David BedeinThe writer is director of Israel Resource News Agency and heads the Center for Near East Policy Research, author of Genesis of the Palestinian Authority and Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNRWA Policies Reconsidered.
Most recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres remarked to the European Union’s Middle East Envoy Miguel Moratinos, that the time has come to revive the dormant Refugee Working Group, comprised of 38 nations, chaired by Canada since the Madrid Middle East peace talks that were held in October, 1991.
Indeed, despite the fact that Palestinian Arab "refugees" and their descendants who dwell in or near United Nations refugee camps represent more than half of the Palestinian Arab population, their fate - other than the PA demand for the "right" of return - has been overlooked by Middle East peace negotiations.
Adopting the UNHCR model
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, which has serviced the Palestinian Arabs for more than for half a century, has countenanced a situation in which the agency operates as an anomaly:
UNRWA, founded in 1949 to provide relief to the Arabs who fled from Israel in the course of the war of 1948-49, works to keep them in refugee camps on principle, with promises of the “right of return” to villages which no longer exist.
Less than one year later, the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNCHR, was founded with the express purpose of protecting the rights of refugees to be rehabilitated in a permanent state of resettlement.
In real terms, this meant that UNRWA was permitted to continue to operate under its own terms with its own definition and not bound by the UNHCR Convention.
UNRWA was, and remains, the only international agency devoted to keeping one specific group in a permanent state of refugee status.
Why? The answer can be found on the UNHCR website, “The State of the World’s Refugees, Part 1, The Early Years", which puts the matter baldly: “Arab States... feared that the non-political character of the work envisioned for the nascent UNHCR was not compatible with the highly politicized nature of the Palestinian question.”
In other words, UNHCR operates on the principle of helping the refugees under their jurisdiction to find solutions so that they can get on with their lives with permanency, while UNWRA operates under the premise that the Palestinian Arab refugees are still refugees even if they acquire a new citizenship,[as many have in Jordan] until such time as they will return to their firner homes in Israel, from which they or their grandparents or great-great parents fled.
Canada, in the leadership role that it plays in the Refugee Working Group (RWG), could ask the 38 nations that contribute to UNRWA to ask that UNRWA operate according to the principles of UNHCR - to protect the right of refugees to be resettled instead of implementing a policy that perpetuates their suffering, while fostering the illusion of the “right of return” .
Such a bold humanitarian gesture from Canada would not require a UN General Assembly decision or a meeting of the UN Security Council, because the donor nations to UNRWA determine the policy of UNRWA, and Canada holds the chairmanship of those donor nations.
A case in point: In December 1985, when the Catholic Relief Agency embarked on a pilot project to move descendants of Arab "refugees" from teeming tenements of an UNRWA refugee camp into 1,300 permanent houses built for them on a hillside near Nablus, the donor nations supported a UN resolution which demanded that the refugees stay put, because this would violate their “right of return”.
Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper can, during his visit to the Middle East, take a bold step towards a just and humanitarian solution to the plight of five million Palestinian Arab "refugees" who have been doomed to generations of squalor.
Holding the gavel of the RWG, the Refugee Working Group, Mr. Harper can lead the way to mandate that UNRWA apply UNHCR principles to protect the right of the descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees to be live in permanent conditions of dignity, instead of having the world witness yet another generation of self-called Palestinian "refugees" live out another generation of indignity in the 59 teeming refugee camps that are spread throughout Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
While a political solution may not be found for the warring parties in the Middle East, Mr. Harper can help lead the way to solve one of the greatest enduring human challenges left over from 1948.