"The greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East" it turns out is not Jewish "settlements," but the United Nations, and specifically one of its agencies, UNRWA. This was the conclusion of experts at last week's Jerusalem Summit, an annual conference that brings together important thinkers from around the world on issues relating to Israel.
Dr. Moshe DannMoshe Dann is a writer and journalist with a Ph.d in history, who lives in Jerusalem.
Established shortly after the Israeli-Arab armistice in 1950 to assist Arab refugees exclusively, UNRWA's mandate was specifically designed to perpetuate their status as refugees, in order to further the Arab agenda of destroying Israel.
For half a century, UNRWA has funneled billions of dollars to perpetuate the status of "Palestinians as refugees." But unlike all other refugees in the world, Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA's definition, include not only those who became refugees, but all of their descendants as well.
UNRWA also includes anyone who applied for relief, regardless of when they arrived or where they came from. Even when they move out of the "camps" (actually neighborhoods and towns) and/or become citizens of another country (as in the case of Jordan), they still retain their status as "Palestinian refugees".
This explains why the number of refugees in other countries and areas of the world eventually dissipates, while for Palestinians, it amplifies.
According to Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, Arab refugees numbered around 700,000 at most in 1948. Over the years, that should have diminished to around 200,000. Instead, being a "Palestinian refugee" is passed down from one generation to the next. Today, there are an estimated four million (although no one really knows, because of UNRWA's faulty records) - and the number is growing.
Terrorism prevents any progress towards peace. The "Palestinian Right of Return" (to Israel) -- a basic, non-negotiable demand -- encourages the refusal to accept Israel's existence and fuels Palestinian terrorism. It reinforces Palestinians' belief in their innocence and victimization, promoting a culture of denial and self-pity, sabotaging any hope for change.
A main perpetrator of this policy is UNWRA, which not only provides food, educational and medical assistance to generations of "Palestinians", but insists that they not be repatriated into their host countries -- like all other refugees around the world. For "Palestinian refugees", their children and their great-grand children, UNWRA insists, their only home is "Israeli-occupied Palestine."
Not that these "refugees" have a choice. Martin Sherman, Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, presented recent polls that indicated that most Palestinians, given the opportunity, would prefer some form of compensation and the opportunity to move to another country and get on with their lives. They can't. The UN, UNRWA and the Arab countries won't allow it.
No Arab country except Jordan -- where they now constitute more than two-thirds of the population -- accepted them as citizens. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently passed a law allowing all foreigner workers in the country to apply for Saudi citizenship next year -- except Palestinians.
In Lebanon, Pipes pointed out, where more than 400,000 "Palestinian refugees" live in UNWRA-supported "camps", residents cannot work or even go to school outside their designated areas. Ditto for Syria.
"UNRWA has outlived its utility and should be dismantled," Pipes suggested. Since more than a third of the funds for UNRWA come from the United States, he urged an immediate end to this policy. (Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states contribute about 2% of UNRWA's budget; the EU countries make up the rest.)
Dore Gold, Israel's former Ambassador to the United Nations and now head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and legal expert and Columbia University Professor Anne Bayefsky, characterized the UN as a total failure. Gold's recently published Tower of Babble (Crown, 2004) effectively documents the case.
A major source of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment, the UN has contributed to wholesale massacres and terrorism around the world in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Its refusal to condemn Islamic-based terrorism against Israel has encouraged this scourge.
According to Bayefsky, nearly a third of the resolutions of the Committee on Human Rights condemn Israel; no resolutions are submitted against two-thirds of the rest of the countries in the world (including Sudan and North Korea). Official UN events supporting the "inalienable rights of the Palestinian refugees" are part of the demonization of Israel and encourage a hard-line stance that undermines any progress towards peace. The effect, she said, is lethal.
The Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) dominates much of what goes on in the General Assembly, Bayefsky said, and prevents even a definition of terrorism. The 56 members of the OIC are also part of the 115-member Non-Aligned Movement, which constitutes an automatic majority in the 191-member UN.
Dr. Avi Beker, professor at Tel Aviv University's School of Government, called for UNRWA's elimination and the creation of a new mechanism to resettle and rehabilitate the refugees. This, he emphasized, is a prerequisite to any peace process.
Of the four million "Palestinian refugees" listed by UNRWA for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza in 2002, about 1,250,000 reside in the areas controlled by UNRWA. The rest live comfortably -- sometimes luxuriously -- outside, often in nearby villages and towns. In addition to the free assistance and services they receive, as "refugees" they pay no taxes.
In Jordan, Syria and the West Bank, only about 18% live in UNRWA-administered areas; in Lebanon and Gaza that figure rises to more than half. The most violent and volatile areas are those with the highest number living under UNRWA.
Nearly all teachers in UNRWA schools belong to unions affiliated with terrorist organizations, like Hamas. Schools, textbooks, religious institutions and Palestinian media teach hatred of Jews and Israelis and glorify homicide bombing ("martyrdom"). This has been documented by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), and the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace.
Recent revelations have shown that UNRWA receives funding from terrorist organizations (including Al-Qaida-connected ones) and that "refugee camps" for which UNRWA is responsible are major centers of terrorism. Nearly all the missile attacks from Gaza into Israel originate from UNRWA-administered territory. In Jenin, the UNRWA-run camp is called "the terrorist capitol of the world." Except by UNRWA.
This does not seem to have alerted world attention to the problem. Rather than confront the issue honestly and openly, UN and UNRWA officials deny and obfuscate. UNRWA is not part of the solution, experts concluded; it is at the core of the problem.
This year's Summit gathering focused on shifting attention from political to humanitarian solutions, exposing the oppression of Muslim women in Muslim countries, and using the Koran to teach tolerance rather than bigotry and hatred as ways of encouraging positive change.
Author David Pryce-Jones (The Closed Circle), senior editor of the National Review suggested that conflicts might be viewed as between closed and open societies, those that have democratic and humanitarian values and those that do not. In that context, he wondered whether political and territorial compromises would have any beneficial effect.
The Summit is promoting a Council of Civilizations (twelve are designated), which would offer an alternative to the UN. Their full program can be accessed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .