Archive for the ‘Jordan’ Category

Winter storms hit Palestinian refugee camps

Posted: January 12, 2015 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, UNRWA, West Bank

It’s been a cold winter for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Read more about the current situation at the UNRWA website.

UNRWA has released a video highlighting the reasons for poverty among Palestinian refugees. It cites as the primary causes 1) high unemployment (due to labour restrictions in Lebanon, and the effects of israeli occupation in the West Bank); 2) Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and 3) the Syrian civil war.

Palestinians flee Syria to Jordan

Posted: July 7, 2012 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, Syria

Al-Jazeera reports on the flight of Palestinian refugees from Syria to Jordan—and the Jordanian restrictions placed upon on them.


For a more critical perspective on this, also see the recent (4 July 2012) report by Human Right Watch on Jordan: Bias at the Syrian Border.

Hilal, Ayalon, and Palestinians in Lebanon

Posted: February 22, 2012 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, UNRWA

One PRRN blog reader sent in some thoughts regarding Palestinians in Lebanon, in the context of Leila Hilal’s recent critique in The Atlantic of the Ayalon video on the Palestinian refugee issue. I post them below anonymously and in their entirety:

* * *

Leila Hilal has written an excellent response to Danny Ayalon on the issue of Palestinian refugees.  I do wish, however, she had not used this mantra:

Refugees in Syria have historically enjoyed social and economic rights on par with nationals, while in Lebanon, where confessional balances dictate the political system, the majority Sunni Palestinian refugee population are denied the rights to work and own property out of demographic fears.

UNRWA has had to continuously grovel and praise the regime in Syria for fear that their projects would be stopped or their international staff expelled or denied visas. The Syrian regime is probably responsible for killing more Palestinians than Israel—for example, the War of the Camps (1985-89)  in Beirut and the North which can only be described as an Assad-Arafat war; they also played a leading role in Tel el Zaatar and in cleansing the camps anywhere north of Saida from Fateh/PLO presence. They also used al-Saiqa, the PFLP-GC and the Yarmouk Brigade of the PLA to do their dirty work in the Bekaa and in the North.  

Also her statement about Lebanon is not correct especially when she attributes it to the refugees being Sunni and that the problem is the confessional balance. The Taif agreement in Lebanon was a settlement to end the war and the Palestinian issue was mentioned in it as one of the (major) factors to defuse by saying that there will be no tawteen. This sectarian view of things is mainly in the eye of the beholder. It is like when people say that Lebanon gave nationality to the Christians and the rich, meaning that the Lebanese are sectarian and materialistic—yet there were many Palestinians in the camps that also got the nationality, in the 1950s it was being distributed left right and centre. One refugee from Burj el-Shamali told me that his father and his father’s eight brothers and sisters and all their children got it and they paid 10 LL for it at the time in stamp duty.

One could also note that the Jordanian government also censures researchers and tries to suppress any negative image that can be given about the refugees in Jordan. It is not that the Lebanese government does not care. Rather, they don’t read and anyone can publish anything they like on the topic.

* * *

My own take? I tilt towards Leila’s view on this one, but invite others to weigh in via the comments section below. (Note that comments sometimes take a while to appear, since they are moderated.)

In March 2010 the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (a “political non-profit organization striving to promote democracy, civil society, equality and a healthy environment internationally,” linked to the German Green Party) held a conference on the Palestinian issue in Berlin.

The historic event of the formation of Israel had, however, far-reaching consequences not only for the Jewish people and the yishuv, the Jewish community in the British mandate territory of Palestine, but also for the Arab-Palestinian people. Around 800,000 Palestinians had to leave their home during the 1948-49 war either because they were driven out or forced to flee. 170,000 stayed in Israel, became citizens of Israel and, with approx. 1.3 million, have become a minority in the Jewish state over the last 60 years. Since then, the refugees of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) and their children have lived in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in the Arab states of the Middle East and scattered throughout the entire world. Their numbers are estimated to be at least 4 to 5 million. Their day-to-day realities could hardly be more different. 2.4 million have lived for more than 40 years under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, 1.4 million under Israeli siege in the Gaza Strip, millions more live in the countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria next to Israel. In 2008, the UNRWA counted a total of roughly 4.6 million Palestinian refugees (this figure was 914,000 in 1950). Only a small percentage has managed to integrate. Others have started new lives, most of them in the Arab Gulf states, in Europe and North and Latin America.

