Riot in Shuafat "camp," Jerusalem
Riot in Shuafat "camp," Jerusalem Israel news photo: file

'The Israeli Initiative,' an Israeli non-governmental organization, called this week to close down refugee camps in Jerusalem. A recent decision regarding refugees living in South Africa sets a precedent allowing cities to shut down camps whose residents refuse to resettle, the group argues.

City officials in Cape Town plan to clear out the local Blue Waters Refugee Camp this week and force its 340 residents to find new accommodations. A Cape Town court ruled that the city could evict refugees from the camp after the refugees rejected the municipality's offers to help them relocate.

The Cape Town verdict demonstrates that cities are not obligated to provide endless support to refugees who refuse to resettle, said the Israeli Initiative. Once refugees are given the option of rebuilding their lives, they can no longer use the “refugee” label to continue living off of aid, they argued.

Ending the saga

The organization turned to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and asked them to shut down the Arab refugee camps currently operating within Jerusalem municipal limits. “Rivlin recently said it is disgraceful that there are refugee camps in Jerusalem,” said Israeli Initiative director and former minister Benny Elon. “He's right, of course. Now we need to turn that understanding into action.”

Closing the camps will be beneficial even beyond the Jerusalem city limit, said members of the organization. “The benefit to the city of Jerusalem and to the Palestinian refugees from the end of this sixty-year-long saga will be enormous,” the group said. “And equally importantly, we will create a model here that reminds the world that the refugee problem is a humanitarian problem that can be solved, and there's no need to wait for a diplomatic solution, which apparently is not going to happen in the near future.”

Israeli Initiative manager Yoav Sorek accused the United Nations agency UNWRA, which was tasked with helping Arabs who fled pre-state Israel and their descendants, for the continued existence of refugee camps more than 60 years after the original “Palestinian refugees” left during the War of Independence. UNWRA “sees its goal as keeping the refugees in their current situation,” he charged.

The Cape Town model

The Cape Town case, in which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked to resettle the refugees outside their camp, demonstrates how the refugee issue should be tackled, he said. “The way the UNHCR handled the issue was correct. It was characteristic of an organization that seeks to rehabilitate refugees, an organization that works toward a humanitarian goal and does not serve political agendas,” he said.

The Israeli Initiative seeks to create a new approach to the Israel-Arab conflict. It proposes extending Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria and reaching a peaceful settlement with Palestinian Authority Arabs in cooperation with Jordan. Arabs from the refugee camps would be resettled in various countries and those who remain in Judea and Samaria would have Jordanian citizenship.