In an escalation of the attacks on the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor speaks Monday at an event targeting the rights of Palestinian refugees.
The day conference, ‘UNRWA – Providing Humanitarian Relief or Prolonging the Palestinian Refugee Problem‘, is run by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ), an accredited NGO at the UN, along with the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ).
It takes place as the US-led peace process remains in a state of severe crisis, with no negotiations taking place, and Israeli demands over recognition as a ‘Jewish state’, along with continued settlement construction, blocking a return to serious talks.
The goal of what the Israeli media is hailing as the “first event of its kind” is “to fundamentally change the objectives of UNRWA’s activities“, including through redefining who constitutes a Palestinian refugee.
Answering questions about today’s event, UN spokesperson Chris Gunness pointed out that only the UN General Assembly can change UNRWA’s mandate, which was approved most recently in December 2013 by 165 member states and lasts until June 2017.
Gunness stressed that “the Palestine refugee issue is perpetuated by the failure of the Parties to find a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict – including just and lasting arrangements for the refugees”.
According to all internationally accepted paradigms for resolving the conflict, the refugee issue is to be dealt with in the context of negotiations between the parties. And like the resolution all refugee crises, this must be carried out in consultation with the refugees themselves.
The initiator of the conference is reportedly Irit Kahn, former head of international affairs in the Israeli government’s Justice Ministry. Speaking to media ahead of the event, Kahn said that letters were sent to 27 countries which support UNRWA financially. Accusing UNRWA of inflating refugee numbers and a lack of financial transparency, Kahn also claimed to have seen “incitement from UNRWA towards Israel and towards the Jewish people”. She gave no examples.
The organisers’ agenda is made plain in two recently-published articles, including one by conference speaker Asaf Romirowsky, an IDF veteran and formerly of Campus Watch, brainchild of Daniel Pipes. Writing in The Tower, Romirowsky says that UNRWA “has made Israeli-Palestinian peace all but impossible”, language echoed by Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin in a piece published this weekend (where he upgrades the event to a “UN panel”).
Tobin, however, like conference organiser Kahn herself, recognises that the drive to undermine or even totally abolish UNRWA is unlikely to make much headway within the UN itself – a possibility he calls “virtually non-existent”. Instead, Israel and its lobbyists are concentrating their efforts on more friendly terrain, the US Congress, where according to Romirowsky, they hope to advance efforts conditioning US aid to UNRWA on a redefinition on who is a Palestinian refugee.
Last summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment authored by Senator Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.), requiring the State Department to report to Congress on the number of Palestinians served by UNRWA who actually lived in Palestine 1946-’48 (as opposed to their descendants). One of today’s panels is dedicated to an “overview of US legislative efforts and suggestions for practical steps that can be taken to accomplish reform [of UNRWA]”.
According to the conference schedule, other speakers joining Ambassador Prosor include Alex Joffe, former director of Campus Watch, who believes that “Palestinian culture, beliefs, and political behaviour” are shaped by “lies and…fictional nonsense”. Unsurprisingly, former-MK Einat Wilf is also addressing attendees, promoting the event as an “unprecedented discussion”. Wilf has been attacking UNRWA for some time, telling a Gerald Steinberg-moderated event for diplomats in Israel two years ago that “restructuring UNRWA” was a pre-condition for peace.
Back in January, I wrote about what seemed like a “recent uptick in efforts to tarnish and undermine [UNRWA]’s activities” by “the Israeli government and Zionist lobby groups”. Today’s meeting in New York fits very much into this pattern. Six months ago, Israel’s statement to the Fourth Committee on UNRWA activities was delivered by Benjamin Sharoni, a policy advisor working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Acknowledging UNRWA’s “humanitarian mission”, Sharoni repeatedly stressed the need to “amend UNRWA’s mandate.” Attacking the agency’s “political agenda”, the MFA official described the refugees’ “claim of return” (sic) as “the single greatest obstacle to peace”.
Attacks by Israel and its supporters on UNRWA have been going on for some time, but these new initiatives seem linked to more contemporary developments. Pushing a discourse that sees Palestinian refugees and UNRWA as an ‘obstacle to peace’ and a thorn in the side of negotiations serves a dual purpose: distract focus from Israeli settlement growth and a cabinet of ministers that openly reject Palestinian statehood, while also supporting Netanyahu’s demand for Israel to be recognised as a ‘Jewish state’.
However, as they themselves admit, their only receptive audience outside the circle of like-minded hasbara fanatics is Congress. This is also true when it comes to the question of apportioning blame for the breakdown in the peace process (that itself was weighted in Israel’s favour). Even in Washington, in fact, that narrative is showing signs of cracking.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.