Archive for the ‘US’ Category

US State Department comments on UNRWA summer games

Posted: October 11, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA, US
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A United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee (UNWRA) holds a soccer ball during the fifth annual Gaza Summer Games, a six-week-long series of summer camps supported by the U.S. Department of State and other donors that provides sports, art, music, and theater activities for 250,000 boys and girls in Gaza, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Following the recent release of a poorly researched and highly inaccurate “documentary” on the UNRWA summer games by David Bedein, the US government has weighed into the debate with a very positive evaluation of UNRWA’s efforts on the State Department blog:

UNRWA Summer Games: Indispensable Counterweight to Extremism
Posted by Jennifer Williams on Oct 09, 2011 – 12:27 PM

Summer camp is a rite of passage for many American children — long days spent playing outdoor games and sports, singing camp songs, and making new friends that will last a lifetime. In the Gaza Strip, children live very different lives during the school year, suffering from extreme poverty and conflict. But when summer comes around in Gaza, these kids also have something to look forward to — the UNRWA Summer Games.

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, provides assistance, protection, and advocacy for five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. The U.S. Government is the largest contributor to UNRWA, providing almost $250 million in 2011 to support UNRWA’s programs in the fields of education, primary health care, social services, community support, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance, and emergency response, including in situations of armed conflict.

This summer marked the fifth annual Gaza Summer Games, a six-week-long series of summer camps supported by the U.S. Department of State and other donors that provides sports, art, music, and theater activities for 250,000 boys and girls in Gaza. At the Games, children get a chance to play and learn in a safe environment and enjoy a break from the struggles of their daily lives. Many children also get to visit the beach and to swim in the Mediterranean for the first time in their lives. UNRWA serves as an indispensable counterweight to extremism, fulfilling critical needs for humanitarian services and assistance that likely would otherwise be met by extremist groups in the region, including Hamas and Hizballah.

Throughout the 2011 Summer Games, the children of Gaza demonstrated their extraordinary talents, as well as their determination in the face of opposition from Hamas. Despite an attack by militants on the UN facility hosting the Games in July, the kids persevered to set four world records, including the largest number of people flying parachutes from the ground, the largest number of people dribbling soccer balls simultaneously, and the world’s largest-ever hand-print painting. Many of the youth who participated in the hand-print painting were special-needs kids, who often face isolation and discrimination because of their disabilities. After helping her fellow Gazan youth accomplish the record for the handprint painting, 14-year-old Fatma Maqusi said, “I can’t walk, but when I share the world record with the other kids, I feel like my drawings can walk — like I can walk.”

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.

Now, the “Israel Papers”

Posted: April 15, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Bahrain, Israel, peace process, US

Haaretz has recently obtained a substantial number of US diplomatic reports that have been leaked to Wikileaks, but apparently have not yet published by the latter. To date these haven’t revealed anything terribly surprising, other than underscoring the propensity of folks to say things behind closed doors to diplomats in a way they wouldn’t say openly.

One example of this is a March 2007 suggestion by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa that Israel resolve the Palestinian refugee issue by offering the right of return to first-generation refugees only—that is, the rapidly diminishing group of refugees in their 60s and 70s who were originally born within what is now Israel. According to the piece by Yossi Melman in Haaretz:

In that cable, the U.S. ambassador there, William Monroe, wrote that Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, proposed that Israel absorb Palestinian refugees born in “present-day Israel.” The cable says: “Israel, he suggested, could offer to allow the remaining 1948 refugees who were born in present-day Israel to return to it, while not permitting subsequent generations to do so. If Israeli settlements turned over to a Palestinian government were in good condition, they could be used to house returned refugees.”

Most Israelis would find this proposal delusional and ridiculous. Nonetheless, should we pause and reflect, we might decide that it has some merit, that perhaps absorbing elderly Palestinians without their descendants would allow them to fulfill “the Jewish dream,” a dream of being buried in the Holy Land, and would be an acceptable price to pay for the achievement of a viable peace.

The proposal underscores the extent to which the private position of many Arab states on the refugee issue is often somewhat different from public rhetoric that seems to embrace an unrestricted right of return.

Haaretz’s reporting, however, also highlights something else: the lack of knowledge in Israel about the refugee issue itself. In fact, the Israeli negotiating team briefly and informally suggested the return of first generation refugees during the peace negotiations at Taba in January 2001. The Palestinian side was not interested, arguing against it on grounds of both principle (namely, that all refugees had a right of return) and practicality (that it was inappropriate to tear elderly refugees away from their children and family support networks in this way).

meanwhile, back at Wikileaks…

Posted: January 24, 2011 by prrnassistant in Iceland, Iraq, Syria, UNHCR, US

Wikileaks has recently posted two more US diplomatic cables related to the Palestinian refugee issue.

The first concerns Iceland’s decision in 2008 to accept a small number of Palestinian refugees who had been living in the al-Waleed and al-Tanf refugee camps on the Iraqi-Syrian border. According to the May 2008 cable from US Embassy in Reykjavik, the move generated divisons that were “characteristic of growing xenophobic tensions in Icelandic society”:

Iceland’s recently-announced plan to accept 30 Palestinian refugees has sparked new debate on societal tolerance of
immigrants and again revealed deep divisions in the Liberal Party.  Meanwhile, the town of Akranes, just outside Reykjavik, is poised to accept the refugees despite a loosely-organized petition drive opposing the plan….

A total of 29 refugees later arrived in Iceland—you’ll find a video report on it here.

