You’ve probably never heard of Andrew Whitley, but he’s a high official with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body responsible for looking after Palestinian, and only Palestinian, refugees. And he just got effectively fired for saying this:
“We recognise, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent. It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”
He also added that instead of entertaining the “cruel illusion” that they would all someday return to ancestral homes in Israel, Palestinian refugees should start considering “their own role in the societies where they are, rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless.”
As you can see, Whitley carefully specified he was not presenting UNRWA’s political position, and made clear his primary concern was the current welfare of the generations of Palestinians still living in a “state of limbo” more than 60 years after their ancestors left what is today Israel.
But his remarks nonetheless sparked a firestorm of criticism from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arab governments, Palestinian activists and Hamas. Whitley was forced by UNRWA to issue a grovelling apology, denouncing his remark as “inappropriate and wrong” and avowing that “It is definitely not my belief that the refugees should give up on their basic rights, including the right of return.” Not that this was enough to save him. UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi announced that Whitley will no longer serve as UNRWA’s New York director as of early next year.
Why is any of this important?
Firstly, it eviscerates UNRWA’s frequently articulated defence when it is accused, as it has often been, of being part of the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Numerous critics have charged that UNRWA not only perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and opposes all efforts to re-settle refugees, but works with terrorist groups and employs Hamas members, and appears to deliberately radicalise Palestinians under its tutelage. UNRWA always responds by insisting that it is simply an apolitical humanitarian body which does its best to look after the needs of refugees, and that their ultimate fate is beyond its ambit.
Whitley’s treatment shows this is completely untrue. He made it very clear he was not enunciating UNRWA policy, or taking sides, morally or legally, on the Palestinian “right of return”. He merely argued, correctly, that, as an empirical fact, this claimed right was unlikely to be implemented in the Israel-destroying way the Palestinians and Arab states are always demanding.
Yet this was a sackable offence. Could it be any more clear that it is official UNRWA policy to demand the legally unprecedented “return” of all the five million descendants of the refugees from the 1948 to Israel, and that no dissent from this view may be publicly expressed?
It is not even as if UNRWA had to kowtow to Arab protests over Whitley’s sensible remarks for financial reasons. No Arab state is among the top 20 donors to UNRWA, which is supported mainly by the US and Europe.
Secondly, it is also worth asking what would have happened if a government or international official critical of Israel had been forced to apologise and been sacked. The hew and cry about “censorship” and “muzzling” and “McCarthyism” and the nefarious power of the “Zionist Lobby” would have been deafening. Yet virtually no complaints of that sort were made with respect to Whitley. One can’t help wondering why that might be.
PA: Beyond Anti-Zionism
We have often highlighted in this magazine that official Palestinian media, directly controlled by the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas, continues to broadcast material encouraging viewers to reject Israel’s right to exist in any borders. A few examples since the beginning of October include: an official Palestinian paper published a picture of Abbas holding up a model of “Palestine” which included all of Israel; a cartoon depicted a Palestinian schoolchild learning that Palestine must displace all of Israel before he even learns his ABC’s; a PA-TV kids’ program described a trip to northern Israel which was referred to as “occupied land” and the “1948 lands”; a PA-TV program said two countries, “Syria and Palestine”, border on Lebanon; and a PA-TV documentary describing Jewish residents of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, as “settlers”.
This material is obviously not conducive to peacemaking, but some people seem inclined to dismiss this whole issue of anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. Some even argue it is not necessary to expect Palestinians to give up their feeling that all of “Palestine” rightfully belongs to them for peace.
These people should know that denying or rejecting Israel’s existence is not the worst of what occurs in official PA media. Blatantly antisemitic material about Jews in general also appears. For instance, in mid-October, two Jordanian academics appeared on a history program broadcast twice on official PA-TV. One, Arafat Hijazi, stated, “150 years ago, when there were no Jews in Palestine, the Jews were in Europe, in Eastern Europe, but the Jews suffered from persecution by the European nations. The reason was that they would harm the people of the lands in which they lived.” His interlocutor, Muhammad Dohal, replied “The Jews are hated in every society in which they have lived, because of their behaviour relating to their great love of money. Their behavior led to [Shakespeare’s] famous story, the story of Shylock about money lending, which clings to the Jews. This is how they harmed the societies that embraced them.”
Another example: On Nov. 5, the official PA paper al-Hayat al-Jadida quoted a lecturer, Na’aman Shahrour, speaking at a PA-sponsored political conference on the 1917 Balfour Declaration. He stated, “‘The Palestinian people is still bleeding since the British Foreign Minister gave this promise… All this in order to be rid of this burden, called the Jews, which troubled Britain and Europe, who wished to be rid of this burden.”
Official PA incitement is not simply a problem of “anti-Zionism”.
What Palestinians Want
What is the most important issue for the Palestinian people? If you read the international media, the answer seems obvious – it is either the Israeli occupation, or possibly, Israeli settlements.
Only one problem with this. Palestinians don’t agree. A new poll of Palestinians by the reputable Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre placed the occupation a distant third when Palestinians where asked to select the “issue of highest importance for the Palestinian people.” First was the economic situation, with 22.4%, and second was the split between Fatah and Hamas at 18%. The occupation got 15.5%. Settlements were selected as the “issue of highest importance” by only 6.6% of respondents.
This result seems to suggest that Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s idea of “economic peace”, that is, focusing on concrete cooperation on West Bank development alongside peace negotiations, is actually reasonably compatible with the priorities of ordinary Palestinians.
Interestingly, Palestinians also continue to be in advance of their leadership on the question of recognising Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace deal, according to a different poll. While Palestinian negotiators continue to vehemently reject this idea, 49% of Palestinian agree with it compared to 48% opposing it. This does represent a decline from the 58% supporting such recognition in June, possibly attributable to the influence of repeated public rejections of the idea by the PA leadership.