At a meeting of over 40 diplomats and ambassadors held at Bar Ilan University last week, devoted to a discussion of “UNRWA, Refugees and the Peace Process,” three panelists, all supporters of the Two-State Solution focused on the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) as a major obstacle to any resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Without changing UNRWA, MK Einat Wilf (Azmaut) warned, the two-state solution and the peace process was in danger. Wilf unveiled a plan to restructure the controversial UN organization which has been caring for Arab Palestinian refugees and their descendants exclusively for over 60 years.
Wilf announced “a scoop,” that she will propose Knesset action to urge ending support for UNRWA and shifting the billion-dollar organization from its support for the “Palestinian right of return” to specific projects that met needs, “schools, hospitals and welfare,” encouraged integration and worked towards resettlement.
“We need to delink UNRWA’s funding from (refugee) status to direct need,” she said. “People should be given help because they are in need, not because they are, or were refugees.”
One of Wilf’s suggestions is to redirect funding from UNRWA to the PA, in Judea and Samaria and Hamas in Gaza, as parts of a future Palestinian state. “It’s their responsibility,” she said.
Moreover, she proposed a drastic reduction in the numbers of those considered as refugees – about 15,000 in Gaza and 30,000 in Judea and Samaria , instead of the five million which UNRWA claims it supports.
Not only is UNRWA undermining any possibility of peace, Wilf asserted, it is a self-perpetuating organization which lobbies for funding.
Wilf also suggested that Arab refugees living in Arab countries and PA/Hamas administered areas should be handled by UNHCR.
The panel included Prof Yaffa Zilbershats, Deputy President of BIU and legal expert who refuted the legal claim that Palestinians have the “right of return.”
“There is no ‘right,’ “ Zilbershats asserted, referring to UNGA Resolutions 181 and 194, but rather recommendations, which have never been implemented as a whole, and include compensation and resettlement as options. “There is no reference in any of these resolutions to the descendants of refugees,” she noted. A supporter of the “two-state solution,” she warned that UNRWA’s perpetuation of the notion that millions of hostile Arabs, nearly all of whom are not refugees and have never lived in Israel, would be allowed to return to Israel prevented any progress towards peace.
Prof Gerald Steinberg, moderator of the Forum, founder of the BIU Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation and member of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies emphasized that more than 700,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries as a result of the Arab-Israel war in 1948 and were fully integrated into Israel, and other countries without compensation for their losses.
Roi Kedar, CEO of the Reut Institute, noted that UNRWA helped perpetuate the notion of victimization and prevented any progress towards “two states for two people.” He suggested “constructive unilateralism,” in which the Palestinian refugee issue would be “diluted” rather than resolved. Funds would be transferred from UNRWA to Arab states, including a Palestinian state, which would offer full citizenship, a suggestion, however, that has been rejected by all Arab leaders.
The elephant in the room: UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly and no changes are possible without UNGA approval -- unlikely since the UNGA is dominated by the bloc of Islamic nations.
More problematic, UNRWA’s largest backers, the EU and US, remain committed to supporting UNRWA and have not been asked by any government – especially not Israel-- to change their policy.
Regarding the possibility of changing UNRWA, a EU spokesperson said: “Nothing is happening and no one is thinking about it.”
Reaching out to the diplomatic community may be the beginning of a new direction. It’s doubtful if this will be successful without clear, official government support – which it currently lacks.