The geographic and social fragmentation of the Palestinian people is essentially a result of the conflict in the Middle East. But a wide variety of other change processes – economic, social, gender-specific, political – have affected the societal development of the Palestinians over the last few decades and shape the reality of their fragmented existence. Because the political-diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict are still dominated by the decades-long debate over a two-state solution which also finds its legitimacy under international law in the 1947 UN partition plan, it is time to take a closer look at the Palestinian people and their development, which is characterized by many contradictions, development over the last 60 years. Within the framework of a final status agreement, the goal will not just be to find a viable solution for the people living in the historic region of Palestine. The right of Palestinian refugees to return has been the subject of numerous UN resolutions. Thus, the extremely different realities of refugees will also be analyzed and their prospects for the future discussed.

Late last year the edited proceedings of that conference were published (in German). The volume contains contributions by leading experts on Palestinian and Middle East politics, and quite a few pieces on the Nakba, forced displacement, UNRWA and other refugee-related topics.

For those of you who read German, the full volume can be downloaded for free as a pdf here. For those who can’t, many of the original English-language conference papers can be found here.

h/t Michael Fischbach

Apparently three op eds in less than a month from right-wing racist nutjob* Martin Sherman isn’t enough from the Jerusalem Post: yesterday they published a fourth, in which he again calls for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank and Gaza, so that they could be resettled elsewhere and leave the place all tidy and Arab-free for Jewish settlement. What’s more, he suggests that the West should help pay for this ethnic self-cleansing (which he euphemistically labels the “humanitarian paradigm”):

The estimated cost of implementation is strongly dependent on the level of compensation and the size of the Palestinian population in the “territories,” which is the subject of intense debate.

A few years ago, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted a survey on the level of compensation Palestinian refugees considered fair to forgo the “right of return.” If we take more than double the minimum amount specified by most polls as fair compensation for relocation/rehabilitation, and if we adopt a high-end estimate of the Palestinian population, the total cost would be around $150b. for the West Bank Palestinians (and $250b. if Gaza is included). This is a fraction of the US expenditure on its decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have produced results that are less than a resounding success.

Spread over a period equivalent to the current post-Oslo era, this sum would comprise a yearly outlay of no more than a few percentage points of current GDP – something Israel could well afford on its own.

If additional OECD countries were to contribute, the total relocation/rehabilitation of the Palestinian Arabs could be achieved with an almost imperceptible economic burden.

Of course, it is all political fantasy of the most unrealistic and unhelpful sort. He attempts to buttress with distorted findings from the 2003 PSR refugee poll, which was neither about Palestinians leaving their ancestral homeland nor giving up the right of return, and which actually shows that only 1% of refugees in the West Bank and Gaza would consider monetary incentives to immigrate as their first choice, and that over 80% of those who might immigrate would hope to retain Palestinian citizenship.

Again, the issue here isn’t that “transfer” is a theme in Israeli political discourse (it has been since before the formation of the state), nor that a former member of Tzomet advocates it. Rather, it is the treatment of the issue as a somehow normal one in the pages of a contemporary center-right-but-mainstream Israeli newspaper.

*I was struggling for the proper academic term here, but I think this one captures it nicely.

* * *

It is no wonder, therefore, that the Jordanian have been eager to host the recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks in accordance with the Quartet’s call for a peace agreement in 2012—not only are they concerned about the absence of diplomatic progress and fearful of the domestic “Arab Spring” ramifications of continued stalemate, but in addition Amman has a perennial fear of  “transfer” (as well as its companion theme, “Jordan is Palestine”). The talks themselves, of course, will go nowhere: Daniel Levy and Leila Hilal are, if anything, being charitable when they noted this week that “Given the positions of the negotiating parties, their respective political realities, and their actions over the last months, the talks in Amman had the theater of absurd quality to them.” Rami Khouri gets it right too when he comments that  we are “starting the new year with failed old diplomacy”:

The good news about the Jordanian-hosted Palestinian-Israeli-Quartet meeting in Amman to explore possibilities for resuming Palestinian-Israeli direct negotiations is that former US Mideast specialist Dennis Ross is not there to guarantee failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation.

The bad news is that the meeting is likely to fail because the Ross approach to guaranteeing diplomatic failure with the pro-Israel tilt of the US delegation still prevails.

