Refugee Factcheck #1

Posted: July 31, 2010 by Rex Brynen in factcheck

Did you know that Palestinian refugees live in apartheid-like conditions under the Palestinian Authority? Neither did I! However, I read it on the interwebs, so it must be true…

More specifically, the recently had a piece by Richard Shulman on the “Status of Arab ‘refugees’ in the Palestinian Authority,” arguing that “Although the P.A. claims to represent these descendants of refugees, it treats them almost as enemy aliens.” He also cites a recent piece in City Journal by Sol Stern on the “Nakba Obsession,” where the latter  states:

For half a century, the United Nations has administered Balata as a quasi-apartheid welfare ghetto. The Palestinian Authority does not consider the residents of Balata citizens of Palestine; they do not vote on municipal issues, and they receive no PA funding for roads or sanitation. The refugee children—though after 60 years, calling young children “refugees” is absurd—go to separate schools run by UNRWA, the UN’s refugee-relief agency. The “refugees” are crammed into an area of approximately one square kilometer, and municipal officials prohibit them from building outside the camp’s official boundaries, making living conditions ever more cramped as the camp’s population grows.

There are so many inaccuracies and distortions here that it’s not clear where to start—but I’ll try.

First of all, no refugees in the West Bank (or Gaza, Jordan, or Syria) are somehow kept in camps—they’re perfectly free to live wherever they choose. In the West Bank in particular, only about a quarter of refugees live in camps. Equally, nothing prevents you from building outside of a camp–provided you own the land, and it is zoned for construction.

Refugee camps are not welfare ghettos. In most areas of operation, the vast bulk of UNRWA services are health and education—that is, basic public services that create absolutely no welfare dependencies whatsoever. On the contrary, they enhance human capital and make the refugees more independent. UNRWA hasn’t been a welfare agency for decades, beyond a very small number of special hardship cases (where it provides limited additional support) and its emergency food programs in Gaza (necessary to deal with high food insecurity and the malnutrition that would otherwise result from the Israeli-Egyptian embargo).

The Palestinian Authority most certainly does consider the population of Balata (and other refugees) as citizens. Refugees there vote in national elections (back in the good old days when the WBG had them), Balata residents have served as members of the Legislative Council, and many in the camps work for the PA. It is true that Balata has resisted incorporation into the city of Nablus, and that this has been true of most of the West Bank camps. However, while lofty nationalist rhetoric is sometimes used to justify this, it actually has far more to do with the traditional tensions between Nablus and Balata, as well a concern by refugees that inclusion into a larger municipality would dilute their political influence. This is pretty common stuff in municipal politics the world over–indeed, I live in a municipality that was forcibly amalgamated into Montréal and then voted to leave, and where some people still fly municipal flags in their yards to underline that we’re-not-Montréal spirit.

As for the still-refugees-after-60-years issue that Stern raises, that gets into far more complex matters than I have time to address now: Israel’s refusal to allow refugees to return, the fundamental impact of Palestinian forced displacement on Palestinian national identity, and other dynamics. Given that Jews maintained an attachment to the land of Israel after millennia of involuntary exile, it is hardly surprising that Palestinians have an attachment to their former homes after a comparatively short six decades. It certainly isn’t a function of camps and UNRWA. Non-camp refugees and non-refugees have similar attitudes to the refugee issue as do camp refugees. Indeed, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who attend Israeli schools, overwhelmingly support the “right of return” too.

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