Palestinians double down on right of return for refugees

Palestinian officials argue that the reported US offensive against UNRWA is aimed at ending the refugee status for millions of Palestinians, in line with Israel’s wishes.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Palestinian refugee children hold placards at a school belonging to UNRWA in the Lebanese town of Sebline during a protest against US aid cuts to the organisation. (AFP)
Lives at risk. Palestinian refugee children hold placards at a school belonging to UNRWA in the Lebanese town of Sebline during a protest against US aid cuts to the organisation. (AFP)

LONDON - Palestinian officials reinforced efforts regarding the rights of refugees who were dispossessed during the creation of Israel in 1948 and their descendants will remain on the table in talks with Israel amid reported attempts by the United States to discard the sensitive issue.

In leaked e-mails published by Foreign Policy magazine, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner advocated disrupting the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote to several senior US officials. “Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are. … Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

Kushner said UNRWA is “corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.” He is not the only senior US official to express such sentiments.

“UNRWA’s mandate has perpetuated and exacerbated the refugee crisis and must be changed,” an unidentified senior Trump administration official told Haaretz.

'Final status' issue

Internal e-mails by other US officials indicated that Washington was mulling ways to dismantle UNRWA and make it part of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Palestinian officials argue that the reported US offensive against UNRWA is aimed at ending the refugee status for millions of Palestinians, in line with Israel’s wishes.

“The (Palestinian) cabinet stresses that the refugee issue is a final status issue, which will only be resolved through negotiations leading to a just and agreed solution in accordance with the resolutions of international law and all United Nations resolutions regarding the Palestinian rights,” said Ahmad Shami, spokesman of Palestinian prime minister’s office.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said in a statement the United States is “redefining the status of Palestinian refugees in order to eradicate them as an issue and to destroy their rights as stipulated by international law and conventions.”

“Such efforts targeting the Palestinian refugees and disbanding UNRWA are part of the United States’ systematic campaign to destroy the requirements of peace by taking all permanent status issues off the hypothetical ‘table’ of negotiations.”

Right of return for refugees?

The “right of return” issue is likely to remain a point of disagreement between Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians argue that those who are still alive from the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who had to flee their homes during the creation of Israel, as well as their descendants, should be given the right to return to their home cities, towns and villages if they chose to. Otherwise they should be compensated by the Israeli state.

Israelis say refugee status should not be given to the descendants of Palestinian refugees and those who remain alive today from the 700,000 should be given compensation by Arab countries or the international community, not Israel.

The alleged US push to withdraw the refugee status from more than 5 million Palestinians worldwide has had the unintended effect of causing alarm in Jordan, which hosts 2.2 million Palestinian refugees.

Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi called on the international community to help UNRWA continue its work.

'Most sensitive issue in Jordan'

Observers in Jordan said the reported US measures would undermine Jordanian national security and stability.

“This is the most sensitive issue in Jordan and one that cuts to our very national fabric and identity,” Oraib Rantawi, director of the Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, told Abu Dhabi’s the National newspaper.

“We may reach a point where, if the American administration continues to conduct itself this way, Jordan’s friendship with the US will be much more costly than any other potential benefit,” said Rantawi.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after a meeting in Amman with Jordanian King Abdullah II, said: “We and the Jordanians are keen to coordinate in all matters because we feel we have a shared interest: what hurts us, hurts them and what benefits us, benefits them.”

'What is there left to negotiate with the Israelis?'

Palestinian observers said the US move against UNRWA is part of a strategy to end hope for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“The United States has effectively adopted the position of Israel’s right-wing government and is telling the Palestinians: ‘The best you can hope for is ruling a small, semi-autonomous area’,” Mohamed Masharqa, director of the Centre for Arab Progress, a think-tank in London, told the Arab Weekly. 

“What is there left to negotiate with the Israelis? Jerusalem is off the table and so is the right of return. Israel has not even defined its own borders while Palestinians under occupation cannot have access to their land,” Masharqa added.

“Right-wing politicians in the US and Israel are pushing to make the status quo officially accepted by Palestinian and Arab leaders but that will not happen. Arab states know that by signing over Palestinian right to Israel, they would be opening up the region to more chaos and terrorism.”

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