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.