Recently, I wrote about the case of Andrew Whitley, who is the New York Director of UNWRA, the UN agency tasked with aiding Palestinian refugees. Whitley told a conference in Washington that the so-called "right of return" is unlikely to ever be exercised, and that efforts would be better expended on integrating Palestinian refugees into the countries where they have been living for decades.
I noted that outside the confines of UNRWA, Whitley's observations were hardly groundbreaking, since the truth that he articulated has been known for decades, above all by Palestinian and Arab leaders. Nonetheless, coming from an UNRWA official, these remarks were of enormous import. They could - and should - have launched a much needed discussion on how to liberate the Palestinians from the "cruel illusion" (Whitley's phrase) that they will one day claim homes in the towns and cities of Israel.
This was an illusion when it was first imposed, more than sixty years ago, upon the 700,000 Arab refugees of the 1948 war, and it remains an illusion now, when the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA has ballooned to almost five million - for the simple reason that Palestinians, in contrast to other refugee populations, are obliged to transfer refugee status to their descendants.
Whitley's candor has cost him his job and, it would seem, his dignity too. Angrily criticized by everyone from Hamas to the Jordanian government, Whitley was compelled to recant in a letter to UNRWA's spokesman, Christopher Gunness. His tone is so supine and humble that the reader is bound to wonder if these words are actually Whitley's, or whether they were authored, in the manner of the KGB, by someone else. "I express my sincere regrets and apologies over any harm that my words may have done to the cause of the Palestine refugees and for any offence I may have caused," the letter says. It ends thus: "The Agency is at liberty to use my statement in whatever ways it sees fit. There is no need for a reply."
Had the "Israel Lobby" secured such a mournful repudiation of the right to independent thought from a critic of Israeli policy, the chorus of "I-told-you-so" would raise the roof. But there have been no accusations of "censorship" or "muzzling" or "McCarthyism" around Whitley's fate. Indeed, Chris Gunness - someone I have known professionally, and who always struck me as a decent liberal sort - apparently has no difficulty in playing the role of father confessor to the irredeemably deviant Whitley.
UNRWA, it needs to be said, did not emasculate Whitley without external pressure. In addition to Arab governments (none of whom, incidentally, are included among UNRWA's top twenty donor nations) and Islamist terrorists, western groups like Al Awda - which bills itself as "The Palestine Right to Return Coalition" from an address in California - were also baying for Whitley's blood. Al Awda, whose supporters have been known to chant charming epithets such as "Jews Are Our Dogs," is triumphantly displaying an email from UNRWA's Sami Mshasha gratefully recognizing the organization's role in securing Whitley's apologia.
All in all, L'affaire Whitley has been decidedly sordid, with no winners save for the zealots whose detestation of Israel means that they are quite content for successive generations of Palestinians to live in Arab countries with the inferior status of the refugee, barred from non-menial jobs, higher education, the ability to travel and all the other benefits that make a free life worth living. As I argued in my initial article, the persistence of refugee status for millions of Palestinians has provided a flesh and blood foundation for Arab rejectionism. Without the refugees, there is no "original sin" to pin upon Zionism. With them, and with UNRWA sustaining their status, negotiations over borders and water and settlements will inevitably be compromised by the impulse to make the State of Israel "confess" in much the same way that Andrew Whitley did.
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