Israel, refugees, and UNRWA: The Ayalon video

Posted: December 10, 2011 by Rex Brynen in UNHCR, UNRWA

Last week Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon launched the latest in a series of YouTube videos by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, outlining his government’s view of various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most recent installment is noteworthy both because of its content—the video examines “The Truth About the Refugees”—and because of the context in which it was released.

The video itself is lively, engaging, and well produced. It makes four major points about the refugee issue:

  1. Palestinian refugees fled Israel first because they were “encouraged by Arab leaders who promised they would return as victors”, and  also later because of the failure of their “collective attempt to destroy the newly-reestablished state of Israel.”
  2. There were “far more” Jewish refugees than Arab refugees, whose existence in the Middle East long predates the “Arab occupation” of the region. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, Jewish refugees were fully integrated and absorbed within Israel.
  3. The resettlement of Palestinian refugees was blocked by discriminatory measures by Arab countries, who (with the exception of Jordan) denied them access to employment and citizenship. The refugee issue was thus perpetuated by Arab countries to use it as a weapon against Israel.
  4. Ayalon then draws a distinction between UNHCR and its resettlement activities, versus the role of UNRWA in “perpetuating” the refugee issue through multi-generational refugee status. UNRWA spends more on Palestinians refugees and employs more staff than other refugees receive through UNHCR.

There is little point responding point-for-point to what is, after all, a (well-made) propaganda video. Indeed, in many ways, the video is best appreciated as a statement of views that, however odd they might appear to scholars of the refugee issue, are nonetheless deeply-held among many Israelis. While the forced displacement of approximately 80% of all Palestinians from Israel in 1947-49 had clear elements of ethnic cleansing (deliberate depopulation of key areas, seizure or destruction of refugee properties, the prohibition of their return on ethnic and religious grounds), this is simply not the way that Ayalon, or other members of the current Israeli government would see it. Indeed, the incompatibility of the Israeli and Palestinian narratives is part of the reason why resolving the refugee issue is so difficult.

As noted before at the PRRN blog, the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has often been used rather cynically by Israel in an attempt to offset Palestinian refugee claims. It is, nonetheless a real issue, rooted in widespread violations by Arab regimes of the rights of their Jewish citizens. Advocates of the Palestinian refugee interest would do well to address it in a more serious way.

Finally, there is the central and familiar theme to Ayalon’s video that the refugee issue is an artificial creation of Arab regimes and the UN. It could be noted, of course, that the majority of UNRWA-registered refugees either already have citizenship (in Jordan), or are denied it not by Arab states but by Israel (through its occupation of Palestinian territories and its refusal thus far to allow Palestinian self-determination in an independent state). While it seems fairly obvious that a population whose national identity was forged through ethnic cleansing would have the experience of al-Nakba indelibly fixed in their political consciousness, it would be a mistake to wholly dismiss Ayalon’s views as cynical obfuscation. On this issue too he is reflecting a perspective that is widely held on the Israeli side.

One of the most interesting things about this video is the very deliberate, official attack upon UNRWA that it contains. The video itself was launched at an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the UN refugee convention, with the Deputy Foreign Minister condemning UNRWA’s role in the refugee issue as “morally and politically unacceptable.”

Of course, in drawing a distinction between UNHCR and UNRWA the video makes a number of factual errors, failing to note (for example) that UNRWA predates UNHCR, that UNHCR also recognizes multigenerational refugees, and that UNHCR recognizes that refugees have a “right of return” and that such return is the most desirable “durable solution” to most refugee situations. According to the most recent (2009) UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, UNHCR repatriated some 24.7 million refugees to their homelands between 1989 and 2009. By contrast:

Comparatively, resettlement benefits a small number of refugees; in 2009, only one per cent of the world’s refugees directly benefited from resettlement. During the past 10 years, some 810,000 refugees were resettled, compared to 9.6 million refugees who repatriated. For every refugee resettled since 2000, 12 repatriated.

While Israel officials have never been known for showering praise on UNRWA, they have long recognized its value in providing assistance to refugee populations, seeing in such services a bulwark against potential refugee radicalism. In Gaza, for example, UNRWA has emerged as something of a rival to Hamas both as service provider, and because of its promotion of peace, human rights, and greater gender equality. Indeed, it has only been because of the social safety need provided by the Agency that Israel has been able to apply economic pressures against Gaza, knowing that UNRWA food programmes will prevent humanitarian conditions there from becoming critical. Consequently, when Canada ended its contributions to UNRWA’s core budget in 2009, Israeli officials quietly protested the move. Why then Ayalon’s current attack?

There are, I think, two possible explanations. One is that Ayalon—a Knesset member from the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, famous for once deliberately humiliating the Turkish ambassador with an uncomfortably low chair for the benefit of Israeli television cameras (and then having to apologize)—has once again made a political faux pas. The other possible explanation, however,  is that Israel may be shifting its policy towards the Agency, due to either the right-wing views of the current Israeli government or in retaliation for the Palestinians recent bid for UN recognition.

Only time will tell which of these it is.

  1. Thomas says:

    New subscriber to your blog. An informative read. Thank you. Looking forward to more…

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