The Perpetual Palestinian Paradox

Every so often, I am reminded of Leo Rosten’s classic definition of chutzpah: “That quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” How often? Well, almost every month, but we might all get bored if I wrote about it on such a regular basis. Last month, however, the definition seemed so appropriate with Palestinian shenanigans at the UN that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. 

The thing is, the United Nations Security Council doesn’t seem to tire of scrutinizing and chastising Israel at its mandatory monthly discussions on Palestinians. Their UN-granted “perpetual refugee” status is enhanced by a perpetual spotlight. You might think there were other refugees deserving of attention, for example, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the Ethiopian-Tigrayan conflict – but no, the position of the Palestinians is not to be usurped within the world body.

Only the Palestinians have a UN organization dedicated to their needs, the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). All other displaced people – wherever they are scattered around the globe – are handled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

An 'existential' threat: A loss of UNRWA funding

Last Thursday [August 25, 2022], the 15-member UN Security Council heard of an “existential” threat. That word, for me, brings to mind matters of the utmost gravity – like Iran’s steadily advancing plans to gain nuclear capability while still supporting terrorism and developing precision-guided missiles that would threaten much of the western world. But UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini used it to describe the threat due to the drop in funding. To put it in context, he was addressing the regular monthly UNSC meeting with an eye on the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate by the UN General Assembly at the end of the year.

Lazzarini said that the agency, whose budget for 2022 was $1.6 billion, has not received all the pledged funds and blamed it in part on “coordinated campaigns to delegitimize UNRWA.” It should be noted that UNRWA does a good job delegitimizing itself. 

The figures are known but worth repeating. (If the UN can bash Israel every few weeks, I can return the compliment once in a while.) UNRWA was founded in 1949 to provide what was meant to be a temporary solution until the “Palestinian refugee problem” could be resolved. At the time, approximately 726,000 Arabs came under UNRWA’s auspices. Thanks to the policy of allowing Palestinians to pass their refugee status on to their descendants, their numbers have swollen into the millions over the past seven decades. Today, the figure of “Palestinian refugees” under UNRWA’s care stands at more than 5.5 million in Gaza, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), east Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. By the time you finish reading this article, another “refugee” from 1948 will probably have been born. 

This exponential growth in numbers of refugees dependent on (or at least eligible for) UNRWA aid is one reason why the agency finds it hard to attract the funding, sympathy and priority treatment it garnered in the past. Other causes for the drop in funding can be found in the questions on where the money is going. Reports by various NGOs researching the textbooks and education system in UNRWA-run schools give examples of supporting a culture that fosters terrorism and martyrdom. And then there are those cases in which Hamas has built terror tunnels and weapons stores under UNRWA schools in Gaza, which the UN has condemned but has not managed to prevent.

Lazzarini’s pleas alone were not enough to send me scrambling for Rosten’s help to find the right word for brazen effrontery. On the same day that the UNRWA head was pleading poverty regarding refugees, Palestinian Authority Ambassador to the UN, Riad Mansour, told reporters in New York that he was cautiously optimistic about the PA’s renewed push for full membership in the organization. Today, it has non-member state status, which it would like to upgrade at the General Assembly gathering later this month.

PA head Mahmoud Abbas is interested in attaining full international recognition of statehood without negotiating any agreement with Israel over borders, security, and other critical issues. That’s the same Abbas who last month stood on German soil and accused Israel of committing “50 holocausts” instead of apologizing for the Munich Olympic massacre carried out by the PLO’s Black September movement 50 years ago, at a time he was in charge of the terrorist organization’s finances. 

Herein lies the absurdity of the Palestinian situation: Under the UN’s definition and Palestinian ideology, the same people would be considered refugees even if they lived in their own fully recognized state. I heard Mansour say so himself at a seminar in Moscow in 2018 organized by yet another UN body, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. "Even if the Palestinians were to have their own state, they will remain refugees “because it is an essential part of our identity,” Mansour declared. Palestinian former legislator and activist Hanan Ashrawi, with whom I got into an unpleasant heckling match, concurred.

This strange double-think was evident elsewhere. The Jerusalem Post Magazine’s Voices from the Arab Press round-up (compiled by The Media Line) last week contained an item with the headline “Lessons for Palestinian Leadership,” by Majid Kayali, writing in Lebanon’s An-Nahar on August 20. It was a diatribe against Israeli security actions and in particular the raids and closures of NGOs affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), recognized as a terrorist organization.

“Israel’s actions are also meant to send a clear message to the Palestinian Authority, according to which the Palestinians – despite having a president, a government, a flag, an anthem, embassies and even a security force – are ultimately nothing more than pawns in Israel’s chess game,” Kayali wrote, accusing Israel of seeking “to expose the fragility of the Palestinian Authority and undermine its role in front of its people.”

It’s not the PA fragility that I seek to expose, but the hypocrisy. As Kayali notes, the Palestinians already have the symbols of statehood – in fact, the State of Palestine is recognized by more than 135 UN member states – yet they see themselves as refugees, deserving unique support. This culture of entitlement gives the PA no motivation to return to the negotiating table in good faith to solve the issues that could let both Israel and the Palestinians thrive, side-by-side. On the contrary.

And it’s not only Israel that’s paying attention. Particularly following the 2020 Abraham Accords, an increasing number of Arab and Muslim countries have shown interest in growing stronger economically and technologically together with Israel – and to combat the Iranian threat and dangers of Sunni jihadi extremists. While the Palestinians are obsessively anti-normalization, Arab states are realizing that peace and stability are more beneficial for all. The Palestinians might be brothers, but they’re a heavy load for the Arab world to continue to carry. And they have been betrayed by their leadership, particularly Abbas, now in the 17th year of his four-year term of office.

It is also now obvious to all that Israel is here to stay, with the emphasis on here – in its ancient homeland. Having turned down multiple rounds of negotiations and peace processes – which usually ended with waves of terrorism – the Palestinian resolve to unilaterally declare statehood will compound the problems rather than solve them. Keep in mind that maps of “Palestine” include all Israel, “from the river to the sea.”

At the same time, the Palestinians’ long-term plan is to remain dependent on the UN and external funding and to maintain and their refugee status. Not so much a paradox as a parody, it’s classic chutzpah.

[ Liat Collins ]