A group of American lawmakers has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for recognition of the plight of the 900,000 Jews who fled Arab countries after 1948.
The congressional move is part of a larger campaign by Israel and its supporters here to link the fates of Jews and Arabs who fled their homes in 1948, in an apparent bid to neutralize the contentious Palestinian refugee issue in anticipation of Middle East peace talks.
“We believe it is time to start focusing on Jewish refugees, because we only hear people talking about Palestinian refugees,” said Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors. “Since the issue will come back in peace talks, we believe it should be put in proper context and that if one talks of compensation, it should be for both Jewish and Palestinians refugees.”
The House resolution, introduced on October 30, also calls for the permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees by the U.N. agency that cares for them, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or Unrwa. Critics say the agency perpetuates the refugees’ plight for political purposes.
Israeli diplomats opened a second front against Unrwa this week in New York, formally charging that the refugee agency has become a political advocate for the Palestinian cause and that it has allowed its facilities to be used by terrorists.
On Monday Israel’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Arye Mekel, delivered a blistering critique of Unrwa in a speech to the committee of the U.N. General Assembly that oversees Unrwa’s work.
Israel, unlike some of its American supporters, has not called for Unrwa to resettle refugees unilaterally and phase itself out. Israel views the agency’s humanitarian work as “essential,” one Israeli official told the Forward this week. “If they weren’t doing it, we would have to.” Nonetheless, officials are withering in their criticism of the agency’s operations.
In his speech, Mekel stated that some of the agency’s workers have been personally implicated in terrorist operations and that a number of terrorists have admitted that they exploited the Unrwa infrastructure for their operations.
Citing four cases linking Unrwa employees to terrorist groups, Mekel urged the agency to implement a more stringent screening process with regard to its employees.
Peter Hansen, the commissioner-general of Unrwa, told the Forward in an interview that the criticism of his agency was unfair. “We have asked Israel to give us the evidence, and they haven’t done so,” he said, adding that he had learned only indirectly about three indictments of Unrwa staff by military courts.
“If there are three out of 10,000, it is a rather amazingly low number of people who got caught up in the whirlwind of strife,” he said. “We are hardly an investigative arm, our teachers don’t sit in militant group meetings.… I told my staff they were obliged to avoid partisan politics.”
Hansen also dismissed the charge that Unrwa was deliberately keeping the refugees in dependency, saying the charge “is turning things completely upside down.” He pointed to the agency’s extensive efforts in providing education and health services in various countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
The maintenance of the Palestinian refugees’ plight for a half-century was not the fault of his agency, but rather of the surrounding countries, he said. “By and large, the Palestinians are not wanted” in neighboring Arab countries, said Hansen, who is based in Gaza and was in New York to brief the world body.
The proposal to resettle Palestinian refugees permanently comes amid renewed debate over the final contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, prompted in part by the so-called Geneva Understandings, an unofficial peace plan drafted by Israeli and Palestinian doves.
The peace plan envisions the resettlement of most Palestinian refugees in an eventual Palestinian state, with small numbers to be resettled in third countries, including Israel. Unrwa would be phased out after the refugees have been resettled.
The main driving force behind the campaign to link the two groups of Middle East refugees is the World Jewish Congress and its secretary-general, Avi Beker. Shortly after taking over the reins of the organization a year ago, Beker launched a campaign against Unrwa. This year he linked that issue to a push for the recognition of Jewish refugees’ plight. The WJC has written letters on the topic to Congress and to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It has also published a report and talking points on Jewish refugees and Unrwa.
Beker briefed the House’s Middle East subcommittee this past summer. A congressional source said the resolution introduced this week was the result of that briefing and follow-up discussions. The subcommittee chair, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, personally thanked Beker for his work after the congressional resolution was introduced. New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone is also a co-sponsor.
Observers say the WJC has been undergoing a political and ideological shift in recent months, as its traditionally dovish leadership, based in New York, has been challenged by a more hawkish group based in Jerusalem. The tensions surfaced this fall when the organization’s Jerusalem-based senior vice-president, Isi Leibler, rebuked its New York-based president, Edgar Bronfman, for criticizing Israel’s so-called separation fence in a letter to President Bush.
Leibler also penned an opinion essay widely distributed on the Internet last month that called for the dismantling of the U.N.
Some Israeli commentators have criticized the WJC campaign to have Jews from Arab lands recognized as refugees, arguing that it undercuts the Zionist claim that Jewish immigrants to Israel were not homeless refugees but returnees to the Jewish homeland.
Neither Leibler nor Beker could be reached for comment. A WJC official refused to comment on the WJC’s alleged shift.
Accusations that Unrwa abets Palestinian terrorism and sides with the Palestinians against Israel were aired in Washington last summer, prompting Congress to call for a review of U.S. funding of the agency. A congressional report on Unrwa is due out in January.
Hansen, the Unrwa chief, stressed in the interview that the Israeli government had shown consistent support for Unrwa. He said that most of the attacks on Unrwa were coming from private groups. He named the WJC’s Beker and a small Israeli media watchdog called the Israel Resource Center, run by David Bedein, a West Bank settler activist.
“I don’t see Israel as hostile to Unrwa,” Hansen said. “I would in fact be very surprised if this was the case because the agency is easing Israel’s burden in the territories tremendously.”
Mekel, the Israeli diplomat, agreed that Israel supports the organization in principle. In his U.N. speech, however, he took personal swipes at Hansen, blasting the “politicization” of Unrwa in favor of the Palestinians. He pointed to a recent interview in The Jordan Times in which Hansen spoke of the “asymmetry” in the legitimacy of the “cause” of the two sides.
Hansen, replying to Mekel’s charges, told the U.N. committee that a careful reading of the interview did not support the Israeli allegations.
Unrwa is planning to ask donors for supplemental grants totaling $100 million in emergency aid at the end of the year for the 1.5 million refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza. A similar request in June drew only half the amount sought, most of it from the Bush administration.
Despite the American aid, the agency still lacks funds and has been forced to curtail some basic services to Palestinian refugees, Hansen said. It has halved the number of food rations distributed, fired thousands of employees and stopped psychological support activities.
He attributed the shortfall to the fact that foreign aid is declining worldwide. The decline comes at a time when the need for help around the world has grown, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
Nadler said his objective was not the dismantling or the defunding of Unrwa.
Asked about the charge that calling Jewish immigrants from Arab lands “refugees” undermined Israel’s Zionist ethos, Nadler said that while it is true that Israel had welcomed Jews from Arab lands, the immigrants had their properties confiscated by the Arab states and were thus entitled to receive compensation.
Nadler and the WJC stress the importance of the “dual” aspect of the refugee question, arguing that the events of 1948 amounted to a population exchange between Palestinian and Jewish refugees.
Asked whether this meant the Palestinian refugee issue should be off the table in future negotiations, Nadler said it would definitely be part of the talks but that putting it in a broader historical context was a long-overdue necessity.