The great refugee resettlement conspiracy

Posted: August 7, 2010 by Rex Brynen in conspiracies, peace process

Every once in a while I come  across reports of a secret international conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian refugee issue by encouraging Arab countries to resettle and naturalize them. Usually it is Washington (and Israel, of course) that stands behind such plots, although back in the day when Canada used to chair the multilateral Refugee Working Group, Ottawa used to sometimes be accused of involvement in the conspiracy too.

Most recently, Franklin Lamb—who has done some excellent work in support of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon—has resurrected tales of the conspiracy in a recent article:

The Obama administration, colluding with Israel, is backing the gradual naturalization of the Palestinians wherever they are or can be embedded. In this context and, according to the information acquired by the Kuwait Daily, Al-Anbaa, “the State Department has formed a team of Arabs and Europeans, in order to pressure the Gulf States into financing a fund to support any country that will accept and nationalize Palestinians.”

Anyone who has dealt with the US State Department on the Palestinian refugee issue would chuckle at the thought. Certainly, the folks in PRM (the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees) think about refugees—that, after all, is their job—but their engagement is almost entirely humanitarian, and largely in relation to US support for UNRWA. In past periods of permanent status negotiations they’ve often been kept out of the policy loop by the folks at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the office of the mediator-of-the-day. They certainly don’t sit down with Arabs and Europeans to plot resettlement and tawteen. Instead, they’ve spent most of their time fending off rumours that President Obama is in league with Hamas and planning to allow their refugee-operatives to settle in the US, assisting Palestinians fleeing Iraq (over opposition from the all-Arabs-are-prototerrorists crowd in the US), and finding additional money for UNRWA.

On the other hand, the folks at NEA usually don’t think much about the refugee issue at all—they’re too busy with other things. Indeed, when there have been secret international meetings on the issue (the not-so-secret “No-Name Group” of years past) it could be difficult to even get them to come. Part of this is undoubtedly a high degree of nervousness in dealing with the issue at all, given Israeli sensitivities. But part of it is also because the refugee issue, most of the time to most of the international community, just doesn’t seem all that important, and certainly not in a diplomatic-political sense. Despite what one might understand from the occasional specious story in the Arab press or the periodic misinformed comment by a member of the US Congress, at this point no major state really cares enough to even bother conspiring in the proper sense of the term.

This isn’t to say that the Israelis wouldn’t prefer that the issue be resolved without any refugee return to Israel. It isn’t difficult to find Israeli officials or pro-Israeli advocacy groups that favour resettlement as a way of deflecting the issue of refugee rights, as I’ve highlighted before in this blog. Then again, don’t assume that the Israeli government spends all that much time worrying about the refugee issue either, beyond its current efforts to advance Jewish property claims against those of Palestinian refugees. On the contrary, it is fair to say that at any one time the number of refugee experts actually serving in the Israeli government varies between very few and none, and the degree of policy attention devoted to it pales in comparison to almost every other permanent status issue. (To quote one former Israeli official who worked on the refugee issue during the Camp David era, “my primary source was Google.”) In the case of the current Israeli government, it can’t even decide if it dislikes UNRWA (for its criticism during the Gaza war, and as a symbol of the enduring refugee issue) or rather likes it (as a counterweight to Hamas and safety net to offset the worst effects of the Gaza embargo). The official signals that it sends are decidedly mixed.

Franklin makes two other major points in his article, which I won’t deal with now. One concerns the likely failings of the reform legislation now taking shape in Lebanon on refugee economic rights  Here I substantially agree with him, albeit in somewhat different terms and with a much less positive appraisal of the role of the so-called “national Lebanese resistance”. The second concern the right of return in the broader sense—a complicated issue on which I’ll blog one day, when I feel in the mood to annoy everyone simultaneously across the entire ideological spectrum.

Let me be clear too, that I’m not suggesting that US policy on the Middle East is even-handed, or that the international community has engaged appropriately on the refugee issue. I’m enormously critical of both.

However, when it comes to actual conspiracies—sorry, there really is nothing to see.

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