In another cable, the US Mission in Geneva reports in May 2009 on a recent meeting of the “Working Group on Resettlement” dealing, in part, with Palestinian refugees fleeing Iraq:

There was discussion of progress in responding to UNHCR’s October “Flash Appeal” to meet the resettlement needs of vulnerable Palestinians from Iraq currently residing in difficult circumstances in Al Waleed, Al Tanf and Al Hol camps. UNHCR’s efforts to refer these Palestinians have thus far resulted in referrals for about half of the original 2,300 to various resettlement countries but another 1,150 places are needed. For countries requiring in-person interviews, the pace of off-take will depend on the establishment of workable logistical arrangements.

…nothing especially new or noteworthy there. According to UNHCR, the al-Tanf camp was eventually closed in February 2010 after the 1,000 or so refugees there had been resettled elsewhere (including Iceland), and another 300 relocated to the al-Hol camp. In January 2011, UNHCR announced that it hopes to complete all resettlement of Palestinian refugees from the camp soon.

Israel responds to Erekat op ed, and other news

Posted: December 12, 2010 by Rex Brynen in peace process, US

As US envoy George Mitchell heads to the Middle East, Israeli officials are using Saeb Erekat’s recent op ed on UNGAR 194 and the refugee issue to argue that the Palestinians are making peace more difficult. According to today’s Jerusalem Post:

With US Mideast envoy George Mitchell set to begin a new phase in the diplomatic process when he meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli officials reacted sharply on Sunday to recent “hard-line” Palestinian comments on the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948.

The refugee issue is one of the core issues – along with border and security, settlements, Jerusalem and water – that the US, as part of its new diplomatic track toward a framework agreement, will begin discussing intensively, but separately, with Israel and the Palestinians.

Mitchell is expected to shuttle in the coming days between the sides, as the direct talks have been shelved because of the Palestinian Authority’s adamant refusal to enter negotiations without an additional settlement freeze.

Responding to an op-ed piece written by chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat in The Guardian on Friday, one Israeli official said, “Erekat says he wants peace, but by pursuing a hard-line position on refugees, he is actually making peace more difficult.

“The international community and leading Palestinian moderates have all spoken about the need for the Palestinians to compromise on the traditional position on the refugees, but in his op-ed piece, Erekat reaffirmed the hard-line Palestinian position, and in doing so – rather than showing flexibility – has showed an unwillingness to compromise.” …

The response is far from unexpected, of course. Moreover, given the complete inflexibility the Netanyahu government has shown on the issue—not to mention its position on settlement activity, Jerusalem, and other things beside—the charge of Palestinian obstructionism is more than a little ironic.

Meanwhile, don’t be looking to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent policy speech at the Brookings Institution for indications of official US thinking on the issue, because you won’t find any:

We enter this phase with clear expectations of both parties. Their seriousness about achieving an agreement will be measured by their engagement on these core issues. And let me say a few words about some of the important aspects of these issues we will be discussing.

Second, on refugees. This is a difficult and emotional issue, but there must be a just and permanent solution that meets the needs of both sides. [emphasis added]

Yep, that’s all she said. Clinton did add, however, that the US may at some point inject its own ideas on resolving the main permanent status issues:

And in the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive two-way conversations with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement. The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate. [emphasis added]

In the almost 20 years of the peace process, the US has only done this on the refugee issue twice, at the end of the Clinton Administration in 2000, and then (in even less detail) briefly during the Bush Administration in 2007-08. Given the borders-first focus of recent talks, I doubt they’ll be doing it again very soon.

Difficulties ahead for US aid?

Posted: November 19, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, UNRWA, US

A few days ago, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick published a piece attacking US funding for both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA. As with most of her writing, the piece is unintentionally amusing in its ideological extremes: in her world-view, an illegal Israeli settlement becomes an “Israeli community located beyond the 1949 armistice lines,” while “Fayyad’s rejection of free trade principles” is Glickian for the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to collaborate in illegal Israeli settlement construction (universally considered by the international community as an obstacle to peace) through the purchase of settlement products.

Glick’s main point in this piece, however, was to argue for the curtailment of US assistant to both the PA and UNRWA:

The US provided the PA with $500.9 million in 2009 and, before Clinton’s announcement, was scheduled to provide it with $550 million in 2011. This assistance does not include US financial support for UNRWA, an agency devoted exclusively to providing welfare benefits to Palestinians while subordinating itself to a Palestinian political agenda. The US is the single largest donor to UNRWA. Last year the $268 million US taxpayers gave the UN agency constituted 27 percent of UNRWA’s budget.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is expected to become the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, responded negatively to Clinton’s announced expansion of US aid to the PA. In a statement released by her office last Thursday, Ros-Lehtinen derided the assistance as a “bailout.”

She further commented, “It is deeply disturbing that the administration is continuing to bail out the Palestinian leadership when they continue to fail to meet their commitments, under international agreements and requirements outlined in US law, including dismantling the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, combating corruption, stopping anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement and recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”

Ros-Lehtinen authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which conditioned US assistance to the PA on, among other things, “publicly acknowledge[ing] the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist.”

While on the mark, Ros-Lehtinen’s statement only scratches the surface of how contrary to US law and the goals of Palestinian economic development and peace US financial assistance to the Palestinians truly is.

Expect more of this in the future. Glick’s attack highlights the potentially greater problems that aid to the Palestinians and to UNRWA may encounter in the new US Congress, which is likely to be more critical of theWhite House’s current Middle East policy (whatever that might be). US assistance could be an easy target that also resonantes with a Republican base that favours sharp reductions in federal spending.  Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in particular has been a vehement opponent of UNRWA, proposing restrictions that would effectively prevent the agency from performing many of its key functions. As Josh Rogin has noted over at Foreign Policy Magazine blog, her accession to the Chair of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs could have substantial implications for the Obama Administration.