UNRWA disavows Whitley comments

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative, peace process, UNRWA

Well, this didn’t take long. UNRWA has today formally disavowed Andrew Witley’s recent comments at the NCUSAR conference on the political feasibility of the right of return:

United Nations Relief and Works Agency Statement

UNRWA distances itself from the statements of its New York Director

UNRWA unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by the Director of its office in New York, Andrew Whitley, at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations in Washington on 22 October 2010. These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the Agency and are the personal views of Mr Whitley.

I understand that the Agency needs to work on an intimate daily basis with 4.7 million refugees, 30,000 Palestinian employees, and host governments, and that pronouncements on politically-sensitive issues (such as the likely constraints on any future refugee return) do not make UNRWA’s daily operations any easier.

Then again, Andrew was (in my own view) absolutely right, and expressed views that are held by most senior officials within UNRWA, the PA, host countries, and the international community. They also reflect, if the polling is to be believed, the expectations of most refugees.

Some of the reaction to my earlier blog post revolved around the ideas that: 1) Palestinians should not be expected to express compromise on the refugee issue until Israel does—that, in other words, maintaining a maximalist position is good negotiating strategy; 2) that refugees should be allowed to cling to the dream, even if it is illusory, 3) that discussing refugee concessions only distracts from the core of the issue, which is Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and 4) it is just all so unfair, given what happened in 1948.

All of those are good points. Regarding #1, however, I don’t think that implying to refugees that a full right of return is achievable actually helps as a negotiating strategy. Regarding #2, by all means anyone can cling to a dream—but in my view its important for researchers (and even policy-makers) to speak the truth as they see it, especially for the benefit of the marginalized. In the case of #3, yes that’s true—the core issue is occupation—but PRRN is all about refugees, which leads us to take the issue in isolation and out of context at times.

And as for #4… yes it is.

  1. Mohammed Samhouri says:

    It’s a “politically sensitive” question indeed. In such case, then, there is no point in telling the “truth”, whatever the definition of the truth is, or the justification for telling it might be. This is also an emotionally charged issue for the Palestinians, refugees and non refugees alike; which makes things even more complicated. I have read all the comments made on the subject, and I believe that each one of them has a point to make. Having said that, however, there is one related question that has been on my mind, and has been bothering me for a long while: if we are to tell the Palestinian refugees that the chances for their return to their homes in Israel is virtually nil and nonexistent, and that the only feasible return available to them in the future will be to the future state of Palestine (if that state is ever to be established), then shouldn’t we be equally courageous and tell the Israelis that they cannot have it both ways? That they have no business in staying in, and colonizing the OPT; that their withdrawal from the land they occupied in 1967 should be full, complete and unconditional so as to make room for the refugees to rebuild a real future for themselves and for their children? Why should Israel insist on sharing with the Palestinians the 22% left of mandatory Palestine after securing international, and, above all, Palestinian, recognition on the 78% of the land? The truth, if we are to be honest with ourselves, should be told to both parties, and not only to those that have been suffering from the injustice that befallen on them for more than six decades now

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    “That they have no business in staying in, and colonizing the OPT; that their withdrawal from the land they occupied in 1967 should be full, complete and unconditional so as to make room for the refugees to rebuild a real future for themselves and for their children?”

    In my view–yes, absolutely. I suspect everyone who has posted here would agree.

  3. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Let me add another complication, not that the subject needs it.

    There is a distinction to be made between the state of Palestine and Palestinians and between the state of Israel and Israelis. There is nothing that says that when we have two states, citizen of either state will be able to visit and work in the other state. This is not in contradiction with the way the Israelis see things and certainly not in contradiction with the way Palestinians see them. In fact before 1987 there was free movement and you could drive from Tulkarm to Haifa or Jaffa for lunch.

    The next step to swallow is that citizen of one state can reside in the other, this is more complicated but not that far fetched. So why can’t Palestinian refugees live in some villages in the Gallillee, as Palestinian citizen living in Israel. By the same token Israeli citizen could live in the Palestinian State and some settlers can thus remain where they are. Both states would have an agreement as to what sort of taxes each other residents pay, the effect on demographic data will be minimal because they are not citizen.

    More importantly, and this is again a truth that should never be uttered – Israelis view settlers as a burden if they are to return en masse to Israel, they do not fit in Tel Aviv cafe society; I dare (not) say Palestinians view returning refugees with similar reticence.

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