The implications of this for conditions in the Middle East are profound, and mostly negative. The continued attempts to restart negotiations, define parameters, develop confidence-building measures, establish deadlines and targets, and pursue a host of other dead ends have all failed over the past 20 years because they lacked the intellectual honesty and diplomatic evenhandedness that is required for success in such situations.

This is aggravated by the trend, over the past decade in Israel, which has seen a combination of rightwing messianic and super-nationalist militaristic groups dominate the current coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli politics in general. Their position that peace talks can continue while Zionism pursues its steady colonisation of Palestinian lands is preposterous in its own right, and a diplomatic deadweight that is apparently supported, or merely accepted, by the United States.

The Quartet of the United States, Russia the UN and the European Union, which is supposed to shepherd the negotiations to success, adds another layer of incompetence, crowned by Ross-like bias and a penchant for rhetoric, statements and meetings over action.

Conditions on the Arab side are not much more impressive than the Israeli, American and Quartet perspectives, given the lack of unity among Palestinians and the general diplomatic lassitude of the Arab world as a whole. So breakthroughs for a negotiated peace are not on the horizon. One thing is sure, however. The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts, with the current political attitudes of the United States, EU and the leading Arab powers, can only portend more conflict ahead.

It is right that concerned parties should try to restart diplomatic negotiations, as they have done in Amman this week, but this is an exercise in futility if it occurs on the foundation of the cumulative failures of the recent past. Sadly, this seems to be the case.

The new year is full of hope for many Arabs who taste freedom and democracy, but it has not yet ushered in a new, more honest and fair, approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

Wikileaks: Jordan’s Palestinians

Posted: September 16, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Jordan, refugee attitudes, right of return, US

The recent release of the full Wikileaks collection of unredacted US diplomatic cables has generated political interest in Jordan, where some have claimed that the cables show evidence of a secret US plot to make Jordan into alternative Palestinian homeland. Particular attention has been directed to the notion of a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians do not return to Palestine but instead are integrated into the Jordanian political system:

¶22. (C) A common theme that emerges from discussions with Palestinian-origin contacts and some government officials (although not necessarily East Bankers as a group) is a “grand bargain” whereby Palestinians give up their aspirations to return in exchange for integration into Jordan’s political system.  For East Bank politicians and regime supporters, this deal could help solve the assumed dual loyalty of Palestinians in Jordan.  For Palestinian-origin citizens, the compact would, ideally, close the book on their antagonistic relationship with the state and open up new opportunities for government employment and involvement in the political process.

¶23.  (C) “If we give up our right of return, they have to give us our political rights,” says Refai.  “In order for Jordan to become a real state, we have to become one people.”  Rantawi calls for a comprehensive peace process that would resolve issues of identity and rights for Palestinians in Jordan as part of the “package.”  This, he says, would require major reforms in Jordan, its transformation into a constitutional monarchy in which greater executive authority is devolved, and external pressure on the Government of Jordan to ensure that equal rights for Palestinians are enforced.

¶24.  (C) If a peace agreement fails to secure political rights for Palestinian-origin Jordanians as they define those rights, many of our contacts see the right of return as an insurance policy through which Palestinians would vote with their feet.  Refai asks: “If we aren’t getting our political rights, then how can we be convinced to give up our right of return?”  Palestinian-Jordanian Fuad Muammar, editor of Al-Siyasa Al-Arabiyya weekly, noted that in the past few years there has been a proliferation of “right of return committees” in Palestinian refugee camps.  This phenomenon, he said, reflected growing dissatisfaction with Jordanian government steps to improve their lot here and an increased focus on Palestine.

¶25.  (C) Comment:  Just because there is a logic to trading the right of return for political rights in Jordan does not mean that such a strategy is realistic, and it certainly will not be automatic.  There are larger, regime-level questions that would have to be answered before Palestinian-origin Jordanians could be truly accepted and integrated into Jordanian society and government. In the absence of a viable and functioning Palestinian state, those who are charged with protecting the current identity of the Jordanian state will be loath to consider measures that they firmly believe could end up bringing to fruition Jordan is Palestine – or “al-Watan al-Badeel.”  It is far from certain that East Bankers would be willing to give up the pride of place that they currently hold in a magnanimous gesture to their Palestinian-origin brethren.  Senior judge Al-Ghazo told us: “In my opinion, nothing will change in Jordan after the right of return.  East Bankers will keep their positions, and the remaining Palestinians will keep theirs.”  Likewise, none of our Palestinian contacts who saw a post-peace process environment as a necessary condition for their greater integration in Jordan offered a compelling case as to why it would be sufficient.

