First Andrew Whitley says something very sensible, but probably outside the remit of a serving UNRWA official. Then everyone dumps on UNRWA, including a great many folks who know he is right but would rather that UNRWA didn’t say it, or that it wasn’t said at all prior to any eventual peace deal. Then UNRWA, quite understandably, tries to shield itself from the criticism by disavowing Whitley’s statement. On one side, Whitley is declared an “enemy of the people” for sharing his honest opinion. On the other side, the usual critics of UNRWA—apparently failing to recognize that UNRWA, like any UN agency, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the international community that needs to stay within its formal mandate—jump all over UNRWA for distancing itself. Moreover, as they write all about UNRWA’s latest sins these same critics somehow completely overlook Israel’s primary culpability for the creation of the refugee issue in the first place.
Frankly, Toy Story 3 had far more thoughtful arguments than does much of the reaction of the past few days. Heck, even the cursed Twilight saga does.
Among those who has been weighing in during the current kick-UNRWA moment is Ben Cohen, the Associate Director of Communications for the American Jewish Congress, in an article (“UNRWA Shames Andrew Whitley“) in today’s Huffington Post. Among other things, Cohen even manages to liken UNRWA to the KGB—indicating that perhaps my suggestion a few days ago that Fillipo Grandi is actually Dr. Evil in disguise was closer to the mark than I ever suspected. (Watch out for that pinky finger during staff meetings, UNRWA folks!)
The Huffington Post limits the length of online responses, which means I couldn’t post my thoughts there. Consequently, here they are instead:
While I agree that the Whitley episode provides an opportunity for a much needed airing of the political unfeasibility of large-scale Palestinian refugee return to Israel, you could be more careful with your facts.
- While Andrew Whitley was correct in noting that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to ever be able to return to their homes within Israel, you should perhaps make clear that every serious set of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issue since 2000 has presumed that some (largely symbolic) number of refugees would be able to return. At Taba in January 2001, for example, Israeli negotiators proposed 50,000 over five years (in an ambiguous 15-year formulation that might have stretched the possible number as high as 150,000). I hope you are as concerned as others are that the Netanyahu government might reverse the Israeli position and attempt to bar all refugee return.
- The notion that “Palestinians, in contrast to other refugee populations, are obliged to transfer refugee status to their descendants” simply isn’t true. Palestinians have to register for UNRWA status, are not obliged to do so, and cannot do so at all if they live outside UNRWA’s areas of operation. Other refugees around the world can also pass on their refugee status (technically referred to as “derived status”) under certain conditions–for example, many of the Afghan refugees who returned to Afghanistan with Western support after the overthrow of the Taliban were second (or subsequent) generation refugees.
- Whitley’s candor did not “cost him his job”–he was already scheduled to leave the organization at the end of the year.
- Far from Whitley’s apology being “His tone is so supine and humble that the reader is bound to wonder if these words are actually Whitley’s, or whether they were authored, in the manner of the KGB, by someone else,” a close reading of it would show that while he regrets (as any good UN official would) the problems caused for the organization by his comments, he nowhere recants the accuracy of what he said.
- Given the frequency with which Israel itself protests UN officials who make controversial comments, it is a little disingenuous to claim that “Had the “Israel Lobby” secured such a mournful repudiation of the right to independent thought from a critic of Israeli policy, the chorus of “I-told-you-so” would raise the roof.” Andrew Whitley is a UN official, and as such is bound as any public servant to reflect the official line while employed—which, in this case, is determined by United Nations General Assembly resolutions that, for the most part, the US routinely endorses.
- It is true that, in absolute amounts, Arab states are not among the top 20 donors to the Agency. Nor, for that matter, is Israel, which created the refugee issue in the first place. Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, however, provide a broad range of services to the refugees which do not flow through UNRWA. Given the small size of their respective economies, these far exceed the generosity of any other donor.
- al-Awda’s attack against Whitley was over the top, and certainly condemned by those who work professionally on the refugee issue (including me). Sami Mshasha merely said that UNRWA “appreciates your concerns and we, at UNRWA, understand the reasons that prompted you to share these concerns with UN officials”, which hardly falls into the category of “gratefully recognizing the organization’s role in securing Whitley’s apologia.”
- You comment that successive generations of Palestinians “live in Arab countries with the inferior status of the refugee, barred from non-menial jobs, higher education, the ability to travel and all the other benefits that make a free life worth living.” Of the major host countries, only Lebanon has such restrictions on refugees. Palestinians in Syria enjoy legal equivalency to Syrian citizens in almost all areas, except for voting (which hardly counts for much in Syria anyway). Palestinians in Jordan are full citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be full citizens too, if it weren’t for that inconvenient Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
- “Without the refugees, there is no “original sin” to pin upon Zionism.” The establishment of Israel forcibly displaced some 80% of the Muslim and Christian population of the nascent Jewish state. Subsequent Israeli policy seized their properties and barred their return on ethno-religious grounds, in what many today would consider an act of ethnic cleansing. Of course, Israel was not the only state to be established on the wreckage of its dispersed and dispossessed indigenous population—the same is true of settler states in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, while those states and populations have increasingly recognized the injustices that accompanied their creation, Israel has been reluctant to do so.
You are quite right to call for a more realistic discussion of the prospects for the right of return. It would be helpful if you would combine this with a corresponding call for recognition of Israel’s primary culpability for creation of the refugee problem in the first place–otherwise it is certainly going to be difficult to convince refugees to forgo any of their internationally-recognized rights in the absence of even a simple “you were wronged.”