Last week, the United Nations marked its International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a day created by the U.N. to further promote the continuing Palestinian narrative of victimhood and, of course, bash Israel. The date chosen for the international day—Nov. 29—was no accident. This was the date of the passage in 1947 of General Assembly resolution 181, which recommended partitioning the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted this plan and declared independence; the Arabs rejected it and, along with neighboring states, embarked on a war of annihilation against the newly independent Jewish state. Israel beat back the invading Arab armies and the Zionist dream became a reality.
As a result of the fighting, many Arabs fled their homes and became refugees. An even greater number of Jews from Arab countries were expelled from places that had seen thriving Jewish communities for centuries (some of these communities went back to ancient times, preceding the Arab invasion of the North Africa). The Jewish refugees were absorbed by Israel while being completely ignored by the international community. The U.N. created a refugee agency—United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—only for Palestinian refugees, who, unlike any other refugee population, can pass their refugee status on to their descendants. Billions of dollars (and euros) later, UNRWA now claims to serve over 5 million refugees.
After the Arabs lost the war they initiated in 1948, the Jordanians occupied an area known to Jews as Judea and Samaria (that the Jordanians later renamed the West Bank), along with eastern parts of Jerusalem (including the Old City); the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. No Palestinian state was established during this time of Arab control over these lands. The Palestinians have also rejected multiple Israeli peace offers and walked away from the negotiating table at nearly every turn.
The Palestinians see Nov. 29 as a catastrophe, and so the U.N.—which does not even attempt to hide its own pro-Palestinian bias—has adopted this narrative.
At the international day commemoration by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), a U.N. body funded by our tax dollars to attack Israel, the president of the General Assembly wore a scarf with the kaffiyeh and a Palestinian flag on it. Not normal attire at the usually buttoned-up U.N. Beyond the odd choice of neckwear, the GA president also endorsed a right of return in his speech, a non-existent “right” which the Palestinians would like to exercise for all five million of their UNRWA-designated refugees to flood Israel. The deputy secretary-general of the organization talked of the U.N. General Assembly’s decision to upgrade the U.N. status of the Palestinians to non-member state in 2012 as a “historic milestone.” Neutrality goes out the window when there is an opportunity to parrot the Palestinian talking points. Is there another conflict situation where the diplomats behave like this? I have yet to encounter one.
And this was before the U.N. member states, whose pronouncements on Israel can be far more unhinged, had their chance to vilify and demonize the Jewish state at the CEIRPP session and a later GA session in which a number of condemnatory resolutions (including ones continuing the operation of CEIRPP and other costly Palestinian propaganda bodies embedded deep within the U.N. system) were passed.
Algeria complained, rather absurdly considering the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, about the “increasing Judaization of Jerusalem.” Qatar decried the seven decades of occupation, meaning not only areas in dispute from Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967, but Israel’s very existence from 1948.
The vilest speech, though, at this year’s international day activities was delivered by Ecuador. Ecuador’s ambassador, quoting the recently-deceased former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (who received not one, but two different moments of silence during the day’s proceedings), declared, after condemning the Holocaust, that there was nothing more similar to the Holocaust as the “genocide” committed against the Palestinian people.
This display of overt anti-Semitism from a U.N. platform was truly beyond the pale and B’nai B’rith has called on Ecuador to replace the ambassador. But the problem goes beyond the hate-filled words of certain diplomats. When the U.N. sacrifices historical truth and simply repeats and amplifies all manner of lies against Israel, the end result does not improve the lives of anyone in the Middle East. It only encourages more anti-Semitism.
Nov. 29 should be recognized for what it was, a date in which the international community voted to affirm the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our homeland. The rejection by the Palestinians of that compromise (and all of the offers that came in later years) to live in peace next to a Jewish state has led to the current state of affairs. And there should be some recognition, finally, for the Jewish refugees that were violently pushed out of Arab countries throughout the Middle East.
If the international community is serious about a peaceful resolution to the conflict, then it is time to send the message to the Palestinians that if they want a state, they need to negotiate with Israel. It’s long past time to close down the Palestinian propaganda bodies at the U.N. and to end the incessant biased attacks against Israel. These are distractions that lead nowhere, but especially not toward peace. Without a change in direction by the international community, the Palestinians can look forward to many more years of ultimately meaningless speeches at the U.N. while more missed opportunities for peace continue to slip by.
