Haggai Carmon Headshot

The Palestinian Refugees: Is the UN a Solution or a Part of the Problem?

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Come September, the UN General Assembly will consider the Palestinian Authority's request to be admitted as a member. Historically, the UN has played a major role in the Palestinian refugees' problem; it could now bring to its resolution.

Fact: According to the UN, there are five million Palestinians, mostly members of the third, fourth and fifth generations of former residents of areas which are now within the State of Israel. Nonetheless, they meet UNRWA's (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East definition of "a refugee." However, according to the UN, "more than 1.4 million refugees, around one third of the total, live in 58 recognized camps, and UNRWA's services are located in or near these areas," in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Fact: These 1.4 million Palestinians live in squalid conditions in the camps. There is no question that they should not continue living under these poor living conditions, which drive many to terror and crime. Israel claims they escaped in 1948 after their leaders urged them to temporarily leave until the Arab countries armies will clean Palestine from the Jews, throw them to the sea, so that the returning Palestinians could seize Jewish properties. The Palestinians claim that they were forcibly exiled. Historians have their own, also conflicting theories of what really happened.

But the Palestinians or the world cannot wait. Finger pointing is unproductive, and a forward looking solution must be found. The question as to who is responsible for their genuine misery is secondary to the question as to how to resolve the problem. A 10-year-old Palestinian boy or girl in a refugee camp should not be asked to pay the price of a historic mistake made by his or her great-grandparents who listened to the irresponsible fantasies and unrealistic promises made by their now long dead and forgotten leaders. The same rule should apply to the offspring of Palestinians who were forcibly exiled from their homes by Israeli forces during Israel's 1948 Independence War. The solution should include all.

After the War of Independence in 1948 ended, Israel was faced with a refugee problem of its own: millions of Jews who fled the Holocaust and those who, like my father-in-law, who fled persecution in their native Arab countries. They came to Israel with only the shirts on their backs. Israel treated them as new immigrants, not refugees, and soon they were absorbed into the general population.

Israel cannot agree to the Palestinian demands for their "right of return" -- a laundered call for the elimination of the only Jewish State in the world. A repatriation of all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees to Israel would immediately turn the Jewish majority (80%) to a minority of 45%. Soon enough the Arab majority would democratically wipe out all Jewish identity and laws.

The United Nations, surprisingly enough, has perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem for the past 61 years. Not many are aware that the U.N has two refugee relief agencies, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("UNHCR") and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East ("UNRWA.")

Why two? UNHCR's goal is to provide help to all of the world's refugees. It helps to protect the basic rights of refugees by finding them refuge in another country with an option to voluntarily return to their homelands, resettle in the country of their refuge or to immigrate to a third country. UNHCR employs approximately 6,300 employees in 130 countries and has an annual budget of $81 million.

The other agency, UNRWA provides assistance, protection and advocacy for Palestine refugees in the Middle East and its services include education, health care, relief, camp infrastructure and improvement, community support, microfinance and emergency response, including in times of armed conflict. UNRWA is the UN's largest organization and employs 28,000 employees, 99% of them local Palestinians.

The difference between the two agencies also happens to be the single most important explanation for the current Palestinian refugee problem. According to UNRWA "UNRWA's services are available... [also] to [T]he descendants of the original Palestine refugees...When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services."

Would the UN also offer such forever help to the descendants of the Jews who were exiled from Spain in 1492 or to the millions of Europeans forcibly exiled from their homes during World War II? Applying the UNRWA principle, then the UN should.

The UN member countries should demand that as a precondition to the admission of the Palestinian Authority, it would absorb together with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria the remaining Palestinians still living in camps. The UNHCR principle of helping only actual refugees and their immediate accompanying families to resettle, should apply to the Palestinians receiving assistance from UNRWA; otherwise it will continue to perpetuate the problem. Many countries will happily contribute significant funds to help with this project. Jobs will be created, and a new development momentum will give the Palestinians in the camps a new future. The timing is right: The Arab countries have insisted during the past 63 years that the Palestinian problem is the root to all the problems in the Middle East and the region's instability, and therefore demanded that Israel recognize their right of return. The recent uprising in many Arab countries and the resulting destabilization of the region proved the Arab countries wrong.

For centuries, scientists dreamed about inventing perpetuum mobile, machines that once started would operate or produce useful work indefinitely without needing additional energy. The creators of UNWRA have created such perpetuity, offering help forever to individuals that could be generations distant from their forefathers who were residents of areas in present day Israel. The UN member countries can stop that perpetuity, thereby helping to resolve rather than perpetuate the problem. Can welfare recipients in the U.S in the 1940s' pass along their benefits to their off springs born 50 years later? Why should the Palestinians be treated differently? Is there any reason, other than cynical politics of some interested countries, to let perpetuum mobile keep on spinning, spending more than a billion dollar a year, with no end in sight.