Refugee Reform: Counting on Peace

By Elke Weiss, June 1, 2012

Unrwa Gimme gimme gimme 250x263 Refugee Reform: Counting on PeaceIllinois Republican Representative Mark Kirk has bravely done what few others have dreamed of doing regarding the Middle East: he has taken steps for actual progress in the Palestinian refugee issue. His recent bill on documenting how many were actually displaced is one of the most humane and progressive pieces of legislation on the issue and should be welcomed by both sides.

False hopes of destroying Israel by the so-called “right of return” are a waste of everyone’s time. Israel isn’t going anywhere. There is no way Israel is taking in 5 million hostile refugees and those displaced need and deserve real solutions, instead of being treated as a political statement. Representative Kirk is saying that there are some legitimate refugees and there are a lot of people who need to be moved out of that designation and into normalization and better lives.

It is easy to blame big, bad Israel, but even the Palestinians admit that the fault lies elsewhere. PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas admitted in the Wall Street Journal on June 5, 2003 that the Arab armies:

“…forced them [the Palestinians] to emigrate and leave their homeland and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettoes in which the Jews used to live.”

How is that Israel’s fault? The fact that Palestinians are still living in camps is a testament to the cruelty of the surrounding countries, including oil rich ones which shamefully neglect their brethren. Even if they are fortunate enough to receive citizenship, they and their descendants are entitled to use the burdensome title of “refugee.” According to one source, out of the recently tallied 5 million refugees, 2 million have Jordanian citizenship. In fact, of the entire 5 million, only 30,000 were people actually displaced as a result of five Arab countries invading Israel: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), and Egypt.

Historically, such a prolonged refugee status is unprecedented. War refugees after World War II numbered around 40 million, according to Time magazine. Nearly all were repatriated and lost their refugee status upon receiving new citizenship. This could have included the Palestinian people. According to US Ambassador Eric Johnston:

“Between 1953 and 1956, at the request of President Eisenhower, I undertook to negotiate with these States (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) a comprehensive Jordan Valley development plan that would have provided for the irrigation of some 2,225,000 acres…But in October 1956 it was rejected for political reasons at a meeting of the Arab League.”

In other words, had the Arab League agreed, there would be no Palestinian refugee issue.

Fifty years later, many Palestinians live in camps and are denied the right to move on with their lives. In the camps, the situation is truly heartbreaking. When Israel tries to make any improvements, the UN is quick to step in with condemnation, and reiterates strongly its demand that Israel desist from the removal and resettlement of Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip and from the destruction of their shelters…. [because it would be] a violation of their inalienable right of return.” (UN GA Resolution 41/69, Section E December 3, 1986)

In the same time period, Israel absorbed 650,000 Jews from Arab countries who fled their homes, leaving their possessions behind. These displaced Jews are no longer refugees and their children live in Israel as full and equal citizens. No word is mentioned to their plight, and perhaps that’s for the best. They are no longer victims and do not require pity or international aid.

The State Department is wrong to side with UNRWA’s practice of granting refugee status to descendants and wrong to insist on allowing the issue to be solved through negotiations. Firstly, UNRWA may make the practice, but the US is footing the bill to the tune of $1.23 BILLION a year and therefore deserves a say. Secondly, the refugee issue is one of the biggest obstacles to negotiation since it’s an existential threat to Israel. Removing it by solving the problem would allow both sides to finally work out a good faith deal that could lead to lasting peace.

Mark Kirk has been branded an “Israel firster.” But if the end result is a life out of camps and refugee status to a life of dignity and self-sufficiency, it sounds like he’s a “Palestine firster.” – in a GOOD way.


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Elke Weiss

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