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Sensing an opportunity, Israel targets UNRWA and the Palestinian right of return

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Palestinian woman holds a key, symbolising the right to her home from 1948, during the 68th anniversary of the 'Nakba' in Ramallah, West Bank

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the dismantling of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The call was unprecedented in terms of Israeli policy to date, and also marked an escalation in anti-UN rhetoric and steps by Israeli government officials.

Netanyahu, speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, revealed that he had discussed the need to dismantle UNRWA with US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley: “I told her it was time the United Nations re-examine UNRWA’s existence”, he said.

UNRWA has long been a bête noire of Israeli politicians and pro-Israel advocacy groups, who in recent years have attacked the agency over allegations of ‘incitement’ in schools, employees’ social media posts, and claims of compromised neutrality during Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

Such complaints – which have lacked in substance and accuracy – are, however, primarily proxy targets for the fundamental reason why UNRWA is so despised: in the words of Netanyahu, “by its very existence”, the agency “perpetuates – and does not solve – the Palestinian refugee problem”.

So, what does Netanyahu mean? To unpack this further, consider this piece written by fellows at right-wing institute Middle East Forum, praising Netanyahu’s call for the dismantling of UNRWA.

Read: Netanyahu’s call to close UNRWA is an attack on refugee rights

According to the authors, UNRWA has “perpetuat[ed] a core tenet in the Palestinian national narrative”, namely “the absolute centrality of refugees to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the demand that Israel accept repatriation of their descendants through a ‘right of return’”. Get rid of UNRWA, they argue, and you “remove one problem that has long ensured that conflict will never end”.

A similar argument was made in an editorial published by The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, which stated that while “any two-state peace outcome will require compromise on this issue [of Palestinian refugees’ rights]”, UNRWA, “through its barely-veiled advocacy for the ‘right of return’”, has made “it harder for Palestinian leaders to develop the popular support to do so”.

Meanwhile, the UK-based, pro-Israel advocacy organisation BICOM, through its self-styled ‘journal’ Fathom, recently hosted former Israeli MK Einat Wilf, who they hailed as “one of the most creative Israeli thinkers on the peace process” (truly a backhanded compliment, albeit unintentional).

After walking through standard ‘two states for two peoples’ talking points, Wilf reached the main point of her presentation, or, in her words: “the issue where I think there is the greatest need to be specific, and that is the [Palestinian] refugees and the Right of Return”.

Read: After decades of displacement, Palestinians stick to their legal right of return

For Wilf, “this is the area where the West is most blind”, explaining that while for “the Arabs”, a just solution means return, “the West and Israel think that ‘just’ means several possible solutions such as citizenship in Jordan, or a home in Canada”.

Acknowledging that Palestinians (correctly) understand return as “a personal right…that no leader can negotiate…away”, the former Labor legislator explains why this is bad news: even if Israel finds a Palestinian leader with whom to make a deal, “no agreement can end the demand for return”.

Israel and the West, Wilf concluded, must “stop using terms like ‘just’ and ‘agreed’”, with respect to a solution for the refugees. “There is no legitimate claim to return”, she stated, equating a Palestinian renunciation of the “demand” to “return west of the 1967 line” to Israel renouncing “Jewish return east of that border” (that is to say, the settlers colonising the West Bank).

These developments represent the latest in periodic assaults on UNRWA’s legitimacy, and, directly or indirectly, on the rights of the Palestinian refugees. In 2014, for example, an event was held at the UN in New York, whose goal – in the words of Israel Hayom – was “to fundamentally change the objectives of UNRWA’s activities”. Speakers included then-Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor.

In essence, those spearheading the attack on UNRWA believe that dismantling the agency will reduce the number of Palestinian refugees from several million to a few tens of thousands, for whom the focus will be on integration and/or resettlement, rather than return.