If you actually bother to read the cables, however, it is clear that there is no conspiracy at all, but rather some pretty solid and factual reporting by US Embassy staff on the private viewpoints of a range of Jordanian interlocutors of both East Bank and Palestinian origin. Indeed, the February 2008 cable quoted above (on “The Right of Return: What it Means in Jordan“) provides perhaps the best single short treatment I know of the topic in any language, drawing out the many tensions and nuances around the issue. It is controversial in Jordan partly because it highlights continuing discrimination against Palestinians, as well as the extent to which many Palestinian and Jordanian figures have come to view achievement of the “right of return” as improbable.

Uncomfortable truths no doubt—but truths nonetheless.

The US Embassy in Jordan also described (June 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian fears of an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (August 2004) Palestinian-Jordanian criticism of King Abdullah. US diplomats provided some very solid reporting (May 2008) regarding Jordan’s measures to strip some Palestinian citizens of their citizenship, and a four part series of cables (June 20o8) describing the social and political dynamics of Palestinian refugee camps (here, here, here, and here)—among others.

Nothing in these cables should be particularly surprising to those who follow Jordanian politics. However, these are discussions that Jordanians usually have with friends, over coffee or dinner—and not in public forums where they are often considered far too sensitive for frank and substantive debate. I hope that the leak of the cables results in a more productive conversation within Jordan over the issue—and doesn’t harm any of those named in the cables who dared to share their honest views with foreign diplomats.

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.

The Canadian foreign policy newspaper/website Embassy has a thoughtful piece by Lee Berthiaume on UNRWA arising from his recent visit to an UNRWA school in Jordan. Lee has previously reported a number of times on Canadian Middle East policy, including Ottawa’s decision to halt funding to UNRWA’s core budget. In this latest article, he highlights the inevitable complex tensions that arise between UNRWA efforts to keep its services neutral and apolitical, and the very political views of the refugees themselves:

AMMAN, Jordan—The schoolyard teems with young girls in blue uniforms, some sporting headscarves, most carrying backpacks, all of them smiling. Shaded from the hot Middle Eastern sun by a structure of corrugated metal, one class runs around in circles, playing a game. Next to them, a teacher leads another class through morning stretches and jumping jacks.

Inside the two-storey building, the majority of the students at Nuzha Prep Girls’ School are in classes, but in one room, a special meeting of the institution’s Parliament on Human Rights and Women’s Issues has been arranged in honour of my visit. This student council-like body features many of the school’s top students.

As I enter, I am surprised to be greeted by several of the girls in English. I am led to a special seat at the front of the classroom. Then the nearly two-dozen girls who make up the parliament take their own seats, which have been set up in a horseshoe. The teachers, all wearing headscarves, take up positions in the background.

Unsure how to start, I ask what the girls think of their school. After a slight hesitation, a few raise their hands.

“I’m so happy when I come to school,” responds one 12-year-old in English. Another, however, complains in Arabic through a translator that there was a shortage of textbooks at the beginning of the school year. Then I get an answering I wasn’t expecting.

“I don’t care about the school,” says one girl. “I want to be in Palestine, my homeland.”

Other students have equally strong views on the right of return, on Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and on the utility (or futility) of the peace process:

Sitting in the Nuzha Prep classroom, surrounded by smiling faces from the school’s Parliament on Human Rights and Women’s Issues, I ask the girls what human rights they have learned about. Hands shoot up and the answers come quickly: the right to play; to live peacefully; to security and equality; to protection from torture and slavery.

Yet one answer keeps coming up over and over: the right to return to Palestine. In fact, the girls invariably tie the other human rights they have learned about to the homeland they say they desperately wish to see.

“Here in Jordan, we have all the rights,” says one girl. “But I want to remember the children in Palestine. They do not have the ability to laugh.”

Ten-year-old Hala Mohammed Harb is clearly the smallest girl in the parliament. With her big brown eyes and a shy smile, she slowly approaches me and says through an interpreter that she would like to re-enact a poem. The name of the piece, says the interpreter, is A Child is Like a Blade.

What follows is unexpected and requires no translation. Hala’s young face takes on a surprising hardness, her body movements become militaristic and martial in tone as she mimics defying the Israeli occupiers, raising a flag over a free Palestinian state that she will call home. She is unwavering in her conviction, forceful in the telling.

