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The Bahrain conference represents a great opportunity for peace

Using the aid previously provided to UNRWA, the countries that have hosted the Palestinian refugees for over 70 years must finally integrate them.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip, July 26, 2018. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip, July 26, 2018. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch is the director of the Initiative for Palestinian Authority Accountability and Reform in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; a senior legal analyst for Human Rights Voices; and a member of the Israel Defense and Security Forum.

While details regarding the upcoming U.S.-initiated “economic workshop” in Bahrain are sparse, one can only hope that it will focus on what is probably the most fundamental obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians: the Palestinian refugee issue.

A report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1950, written in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence, shows that in the past 70 years very little has changed in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Throughout the discussions of the commission, the two sides maintained very clear positions. Israel wanted the discussions to be comprehensive in nature, with the Arab states recognizing the basic right of the nascent Jewish state to exist, in the boundaries set as part of the armistice agreements at the end of fighting.

Israel was willing to make substantial compromises regarding the return of many refugees and even offered to assume sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and give all of its residents, including the refugees, Israeli citizenship.

For their part, the Arab countries expressed their rejection of the legitimacy of the Jewish state by rejecting any suggestion that the armistice lines, or any other lines, be accepted as the borders of the Zionist state. They further insisted that as a precondition to discussing the other issues, Israel had to agree to the return of all of the refugees.

The “Arab refugees” of 1948/1950 have been renamed the “Palestinian refugees” (a group of people the U.N. Commission never refers to as a separate national group) and are now ostensibly represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization/the Palestinian Authority.

Irrespective of the name of the group or the question of who represents them, the problem becomes much more complex when one asks how many refugees there are.
U.N. documentation claims that in 1948/1950 there were 711,000 refugees, the PLO website claims that there were at least 726,000 and the P.A. claims that there were at least 850,000.

According to statistics released by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency devoted specifically to the Palestinian refugees, in Jan. 2018 there were over 5.4 million registered refugees. This growth in the number of refugees is the result of the unique UNRWA refugee definition, which allows refugee status to be passed down from father to son. Only 30,000 to 40,000 of the 5.4 million are original refugees.

Herein lies both the problem and the solution. The PLO/P.A. and the Arab countries must understand that Israel will never agree to the so-called “return” of the ever-growing millions of descendants of the original refugees.

Recognizing this as the reality, the Trump administration quickly came to the obvious conclusion that the UNRWA paradigm is no longer viable. The world, led by the United States—UNRWA’s single largest donor for decades—cannot fund the ever-growing Palestinian refugee community indefinitely.

The Arab world, the PLO and the P.A. must stop using the refugees as bargaining chips and stop selling them the illusion they call the “right of return.” Using the aid previously provided to UNRWA, and possibly an additional amount, host countries must integrate the refugees that have been living in their midst for over 70 years.

The direct injection of funding to the host countries, who all suffer from financial restrictions, will provide a clear basis for investment and economic growth.

Given the fact that the Bahrain conference could be the platform to solve one of the most sensitive elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the question is, why are the PLO and the P.A. boycotting the conference?

The most likely reason is that this goal completely undermines their national strategy. Even to discuss this issue would expose the fact that for years they failed to provide any political horizon for the refugees. Had they pushed for the integration of the refugees in their host countries, it would have improved their situation immeasurably, and many years ago. Instead they simply prolonged their suffering, using them as leverage and a means to constantly attack Israel and elicit sympathy from the international community.

74 years after the Holocaust, there is only one Jewish refugee in the world. He was born to a Jewish mother who converted to Islam and married a Palestinian refugee. Despite now being an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, UNRWA still considers him to be a Palestinian refugee. This reality must end.

It’s time that the Arab countries, the PLO and the P.A. put an end to the Palestinian refugees status and accept that since the only Jewish country in the world will never decide to commit national suicide, there will be no influx of millions of refugees.

Using the aid money to integrate the refugees and breathe life into their host countries’ economies is the only viable solution, and will eliminate a major obstacle to peace.

Lt. Col. (res) Maurice Hirsch is the Head of Legal Strategies for Palestinian Media Watch. He served for 19 years in the IDF Military Advocate General Corps. In his last position he served as Director of the Military Prosecution in Judea and Samaria.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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