So much has changed in the Middle East in the last 75 years, while other things have remained almost the same.
During its War of Independence in 1948, Israel lost 6,000 people – fully one percent of its Jewish population at the time. The country was poor, weak, and its future was in doubt.
Today, Israel is a growing, vibrant liberal democracy with a thriving economy. Home to nearly 9.5 million people, including almost half of the world’s Jews, Israel has also become a bastion of high-tech innovation, helping to propel the country into prosperity.
The Palestinians have tragically had a very different experience in recent decades.
Led by a series of corrupt and incompetent leaders more focused on waging ongoing conflict with Israel than improving the lives of Palestinians, today – despite Israeli offers – there exists no Palestinian nation-state, and poverty is widespread, particularly in the Gaza Strip, but also in Judea & Samaria (often called the “West Bank” by the news media).
But perhaps no other issue is a more stark reminder of how the Palestinian leadership has failed its people than the matter of Palestinian refugees.
As the United Nations marked World Refugee Day on June 20, which aims to raise awareness for refugees around the globe, today there are nearly 6 million Palestinians who are descendants of Arab refugees who left Israel following the country’s independence.
But today, 75 years after Israel’s War of Independence, there remain millions of Palestinians who are the descendants of refugees in 1948, and remain unsettled.
In 1950, two years after Israel’s independence, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created to address the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Unlike all other refugees around the world, who were served by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinians are served by UNRWA specifically.
However, unlike following World War Two, when there was a concerted effort to settle refugees, the Arab world has refused to accept these Palestinians.
These Arab states, rather than integrating Palestinians into their society, have refused to do so, leaving them to live in poverty and squalor, and they have done so in order to perpetuate the limbo these Palestinians endure, so that they can be used as a diplomatic and political weapon against Israel.
In 1952, Lt. Gen. Alexander Galloway, the director of UNRWA at the time, said that Arab states refused to accept Palestinian refugees not out of a concern regarding resources, but for political reasons. “It is perfectly clear that Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die,” Galloway said.
As for UNRWA, the United Nations agency dedicated solely to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, their goal has been simple: self-preservation.
According to historians Asaf Romirowsky and Alex Joffe, UNRWA “has financial and political interest in maintaining a fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business.” Romirowsky points out that virtually all of the 30,000 UNRWA staff are Palestinian-Arabs, and is the biggest employer of Palestinians, but UNHCR, which deals with all refugees around the world, employs between 5,000 and 6,000 people.
Funding tens of thousands of staff positions is expensive; UNRWA’s annual budget is estimated to be roughly $2 billion dollars (CAD), of which roughly 30 million dollars CAD annually has been funded by Canada.
In its quest to prevent the issue of Palestinian refugees from being concluded, it has also helped maintain the false hope that these Palestinians will eventually live in Israel, despite that being virtually guaranteed to never happen, as it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish country.
The problems with UNRWA go beyond its focus on self-preservation ahead of settling Palestinians; the textbooks it produces for Palestinians have been rife with anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda. UNRWA teachers have also been accused of supporting Palestinian terrorism and engaging in antisemitism. Meanwhile, UNRWA facilities have been used by terrorists as safe houses, weapons caches, and to provide cover for terror tunnels.
Three-quarters of a century after Israel’s independence, and the subsequent Arab-led war which drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs to leave Israel, the news media has often shone a light on the plight of Palestinian refugees.
But without giving the full picture, namely how the millions of descendants of these Palestinians remain intentionally unsettled, neglected by both UNRWA and the Arab world at large, the news media is failing to give the disturbing context surrounding Palestinian refugees.