[Published 23 May 2012]
A crisis of diplomatic confusion seems to have arisen between two affiliate organizations of the United Nations following the announcement by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) of its intention to upgrade the dilapidated conditions in some of the refugee camps under its control - rather than taking progressive steps to close them down following recognition of the State of Palestine by UNESCO on 31 October 2011.
The upgrades will take place with the help of German Government funding in improving health clinics, sanitation and advanced education in coordination with local committees in five camps in the West Bank and two in Jordan.
Certainly any improvements to the daily lives of refugees and the abject conditions under which they have lived for the last six decades should be regarded as a welcome initiative.
However, the recognition of the State of Palestine by UNESCO - and with it an end to Palestinian homelessness - should have also signalled the beginning of the dismantlement of the refugee camps and a structured program to achieve this humanitarian goal.
The vast resources available to UNWRA should surely now be better employed to assist the permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees in their newly recognized state. Yet UNWRA has remained silent on implementing any such plans.
One of the camps slated for an upgrade is the Dheishe refugee camp - at present home to 13000 refugees. This camp is situated on the outskirts of Bethlehem in Area A of the West Bank - an area completely under the administrative and military control of the Palestinian Authority.
If there are any areas that can be readily identified as forming part of the newly-recognized state of Palestine - it is those areas that comprise Area A under the Oslo Accords - which currently cover 18% of the West Bank and include 55% of the total Arab population of the West Bank. Not one Jew lives in Area A.
On December 21, 1995, Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem and three days later the city came under the complete administration and military control of the Palestinian National Authority in conformance with the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1995.
One could indeed ask why Dheishe refugee camp has not been shut down at any time during the last 17 years of its existence - given that responsibility for the lives of its inhabitants was always under the complete authority and control of the Palestinian Authority.
The reasons proffered till now have been the lack of a Palestinian state to end Palestinian homelessness and a belief that one day the residents would be entitled to return to live in what is now Israel. This latter reason has never been - and will never be - an option that can ever be realised unless the State of Israel itself is dismantled.
The UNESCO decision to recognize the existence of an independent State of Palestine has brought with it an end to claims of Palestinian homelessness. .
Yet Habis al-Aisa - a Dheishe resident - still believes nothing has changed as he laments:
“We’re refugees, and the U.N. should be totally responsible for our needs and our situation, because our status is an international political issue.”
Another resident - Othman Abu Omar comments:
“We hope one day to be done with dependence. Everybody should depend on himself,”
Sandi Hilal - the director of UNRWA’s “camp improvement program” in the West Bank - also seems to be under the same misapprehension as to the change in status of those under his charge when adding:
“Improving the daily life of refugees doesn’t jeopardize their right to return back home”.
Can the Dheishe occupants still claim the status of “refugees” - now that they have their own State - a goal that has been pursued with international support and diplomacy for the last 19 years?
Does UNWRA’s stated position on the “right to return home” mean “to the UNESCO recognized State of Palestine” - or does it mean “to Israel”?
It would appear that UNWRA is having problems comprehending the enormity of the UNESCO decision and the changes that have occurred to the status of those whom it has looked after for 64 years.
The United Nations has recognized as Palestinian refugees those Palestinian Arabs - and their descendants - who registered with UNRWA after fleeing their homes from what is now Israel. They are covered by the U.N. resolutions and eligible to receive the agency’s services even if not resident in the camps, but not if they attain citizenship or asylum in another country.
The Palestinian refugees have enjoyed a special status not accorded to any other refugee groups world wide during the past 64 years. That status is - and has always been - privileged and discriminatory and needs to be ended without delay - especially now that a Palestinian state has been internationally recognized and accepted by the 194 member states of UNESCO.
UNWRA now needs to rise to the challenges and the opportunities the UNESCO decision has presented - and implement a program for the closing of the refugee camps.
UNWRA and UNESCO should be meeting to jointly plan such a humanitarian program to bring the long running and festering issue of the Palestinian refugees to an end.
Whilst UNESCO recognizes the existence of a a Palestinian State and UNWRA apparently does not - one can only conclude that the State of Palestine is rapidly acquiring a reputation for being known as“the State of Confusion”.
The sooner the refugee camps start being dismantled - the better the prospects for a resolution of the long running Jewish-Arab conflict in former Palestine.