David Harris on Refugees

Aug 07, 2008 Published under Israel, Middle East, Palestine

I was forwarded a provocative but interesting article by David Harris, head of AJC.  While I am a fervent supporter of Israel as the haven and homeland of the Jewish people, I am very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian refugees, and I think more will be accomplished by acknowledging their suffering and then moving on to practical solutions along the Clinton parameters.  But Harris does raise some provocative points worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, as with almost everything dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict, this line of reasoning will appeal to partisan pro-Israeli views and repel partisan pro-Palestinian views, and nothing will come out of it except to further affirm the partisan convictions of each side – which is why I revert back to the approach of helping each side better understand the other’s narrative and then focus on WORKING SOLUTIONS like those offered in OneVoice’s citizen negotiations and the Clinton parameters.  Anyway, here is the article:

Why are Palestinian refugees different from all other refugees?
David A. Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York
August 6, 2008

Why indeed?
Tragically, there have been countless refugees in the annals of history.
Many have fled political persecution, religious harassment, racial or ethnic targeting, or gender or sexual discrimination.
It’s happened in just about every era.
In the twentieth century alone, tens of millions of refugees, if not more, were compelled to find new homes—victims of world wars, border adjustments, population transfers, political demagoguery, and social pathologies.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne codified the population exchange of Greeks and Turks, totaling more than 1.5 million people. Ancestral homes were wiped out on both sides.
Massive numbers of Hindus and Muslims were moved to accommodate the partition of the sub-continent into two independent nations—India and Pakistan.
Refugees by the millions, unable to return to their countries, were created as a result of the twelve-year Third Reich.
Czechs, East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, and Romanians fled the suffocation of Soviet-led tyranny whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The exodus from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam after the victory of Communist and rebel forces was massive.
Refugee flows from Africa’s civil and tribal wars, as well as its dictatorships, have been constant.
Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia by the hundreds of thousands during the first Gulf War due to Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Countless Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims fled, or were expelled, due to Serbian aggression.
And this is just the tip of the refugee iceberg.
In fact, I don’t have to look very far to understand the unending refugee crises of our times—or the trauma they have created.
My mother and her family fled oppressive Bolshevik rule and Soviet anti-Semitism in 1929, among the last to leave before the exit gates sealed shut. They arrived in Paris and had to start over again—new language, new culture, new everything. Eleven years later, they were on the road again, this time courtesy of the Nazis and their French collaborators. They were on the run for eighteen months before they were among the very few to make it to the United States. Once more, new language, new culture, new everything.
My father’s story was similar. From Germany to Austria, thanks to Hitler, and a new start. From Austria to France, again thanks to Hitler, and another new start. And, after the war, from shattered Europe to the United States and a third new start. He, too, found his footing and moved on.
And my wife and her family, whose roots in Libya predated the Arab conquest and occupation—yes, conquest and occupation—by centuries, were ousted from the country in 1967. Of course, they had an alternative. They could have stayed and been killed by the rampaging mobs looking for Jews. They, like other refugees, had to start anew in Italy.
Yet, rather than wallow in victimization, allow themselves to be exploited by unscrupulous leaders, or become consumed by hatred and revenge, they established new lives, grateful to their adopted lands for making it possible.
The same was the case with the Indochinese refugees with whom I worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the couple that my wife and I sponsored to come to the U.S. And with the Soviet and East European refugees I worked with for several years just before.
At the end of 2007, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 11.4 million refugees in its jurisdiction, with the largest populations being from Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Sudan, and Somalia. Over five decades, UNHCR estimates that it has assisted 50 million refugees “to help restart their lives.” Refugees are defined as those with “a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion….”
And yet, of all the world’s refugees, one group—the Palestinians—are treated entirely differently from all others.
Indeed, the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly does not apply to Palestinians, who fall within the purview of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