When it ends, the other students erupt into applause and Hala returns to her shy schoolgirl persona. The teachers are beaming with pride.

Not surprisingly, the school’s teachers—themselves refugees—share many of these views:

A little later, I am led to a science lab. Two rows of long metal tables run down either side of the room, with high benches behind them, while the walls are covered with diagrams showing human organ systems. A computer has been set up at the front and is connected to a projector hanging from the roof.

An audio-visual presentation begins, and amid Arabic music, a picture of smiling children is projected onto the blackboard under the words: “My right to live a happy life!” A few seconds later, three more words appear underneath: “But in Gaza!”

Another picture of smiling children who look to be of North American or European descent. The words: “My right to play!” Then the image changes to show Palestinian children on the street, clothes ripped, skin covered with dirt. “But these people, where’s their right?” the presentation asks.

It continues like this. Pictures of happy white children and families give way to the image of an old Palestinian woman in tears supporting herself with an olive tree, an Israeli military patrol in the background. Another shows Israeli soldiers in a classroom, books and broken desks strewn around the room. The presentation ends with the words: “We will not give up!”

Judging by the video presentation, and the fact that it was put together at the school and clearly bears Nuzha Prep’s name on the credits, it would be easy to say the school’s teachers are responsible for the content, which some could easily interpret as borderline incitement.

Yet when asked who has told them about Palestine, the students offer a number of answers that revolve around the same people: Their families. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, fathers, mothers, brothers.

While the article itself is sensitive to the nuances at work here (the “fine line” of the article’s title) and the broader context with which UNRWA is embedded, I’m not sure that it will be read this way by many. Those inclined to see UNRWA services as artificially perpetuating the refugee issue will see in it further proof of the Agency’s nefarious effects. Others will see what he reports as inevitable and fully understandable, given way in which experience of forced displacement and diaspora are woven deep into the Palestinian national narrative. Certainly it is far from unusual that students hold rather black-and-white views of the conflicts that surround them and hostile impressions of the “other.”

The divergent responses that Lee’s article will likely generate highlight another issue in turn: the ways in which UNRWA itself often tends to be perceived through the prism of sharply incompatible paradigms. In other words, what the Agency is held to represent varies sharply with the eye of the beholder—an avatar, if you will, of much larger hopes, fears, and issues. What the Agency actually does sometimes has little remarkably little to do with the ensuing debates.

The final word, however, should perhaps be given to the refugee student that Lee’s piece quotes in his closing paragraph:

Meanwhile, for the girls in Nuzha Prep’s Parliament on human rights and women’s issues, there is no question of giving up on Palestine.

“In the West, they present an image of us that we are not educated, that we have given up our desire to return,” says one girl. “We don’t give up on our right. We know we have this right.”

Sixteen-year-old Wisam Mousa turns to me. “Imagine if you were living outside Canada and you weren’t allowed to return,” she says. “What would you do?”

Indeed, what would we do? In a sense we already know, for Canada has its own population of dispossessed, in the form of those First Nations who were marginalized by European settlement of the Americas. My very first teaching job was teaching university extension courses at a community college on a reservation in Alberta more than a hundred years after the signing of Treaty 7 between local First Nations and the British crown.

The situations, of course, were very different. Whatever the tragedies of the reservation system and its enduring social legacies, today aboriginal populations are at least full citizens of Canada, with full rights. But trust me: not one of my students had forgotten the injustices of the past.

Wikileaks: Jordan, gender, and the Palestinian issue

Posted: January 10, 2011 by prrnassistant in Jordan

Among the various Wikileaks cables released so far, one from the US Embassy in Amman (dated 5 March 2008) deals with Jordanian citizenship law and the particular sensitivities involved because of the Palestinian issue:

The issue of who can and cannot transmit citizenship is an ongoing concern of many women in Jordan, and was revived in the public consciousness during recent parliamentary elections. Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men do not transmit citizenship to their children. This creates a precarious situation, primarily for the children of Palestinian fathers, but also for the children of foreign laborers resident in Jordan. Women’s rights activists have worked on this situation for years, to no avail. Even public statements by, and strong support for legislative action from, the Queen have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the number of families with a tenuous legal situation in Jordan is growing as the Palestinian-origin population intermingles with East Bankers. Lawmakers dismiss changes to the law as politically impossible, even as civil society professes its willingness to compromise. In the end, it is Jordanian identity politics, not gender concerns, that are at the heart of this debate.

You’ll find the full cable here.