On December 8, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East — UNRWA — will mark its 58th anniversary. That is quite a record for an agency created in 1949 as a temporary relief organization.
One of the FAQS on the UNRWA Web site asks, “If UNRWA was set up as a temporary Agency, why is it still working after over 50 years?” The question is worth considering, not only because the Web site does not answer it — the explanation simply cites the Palestinians’ “continuing needs” — but because the answer bears directly on the Annapolis Conference that America initiated. Originally, UNRWA was established to serve 652,000 Arabs after the 1948 war against Israel. On its Web site, UNRWA says it now has “over 28,000 staff,” provides aid to “over 4.4 million refugees” in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and is “by far the largest U.N. operation” in the Middle East.
In comparison, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1950 to serve all other refugees in the world, has a staff of 6,300 that currently serves, by its count, 32.9 million refugees in 111 countries.
Pursuant to the Annapolis understanding, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will address the question of “refugees” over the next year. To properly tackle that issue, however, it is necessary to understand: a) UNRWA’s unusual definition of a “refugee,” b) the status of the Palestinians currently so categorized, and c) the reason their problems have not been solved in 58 years, despite a massive U.N. agency devoted exclusively to them.
The common conception of a “refugee” is an individual who had to leave his country because of political upheaval or war and resettle in a new place. The common conception of a refugee relief organization — particularly a temporary one — is an agency assisting such people to resettle into new homes in new countries.
For the Palestinians, however, UNRWA uses a unique definition — one that focuses not simply on the refugees themselves, but on conferring “refugee” status on successive generations born and raised in new locations. On its Web site, UNRWA proudly calls itself unique not only in terms of its “commitment to one group of refugees,” but its contributions to “four generations” of them. If there are “four generations” of Palestinian refugees, including parents and children who never lived in Israel but simply had grandparents or great grandparents who did, then there are also “four generations” of Jewish refugees — the approximately 820,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in 1948 plus their succeeding generations born and raised in Israel.
No discussion of Palestinian “refugees” can fairly take place without a simultaneous discussion of the even larger number of Jewish “refugees” under the same definition, who had their homes and property taken by Arab states — states that also waged war against the nascent state of Israel that absorbed the refugees they created.
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