There is no equivalent UN body for any other refugee group in the world.
The definition of a refugee under the UNRWA mandate is also unique. It covers all descendants, without generational limitation, of those deemed refugees in 1948. This helps explain why its caseload has nearly quintupled since 1950.
Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA does not seek to resettle Palestinian refugees, but rather provides social services while, in effect, keeping them in perpetual limbo.
And despite the crocodile tears shed by Arab countries, many of which today are awash in petrodollars, about the plight of their Palestinian brethren, they have been among the most miserly donors to UNRWA. They callously assert that it is not their responsibility to care for refugees created by the decisions of others. The top six donors to UNRWA this year are the U.S. and European governments, with miniscule amounts donated by a few Arab nations and nothing by others.
By the way, I should hasten to clarify that only those Palestinians who are seen as victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict are given this special treatment.
In 1991, when Kuwait summarily threw out an estimated 400,000 Palestinians for their alleged support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, there wasn’t a peep from the international community. Arab violations of Arabs’ human rights are viewed differently, if they’re noticed at all.
And in countries like Lebanon, with a large Palestinian refugee population under UNRWA auspices, the government has long imposed restrictions on the Palestinian right to work in many professions and trades. But there has never been an outcry.
So, we are confronted by an unprecedented situation.
Palestinians are not the world’s first refugee population, but they may be the first to lament their perpetual refugee status while resisting any effort to resolve it.
Think about it. In 1947, the UN offered a two-state solution to address two competing national claims. The Jews accepted it; the Arabs rejected it. Or in UN-speak, the “proposed Arab State failed to materialize.” Had it been otherwise, two states might have emerged, and with any luck, learned to live side by side. To this day, that two-state concept remains the most feasible outcome.
Instead, the Arab side went to war. Has there been any war that didn’t produce refugees? Yet the Arab world blames Israel for the refugees from a war it ignited.
Meanwhile, that same Arab-Israeli conflict produced a greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who resettled elsewhere with little fanfare.
Then, by design, the Palestinian refugees were kept in camps, as wards of the international community, to serve as permanent reminders of the impermanence of their situation. Taught to focus their hatred on Israel, rather than to hold their own leaders accountable for using them as pawns, they have been denied opportunities for new lives.
Even now, three years after Israel totally withdrew from Gaza, astonishingly, nearly 500,000 Palestinians continue to live in UNRWA refugee camps there. Why?
While the Palestinians are among the world’s largest per capita aid recipients, as British official Kim Howells has noted, much of that aid has been siphoned off to line the pockets of corrupt Palestinian officials—who then turn around and seek more aid for their allegedly neglected people.
It’s the same absurd logic that Hamas deploys when it decries energy shortages while shelling the Israeli power plants that provide electricity to Gaza.
The whole process is abetted by an elaborate and well-funded UN apparatus, encompassing more than just UNRWA, created by the majority of member states to support the Palestinian cause. It goes without saying that Darfuris, Kurds, Tibetans, and others who believe they have suffered from injustice and occupation have no comparable UN bodies to advance their cause.
This is not to say that Palestinians have had easy lives. They haven’t. It is to say that their leaders, with the complicity of many in the international community, have pulled off one of the most successful spin jobs in history. Rather than settle the refugees—just like untold others—they have shamelessly exploited the refugees instead.
Therein lies the irreducible tragedy of a decades-long conflict.


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  1. Mary Donovan38@aol.com said:

    I appreciate Mr. Harris’ “letter’ and his sympathy for the Palestines. I think it would be advantageous to have a “letter” from a Palestinian representative. Together they could form the end to explanations from both sides. Then, let the youth speak and develop a road to permanent peace between their peoples. As far as the refugee problem goes, how about a lottery to decide who and what percent of them might be re-admitted to a part of the new, enlarged Palestine? How about an international campaign and fund to settle in other Middle East countries or in The U.S. or Canada or Europe – wherever they chose – those who do not win the lottery? We have to think outside the box, no more of the explaining. There are many reasons – on both sides – for the situation as it now stands. God bless the efforts of the “One Voice” youth.
    Mary Donovan

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