It would strengthen international law as a non-discriminatory system. Since Israel is not about to commit demographic suicide by facilitating mass immigration of a large, hostile population, understanding who is a bona fide refugee and who is not will put the international community foursquare on the side of a historic resolution to this so-far intractable conflict.

Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at an (UNRWA distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at an (UNRWA distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

Contrast the disparity between the energy the international community invests in the West Bank settlement question and its relaxed attitude toward the equally damaging explosion in numbers generated by current artificial definitions employed by UNRWA. Reform of UNRWA is a cornerstone of any viable peace process. Of course it will engender opposition, but it can hardly damage a “peace process” that barely exists. By taking equally energetic, clear stands regarding settlements and the definition of refugees, the international community can lay the groundwork for the resumption of serious negotiations on two states for two peoples, with these obstacles much reduced in their power to obstruct peace.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.