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      UNRWA Director Backtracks on 'Right of Return' Criticism

      UNRWA's former New York director apologizes after his comments on the “right of return” lead to backlash.
      By Maayana Miskin
      First Publish: 11/3/2010, 7:50 PM / Last Update: 11/3/2010, 10:54 PM

      Flash 90

      An UNRWA director has apologized after his comments on the “right of return” led to a backlash. Andrew Whitley, the outgoing head of UNRWA's New York office, had said that the Arab world's focus on “return” to Israel was a “cruel illusion.”

      On Wednesday, Whitley said he had realized his previous statements were “inappropriate and wrong.” The statements do not reflect UNRWA's views, he said.

      He sent a written apology to UNRWA headquarters, saying, “I wish to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA.”

      Whitley had told a conference of the National Council for US-Arab relations that the “refugee” descendants of Arabs who fled Israel during the War of Independence should “start debating their own role in the societies where they are, rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes.”

      At the time, Whitley suggested that his views were widespread in UNRWA. “We recognize, as I think most do, although it's not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant extent... It's not a politically palatable issue, it's not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it's a known contour to the issue,” he said.

      The Palestinian Authority condemned his statements, as did Hamas. “There can be no compromise on the basic rights of Palestinians,” Hamas leaders said.

      Jordan, home to 2 million Arab "refugees" and the natural place for a Palestinian state, decried Whitley's remarks as well.

      An estimated 710,000 Arabs left Israell, most of their own volition, during the War of Independence in 1948, when the fledgling Jewish state was attacked by surrounding Arab nations who promised the local Arabs that they would soon be returned after the Jews were annihilated by the superior Arab armies. Over the next few years, most Arab countries expelled their Jewish populations, and one million Jewish refugees made their way to Israel, mostly sans their worldly goods,  where they were absorbed into Israeli society.

      The1948 Arab "refugees" were not absorbed in any country aside from Jordan. As the years went by, their children and grandchildren were granted “refugee” status as well, a first in world history. An estimated 5 million people are now recognized by the UN as “Palestinian refugees.”

      One of the PA's main demands in peace talks is that Israel allow the “right of return,” that is, grant automatic Israeli citizenship to the millions of Arabs recognized by the UN as refugees. This would spell the end of the Jewish state..