There’s been quite a bit of refugee-related news lately that we haven’t had a chance to comment on here at the PRRN blog, even if it has been circulated on FOFOGNET. I suspect that some of my comments will spur other comments, so feel free to weigh in.
Refugees and Border Protests
Amid the mass populist protests that have characterized the “Arab Spring,” and following from the protests on Israel’s borders on May 15 in commemoration of al-Nakba (picture, right), today saw similar protests marking the 44th anniversary of Israeli’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. In Lebanon, pressure from the Israel, the international community, the UN, and possibly even Hizbullah resulted in the demonstrations being called off in the border area. On the Golan Heights, however, a confrontation developed in which Israeli troops fired on demonstrators, reportedly killing at least four.
What do these refugee border protests mean, and what might be the implication if they become ever larger annual events? UNRWA Commissioner General Filipo Grandi has suggested that they underscored the importance of paying greater attention to the refugee issue:
“We should learn lessons from May 15. [Palestinians] are not going to stay quiet. They have rights that they want to talk about so we need to help them, otherwise they will not become a positive constituency, working toward peace, [but] they will become an element of instability,” Grandi told reporters at UNRWA’s Beirut headquarters.
“This shows how important it is not to forget the refugees. This is a political issue; clearly the responsibility of the parties to the conflict. It’s important that the issue is not delayed, because these demonstrations … are the proof that it is not resolved.”
Karma Nabulsi, writing in the Guardian shortly after the May 15 protests, saw the event as something even more transformative:
It was the moment for which we had all been holding our breath for decades – for 63 years to be precise. Palestinians everywhere watched the unfolding scene transfixed and awed. The camera followed the movements of a small group of people advancing from the mass of protesters. They were carefully making their way down a hill towards the high fence that closed off the mined field separating Syria from its own occupied territory of the Golan that borders historic Palestine, now Israel.
They were mostly young Palestinians, drawn from the 470,000-plus refugee community in Syria: from Yarmouk refugee camp inside Damascus, from Khan el-Sheikh camp outside it, from Deraa and Homs refugee camps in the south, from Palestinian gatherings all over the country.
Slowly, and in spite of the shouted warnings from the villagers from Majdal Shams about the lethal landmines installed by the Israeli military right up to the fence, these remarkable ordinary young people – Palestinian refugees – began to both climb and push at the fence. We were going home.
It was a profoundly revolutionary moment, for these hundreds of young people entering Majdal Shams last Sunday made public the private heart of every Palestinian citizen, who has lived each day since 1948 in the emergency crisis of a catastrophe. Waiting, and struggling, and organising for only two things: liberation and return.
What made this moment and others like it across the region so radical in gesture, democratic in purpose, and universal in intent? It brought the entire world suddenly face to face with the intimate and immediate in the very human struggle for freedom of each Palestinian, whether refugee or not. Sixty-three years ago the entire body politic of the people of Palestine was violently destroyed and dispersed. All Palestinians, whether refugee or not, share that terrible history – it is what unites us.
While there is no doubting the drama or symbolism of the protests, I do think there are some broader questions about what their longer term political and policy impact is likely to be.
Within Palestinian politics, an intensification of diaspora protests such as these will certainly encourage the Palestinian leadership (especially within Fateh) to step up their rhetorical advocacy of refugee rights. There’s little downside to doing so, given that—despite a current French initiative—meaningful peace negotiations seem a very long way off at present. Whether its rhetorical position is realistic, or simply misleading, is another question.
The protests might encourage the international community to pay a little more attention to how deep-seated and real refugee grievances are. There might even be somewhat greater acknowledgement of past wrongs. However, the protests are unlikely to have any impact on the broad international consensus that the refugee issue will ultimately need to be resolved primarily through repatriation to a Palestinian state, coupled with compensation for property losses suffered in 1948. As evidenced in President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East and North Africa (and endorsed by both the Quartet and the G8) there is a growing view among the key international players that the refugee issue is so difficult that it is better to start with borders and security first, and move on to other issues later:
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. (emphasis added)
Moreover, even if the recent protests highlight the salience of the refugee issue, what does that actually mean? If, as the UNRWA Commissioner General suggests, it is important that refugees be enabled to effectively articulate their interests, demands, and perceived rights, does that also mean that the international community should be equally forthright (“sorry, we don’t think you have a achievable right of return to 1948 areas”)? Certainly UNRWA isn’t in a position to be frank with refugees as to likely future political realities, as we know from Andrew Whitley’s controversial effort at truth-telling last year. A frank discussion of the issue with all stakeholders could be valuable, but its not an issue on which anyone is lining up to be frank.
