If a Palestinian state is not primarily for the benefit of the supposedly long-suffering Palestinian refugees, then what is the point of it? Nothing highlights the urgency of this question more clearly than the admission by a senior Palestinian diplomat that Palestinian refugees will not automatically become citizens of a new Palestinian state.
Indeed if further proof was needed that UN recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state will reward the ambitions of a leadership that refuses to accept a two-state solution it is the admission by Abdullah Abdullah, Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, that a Palestinian state will not automatically grant refugees citizenship, even those who live within the borders of the Palestinian state.
According to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper:
The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state, an issue that has been much discussed. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” he says. “But … they are not automatically citizens.”
This would not only apply to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan or the other 132 countries where Abdullah says Palestinians reside. Abdullah said that “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”
Abdullah said that the new Palestinian state would “absolutely not” be issuing Palestinian passports to refugees.
Neither this definitional status nor U.N. statehood, Abdullah says, would affect the eventual return of refugees to Palestine. “How the issue of the right of return will be solved I don’t know, it’s too early [to say], but it is a sacred right that has to be dealt with and solved [with] the acceptance of all.” He says statehood “will never affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”
Lebanon is home to 400,000 Palestinian refugees and is considered a particularly unwelcoming place for them. Palestinian refugees living there are denied citizenship; the right to work in 73 different categories of employment including medicine, law and engineering; denied access to medical assistance, are barred from owning property, and even need a special permit to leave their refugee camps.
So if the purpose of establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank is not at the very least to benefit refugees who are denied citizenship, what exactly is the point of establishing it?
“The state is the 1967 borders, but the refugees are not only from the 1967 borders. The refugees are from all over Palestine. When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game.” [emphasis in bold added]
And as Abdullah explains, there will be no attempt to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that for 60 years has existed for the benefit of Palestinian refugees, providing welfare and jobs.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization would remain responsible for refugees, and Abdullah says that UNRWA would continue its work as usual.
UNRWA has long been criticised as an impediment to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees by entrenching a sense of victimhood through its welfare policies.
Anyone interested in UNRWA and the politics of the Palestinian refugee issue should read Australia/Israel Review editor Tzvi Fleischer’s commentary from last November on the sacking of Andrew Whitley, the New York chief of UNRWA.
Whitley admitted that “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 said that it was high time that Palestinian refugees consider “their own role in the societies where they are, rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless.”
The fact that Whitley’s sensible comments, surrounded by appropriate caveats, was a sackable offence, shows how far UNRWA has been taken over by the sort of attitudes displayed by Abdullah – that the refugees must return to ancestral homes in Israel, thus ending its existence as a Jewish homeland, or the conflict will not end. But as Palestinian Media Watch has repeatedly shown over the years, the Palestinian Authority frequently depicts Palestine as including all of Israel.