Read: Closing UNRWA would be a disgrace

But is getting rid of UNRWA really the silver bullet Israel and its friends believe it to be? Palestinian refugees would come under the remit of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which was established after UNRWA, and from whose provisions UNRWA-registered refugees are currently excluded.

Note, however, that for UNHCR, repatriation (i.e. return) is “promoted as the preferred durable solution”, and is “the durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees” (versus local integration or resettlement). Refugees under the mandate of UNHCR can also pass on refugee status to “children of refugees in protracted refugee situations pending a durable solution”.

On the other hand, others point out that, should UNRWA be dismantled, “Palestinian refugees registered with the agency will no longer be excluded from the scope of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which calls upon contracting states to facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees”.

As Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson, once told me, it is a “myth that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees; as if some bureaucratic gesture would make five million human beings and the need to deal with their rights disappear”. Or, as he put it on another occasion, right of return “would [not] disappear or be abandoned if UNHCR were responsible for these refugees”.

Dismantling UNRWA is also a tall order; only last December, the UN General Assembly voted 167-1 (the sole ‘nay’ being from Israel) to renew UNRWA’s mandate until June 2020. Only the General Assembly, by a majority vote, can change the agency’s mandate, a remote prospect for now.

Nevertheless, it would appear that some Israeli leaders and advocates sense an opportunity, mainly stemming from the politics of the Trump administration, and its envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley. Israel’s friends have also been encouraged by the views of Secretary-General António Guterres.

Then there are the rumblings about a ‘regional peace’ approach, and signs of growing ties between Saudi Arabia – guardians of the Arab Peace Initiative – and Israel. Should this go anywhere serious, it is quite likely that the rights of Palestinian refugees will be thrown under a bus.

These potential ‘opportunities’ aside, with a comatose peace process and Israeli policies such as settlement expansion very much in the spotlight, the Israeli government will relish any chance to deflect attention by portraying the issue of the Palestinian refugees as an insurmountable obstacle to progress and example of so-called Palestinian rejectionism.

The renewed offensive against the rights of Palestinian refugees is, however, a teachable moment. Let us return to Einat Wilf, who has dismissed the rights of Palestinians who “claim to be refugees from what is today Israel, even though they were never born there and never lived there”. Yet she herself acknowledges the absurdity of the narrative justifying their settler colonial displacement.

Image of former Israeli MK Einat Wilf [Einat Wilf/Facebook]

“Think about what we’re asking the Arabs to accept”, Wilf told a recent ‘Israel Victory Project’ event (from 57’44). “We are asking the Arabs to accept that a people have come home after 2,000 years. Now who does that, right? Seriously? Who knocks at the door, rings the door bell, and says ‘Honey, I’m home, after 2,000 years’? Can we at least acknowledge how crazy it is?”

For Wilf, however, this ‘return’ not only trumps the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland, from which they were expelled 69 years ago, it exists in direct opposition to that right. Thus, while Palestinians continue to be denied both return and citizenship, Jews from around the world, who have never set foot in the territory, go “home to Israel”, and receive citizenship there.

According to Palestinian Authority statistics, 41.5 percent of all UN-registered Palestinian refugees live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – that is to say, they are already (long-standing) residents of Israel’s de-facto, apartheid single regime between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.

Most of the rest live a short distance from their homeland in regional camps. Then there are the ‘present absentees’, a few hundred thousand Palestinian citizens of Israel who, though remaining inside the armistice lines, still had their property confiscated (because they are not Jewish).

Noting these facts can help us understand that return is not just, or even primarily, an event. ‘Return’ is inseparable from decolonisation – it is not only a question of physical repatriation (though it is that too), but about a transformation of settler colonial structures.

It is this transformational process that Israel seeks to avoid at all costs. To put it another way, the ‘threat’ posed by the Palestinian refugees is very real; but what is at stake is the preservation of a political system founded through exclusionary violence, and characterised, to this day, by parallel paths of privilege and discrimination, presence and absence.

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