A final dimension of all this is the effect of the protests within Israel, since shifting Israeli public opinion will be an important factor both in achieving meaningful peace negotiations and in securing the best possible future deal for refugees. Certainly, there are those Israelis who will see in the refugee border protests a valuable reminder of the injustices of 1948 and the need to address them. However, I suspect the general impact will be to strengthen the Israeli right, which will have little difficulty weaving the border clashes into a “hordes of refugee proto-terrorists waiting to destroy the besieged Jewish state” theme.
Update: Syrian TV is now reporting up to 20 killed in the Naksa Day protests. (Syrian TV isn’t, obviously, isn’t reporting on the “dozens” reportedly killed by Syrian security forces today in suppressing pro-reform demonstrations in Syria.) As predicted in my earlier comments above, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arguing that the whole thing shows that the Palestinians are out to destroy Israel:
The violent clashes on the border with Syria prove that the Palestinians are not interested in a solution based on 1967 borders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Rather, they are interested in a solution based on 1948 borders, Netanyahu said during a special closed meeting held with the Defense Minister and Israel Defense Forces chief in order to discuss the situation on the border with Syria.
Netanyahu said that Palestinians are trying to “flood Israel with refugees.”
“At the same time, the small Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in 1948. Arab countries have not done a thing in order to absorb and help Palestinians.”
In the interests of historical accuracy it should be noted, of course, that the Golan Heights aren’t part of Israel’s 1948 borders at all—they too are territories that were occupied in 1967.
Rafah Opened—Kind Of
With much fanfare, Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing last week, in a move that some hailed as an end to the siege of Gaza. The reality has soon sunk in, however.
- The Egyptians are only allowing passenger traffic through Rafah (as before, and in keeping with past agreements) rather than commercial traffic. While there will undoubtedly be some cash-and-carry entrepreneurism that will facilitate the flow of smaller consumer goods into Gaza, there won’t be any large-scale movement of building materials coming in, and no Palestinian exports going out. The Egyptians are clearly worried that were they to fully open Rafah to commercial traffic, Israel would move to permanently close its own crossings—effectively throwing the issue of Gaza into Egypt’s economic and political lap.
- The Egyptians are only allowing some Palestinians in. Men aged 18-40 will still require Egyptian visas, and as many as 5,000 persons may be on a “no travel” list and unable to enter.
- The Egyptians are, so far, willing to play hardball on the issue. The closure of Rafah to bus traffic on June 4 caused Palestinian anger and some protests. Egypt claimed it was all because of needed infrastructure repairs. In the absence of more information, I’m doubtful—if the Egyptians wanted to maintain the flow of passengers they could easily have done so. It looks more like a tit-for-tat warning to Hamas to me. (Then again, as a former resident of Cairo I know one should never underestimate the inefficiencies of Egyptian infrastructure repairs.)
It remains to be seen how long these policies will be maintained. If the Muslim Brotherhood does very well in Egypt’s forthcoming (September) elections, there could be greater willingness in Cairo to relax border restrictions further. On the other hand, Egypt’s strategic concern at having the Gaza issue offloaded onto them will remain. I think the most likely outcome, therefore, is a limited relaxation on the rules as to who can cross and what they can carry, but no fundamental redesignation of the crossing as a commercial one. While that certainly certainly makes things a little better in the giant prison camp that is Gaza, it won’t fundamentally improve economic conditions there.
UNRWA, Eternal Source of All Things Evil
Once again, UNRWA’s fundamental threat to all things good and nice has been unmasked by Asaf Romirowsky, this time in a op ed in the New York Daily News entitled “UN refugee agency poisons the push for Mideast peace: UNRWA only furthers Palestinians’ suffering.” Romirowsky, who is to sensible discussion of Palestinian refugee issues what Donald Trump was to the debate on Obama’s place of birth, trots out all the usual canards and exaggerations regarding the Agency:
To an outsider, UNRWA may appear to be a humanitarian group providing education, social services and other aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In reality, it helps destroy the chances of Arab-Israeli peace, promotes terrorism and holds Palestinians back from rebuilding their lives… (emphasis added)
UNRWA’s job is to keep Palestinian refugees in suspended animation – and at low living standards, and in camps – until a formal peace settlement is reached and recognized by the General Assembly.
The suffering and anger of these millions is maintained as a weapon to encourage them toward terrorism and intransigence. That stymies the peace process rather than furthering it.
For decades, UNRWA schools have bred anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Semitic indoctrination. Agency-operated – and, by extension, America-funded – schools decorate their classrooms with flags and banners celebrating terrorist groups. All this must stop if we ever want to see any kind of true progress toward peace.
The vast majority of UNRWA’s employees are Palestinian, and many local offices are dominated by radicals. UNWRA facilities have been documented as being used to store and transport weapons, and even serving as military bases.