Recently, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) celebrated the 65th anniversary of its creation with an event at U.N. Headquarters in New York. The agency—whose regular budget is funded predominately from Western donor countries—serves only Palestinian refugees. All other refugees in the world fall under the care of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Unlike other refugees, Palestinian refugees can also pass on their refugee status to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Instead of settling the refugees, UNRWA has exacerbated the problem and now claims to have 5 million refugees under its care.
It should not be forgotten that the Palestinians were not the only refugees of the period in the Middle East. A greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries were also in need of resettlement at the time. The difference, of course, was that the Arab refugees from the recently-declared State of Israel in 1948 were fleeing an active war zone due to the inability of Israel’s Arab neighbors to accept the nation-state of the Jewish people. Arab countries invaded the fledgling state of Israel while also kicking out their own Jewish populations. Most of the Jewish refugees arrived in the newly-emerging State of Israel penniless, but were integrated within the new state (albeit often in a far from seamless or ideal way).
The Arab world never took responsibility for the creation of both refugee situations: the Arab refugees by invading Israel in a bid to end its existence, and Jewish refugees by the mass expulsions of Jews from countries where they had been a thriving community for hundreds of years. The responsibility to care for the Palestinian refugees was transferred to the international community, where it festers to this day because they were never integrated into the neighboring Arab states. Worse, in some cases Arab states have put severe restrictions on the Palestinian refugees’ lives, most acutely in Lebanon which does not allow Palestinians to own property or to enter many professions. These laws were meant to ensure that the refugees could not integrate.
UNRWA is not just an aid agency, though. To be sure, UNRWA does provide medical care and education. One would not know it from the media portrayal of the Palestinians, but the health and education status of those under UNRWA care are actually among the highest in the Middle East (as UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl proudly stated at the celebratory event). But UNRWA also often strays from its humanitarian mission and moves into the political, pushing forward the Palestinian narrative. The agency’s media unit showed off a number of slickly-produced videos during the 65th anniversary event that could have been mistaken for something coming out of the Palestinian Authority, or one of the Palestinian propaganda units within the U.N. Secretariat (most notably the well-funded Department of Palestinian Rights or the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People).
UNRWA representatives also frequently take to the airwaves to bash Israel in times of renewed conflict. Hamas has fired from in and around UNRWA facilities, and when Israel is forced to respond, UNRWA condemns vociferously the Israeli counter-terrorism actions. During the latest round of fighting, rockets were found by UNRWA in its facilities in Gaza, but it is unclear what if any accountability measures have been put in place to make sure such a situation does not repeat itself. In reaction to the discovery of the rockets in three separate incidents, UNRWA could not bring itself to condemn Hamas by name. Needless to say, there is no such timidity when UNRWA has an issue with Israeli actions—the accusations are fast and the condemnations are furious.
Most fundamentally, though, UNRWA perpetuates and promotes the Palestinian narrative of the Palestinian claim to return. Generation upon generation of refugee is told the lie that there is a “right of return;” that they can remain a refugee until there is a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian representatives that will allow them to return to within Israel’s borders. Of course, there is no “right of return,” only the politically-driven (and non-binding) U.N. General Assembly resolution 194, which Israel is under zero obligation to follow. When a Palestinian state emerges as an end-product of direct negotiations with Israel, the refugees will be expected to either settle permanently in the states where they currently reside or move to within the borders of the newly-formed Palestinian state. No Israeli government will accept a flood of Palestinian refugees (and their succeeding generations) en masse within its borders, to do so would be an end to the Jewish democratic state.
As UNRWA turns 65, there appears to be little will in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian leadership, to address the root cause of the conflict: the inability to accept Zionism—the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty and self-determination in their homeland. As such, UNRWA will continue into the future to serve the ever-growing Palestinian refugee population on the dime of Western taxpayers. Donor countries must call for UNRWA reform so that the agency adheres strictly to its humanitarian mission and the refugee population is prepared for reality when a two-state solution is reached.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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