At the September session of the Human Rights Council, UN Watch put a global spotlight on the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) during a breakout event in the Palais de Nations. Executive Director Hillel Neuer moderated a panel discussion on the agency’s future with former senior UNRWA official James Lindsay and Israeli intellectual and former Member of Knesset Dr. Einat Wilf. (See Dr. Wilf’s full remarks below)
Remarks of Dr. Einat Wilf
Side event at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council
Monday, September 23, 2019
Thank you so much to UN Watch for bringing up this issue, especially in the context of a temporary organization, UNRWA, existing for 70 years and asking the United Nations General Assembly to renew its mandate for more years while still being temporary.
I want to address the question: how did we get here? How is it that throughout the 20th century empires collapsed, states were created, borders were established, tens of millions of people of various nationalities and ethnicities fled and were expelled in the course of war, and yet, none of them—today certainly not—have hundreds of millions of descendants claimed to be refugees at this moment.
Why is it that the Palestinians have this exceptional situation where 70 years after a war that has been over, they and their five million descendants claim to be refugees, and more than that they claim to have a right, which does not actually exist in international law, to settle in a country in which they never lived and of which they were never citizens. And the organization that sustains this fiction, this exceptional situation, is UNRWA. Anyone who is concerned with the prospects for peace should actually concern themselves with UNRWA. It’s not a marginal issue, it’s not a small organization, it is actually the core issue because no organization has given such legitimacy, a facade of legitimacy, to a very belligerent idea. The reason that the Palestinians and five million descendants claim still to be refugees today and to a right of return from a war that was over 70 years ago is that in their mind, the war is not over. UNRWA can be a temporary organization because in their mind, the State of Israel is temporary and will sooner or later disappear as the sovereign state of the Jewish people.
This is what makes the idea of return, generation after generation appear rational because if the State of Israel is temporary you can wait one more generation, five more generations, in order to actually win the war, unlike millions and millions of people around the world. Because the war meant that the Jewish people had a sovereign state and the Palestinians, supported by much of the Arab and Islamic world, refused to accept the outcome of this war.
Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, Hindus, Muslims in other contexts accepted the outcome of war. Palestinians and Arabs in the context of Jews having sovereignty refused to accept the outcome of war. And they essentially hijacked UNRWA which was to be a temporary resettlement agency in the 1950s in order to sustain this fiction that they are somehow still refugees and that they have this right, which does not exist, to settle in Israel.
You’ve heard here why they are not refugees, that there is no—what they call—“right of return” and why is this important for peace? Because as long as from the Palestinian side, in their mind, the war is not over, if in their mind waiting another generation, or two, or three, or five, to win is a legitimate aspiration, then they are never going to sign any agreement that will bring peace. They will wait out any proposal to the day that they return, that they win, that the war is over in a way that they wanted which means that the Jewish people do not have that state.
If you belong to a country that actually believes in the vision of peace based truly on two states as the United Nations envisioned in 1947: one Jewish, one Arab—one for the Jewish people, one for the Arab people of the land—then you need to support dismantling UNRWA, the organization that has fueled and legitimized the idea that a Jewish state is somehow a temporary thing that can one day be undone.
UNRWA is supported by Western countries. Western countries whose official policy is to support peace by means of two states. On one hand they claim they want peace by two states and say everything against Israel on that account, but on the other hand they actually funnel millions and billions of dollars and euros so that the Palestinians and the Arabs will never agree to two states and continue to believe in the idea of return.
So, this is not a marginal issue, this is the core issue and without UNRWA, and without the support of Western countries I truly believe that the conflict would not have been sustained for so long.
Without the Palestinians believing that European countries support their idea that the Jewish people cannot have their state, without that, we would already have had peace. So, if you support peace, if you support the two-state solution, you should put dismantling UNRWA as a top priority.