As is typically the case, the piece either mischaracterizes what UNRWA does (it certainly doesn’t keep refugees in camps, for example—which is why 61% of refugees don’t live in them), or it takes isolated incidents and implies that they are the norm rather than the exception.
Of course, this is nothing entirely new to readers of the PRRN blog. We’ve previously discussed before UNRWA’s diabolical plot to perpetuate Middle East conflict (picture, right: the UNRWA Advisory Committee plots mayhem—UNRWA Commissioner General Filipo Grand can be seen on the right, with hook), apparently in conjunction with host countries, the United States, the European Union, other members of the international community, and Israel.
However, it comes at an interesting time. The November midterm elections in the US raised the possibility of a Congress more hostile to UNRWA. However, in the months since then, things have shifted somewhat. Briefings on Capitol Hill have assuaged some concerns. The Obama Administration continues to see UNRWA as an important element of stability in the region, as do the Europeans. The Israeli intelligence establishment have hinted that they too view UNRWA as having played a very useful role in Gaza as an ideological and service counterweight to Hamas. The Israeli government itself has privately urged donors to increase (not decrease) their contributions to the Agency. Finally, in the wake of the Palestinian national reconciliation agreement and the possibility of a new Palestinian national unity cabinet, some donors may see UNRWA as a possible conduit for future aid in a way that avoids the legal and political complications of having to work through Hamas-controlled institutions or ministries.
This doesn’t mean that the anti-UNRWA campaign won’t continue to threaten the Agency. It is hard to see it having much substantial effect (beyond the Canadian example) in the short term, however, given that even the Israeli government seems to find UNRWA necessary. Heck, these days the IDF website even features an interview with UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness.
UNRWA, Human Rights, and the Holocaust
The issue of UNRWA addressing the Holocaust in the context of its broader human rights education programme raised its head again earlier in this spring, with Hamas and others criticizing the agency for daring to mention the H-word. This is a sensitive issue for the Agency, about which it would probably prefer not to talk: if it moves ahead with examining the Holocaust in the context of its broader curriculum it is accused by some Palestinians of covert Zionism, and if it doesn’t do so it is accused by some Zionists of covert anti-Semitism.
Both claims are, of course, manifestly stupid (“stupid” being a technical social science term that the PRRN blog reserves for things that really can’t be described any other way). The Holocaust was a critical global turning point in thinking and international law regarding human rights and mass atrocity. It also has had profound implications for Palestinians, both in shaping the events of 1947-48 and in explaining some of Israel’s continued preoccupation with issues of security thereafter. On the other side, it seems to be a bit odd attacking UNRWA insufficiently addressing the issue in its schools when Israel refrained from ever even raising the topic during the 37 years it controlled the education system in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian Support for “Right of Return” Grows — in Israel
I’ve long argued that Palestinian support for refugee rights is not the product of UNRWA or the the educational system, but rather a lived historical experience of forced displacement, coupled with other contextual political and social factors. More evidence of that has come from a survey conducted by the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa, which found that “the percentage of Arab Israelis who believe cash compensation and settlement in a Palestinian state are an alternative solution to the right of return dropped from 72.2% in 2003 to 40% in 2010.”
Note that these are Israeli citizens going to Israeli schools—so the growing support for refugee rights can hardly be attributed to anything UNRWA or the PA has done or said. Partly it might be due to refugee mobilization in the disapora. However, I think the shift has far more to do with a profound feelings of Palestinian alienation from the Israeli polity, rejection of the policies of the Netanyahu government, and anger at growing “Nakba denial” and legal measures that seek to delegitimize refugee experiences and obfuscate the historical record.
In this regard, the survey has some other interesting findings:
Among Arabs, 71% said they blamed Jews for the hardships suffered by Palestinians during and after the “Nakba” in 1948. The survey also found that the percentage of Arabs taking part in “Nakba Day” commemorations rose from 12.9% in 2003 to 36.1% in 2010. In addition,37.8% of Arabs polled in the survey said they didn’t believe that millions of Jews had been the victims of a campaign of genocide waged by Nazi Germany.
Among Jewish respondents, 57.7% said they didn’t believe that a disaster of any sort happened to the Palestinians in 1948, and 68.1% expressed their opposition to public Nakba commemorations.
Also, 66.8% said the Palestinians bore the blunt of the blame for the continued conflict between Jews and Arabs.
Among Jewish respondents, 32.6% said they supported a cancellation of the voting rights of Arab citizens, and 16.5% said they were against the rights of an Arab minority to live in Israel.
I haven’t yet seen the original, only the press account—so if anyone has a copy, please feel free to send it on.