Tag Archives: UNRWA

Fantasizing about Jaffa at the Electronic Intifada

“Israel’s Likud hopes to complete the ethnic cleansing of Jaffa” – this is the dramatic title of a recent post by Ali Abunimah at his Electronic Intifada blog. Abunimah wisely avoids telling his readers right away how the Likud intends to implement its evil plan, but once you make it through his summary of how “Zionist invaders” in 1948 mercilessly besieged what Abunimah describes as “the cultural capital of Palestine,” you’ll learn just how devious the Likud really is: as Abunimah eventually reveals, “the Tel Aviv Likud branch promises voters” in a blog post about the upcoming local elections that it will “[s]ilence the muezzin and stop the spread of Islamic movements in Jaffa.”

Naturally, a desire to have noise nuisance laws enforced and opposition to the spread of radical Islamists amounts to “ethnic cleansing” – at least in the whacky world of Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada.

Needless to say, it doesn’t matter for Abunimah & Co that the noise from mosque loudspeakers has sparked efforts to curb their use and volume even in Muslim countries, including, lo and behold, in Saudi Arabia

And of course it doesn’t bother Abunimah & Co to champion a reactionary group like the Islamic movement. Indeed, the “progressive” fans of Abunimah and his Electronic Intifada will probably feel all warm and fuzzy when they listen to the speeches of Raed Salah, the leader of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who considers Osama bin Laden a “martyr.”

Salah speech MEMRI

MEMRI screenshot

One could perhaps wonder how Jaffa’s Christian residents feel about the noise from mosque loudspeakers and Islamists – but if you want to advance the ridiculous claim that the silencing of mosque loudspeakers and opposition to Islamists amount to “ethnic cleansing,” it is clearly better not to dwell on the inconvenient fact that there are Arab Christians in Jaffa and that it is a town with several impressive historic sites associated with Christianity.

Indeed, speaking about inconvenient facts, Abunimah manages to demonstrate in this post that he is a master of ignoring them.

Let’s start with the fact that Jaffa (or Yafo, in the Israeli transliteration) “is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles” and that it is regarded as “the site through which King Solomon imported cedars from Tyre to build the First Temple.”

Let’s then move on through the millennia to the 19th and 20th century, when Jaffa became the “major cosmopolitan center of trade and citrus-growing” mentioned by Abunimah. The area of present-day Israel was then ruled by the Ottoman Empire and, later on, by the British Mandate. As is well-known and documented, both regimes brought Arab migrant workers from all over the region to build major infrastructure projects; in addition, there were legal and illegal Arab migrants who came to take advantage of “the relative economic boom, stimulated by the annual Jewish immigration beginning in 1882.”

As the 1937 report by the British Peel Commission put it:

“The increase in the Arab population is most marked in urban areas, affected by Jewish development. A comparison of the census returns in 1922 and 1931 shows that […] the increase percent in Haifa was 86, in Jaffa 62, in Jerusalem 37, while in purely Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron it was only 7, and at Gaza there was a decrease of 2 percent.”

That means that, due to “the substantial 1880-1947 Arab immigration […] the Arab population of Jaffa, Haifa and Ramla grew 17, 12 and 5 times respectively.”

So Jewish development brought a lot of Arabs to towns like Jaffa; indeed, as Robert F. Kennedy put it in a dispatch for the Boston Post after visiting Mandate Palestine in March 1948:

“The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs in the 12 years between 1932 and 1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state.”

But what about 1948, when, according to Ali Abunimah, “Zionist gangs perpetrated the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian coastal city of Jaffa?”

Let’s consult an Arab eyewitness: Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a former resident of Jaffa with impeccable anti-Zionist credentials who recalled his last months in his hometown for a 1998 Al-Ahram special * “commemorating 50 years of Arab dispossession since the creation of the State of Israel.”

As Abu-Lughod writes:

“No sooner had the UN General Assembly passed its partition resolution in November 1947, than Palestine was torn apart by a war waged between its two historically antagonistic communities — Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. […]  The first shots were exchanged between Jaffa and Tel Aviv on the eve of 30 November 1947 during a three-day general protest strike declared by the Arab Higher Committee. […] On the eve of the UN Partition Resolution, Jaffa’s Arab population numbered over 70,000. By and large they supported the traditional Palestinian leadership headed by Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti.”

Understandably, Abu-Lughod, a professor of political science, didn’t mention the fact that the man who headed the popular “traditional Palestinian leadership” in the second half of the 1940s had spent the first half of the decade in Berlin, where he lived in considerable comfort as a well-paid guest and committed ally of Nazi Germany.

Abu-Lughod then goes on to note that most Arabs in Jaffa and elsewhere seemed confident that “as the country belonged to the Arabs, they were the ones who would defend their homeland with zeal and patriotism, which the Jews – being of many scattered countries and tongues, and moreover being divided into Ashkenazi and Sephardic – would inevitably lack. In short, there was a belief that the Jews were generally cowards.”

When this belief proved mistaken, people started to leave Jaffa. According to Abu-Lughod, at first mainly the rich left, but as more and more people began to flee the fighting, the “National Committee…decided to levy a tax on every family who insisted on leaving.” Abu-Lughod volunteered to help with collecting this “tax:”

“I worked in a branch of the committee based in the headquarters of the Muslim Youth Association near the port of Jaffa. Our job consisted mainly of harassing people to dissuade them from leaving, and when they insisted, we would begin bargaining over what they should pay, according to how much luggage they were carrying with them and how many members of the family there were. At first we set the taxes high. Then as the situation deteriorated, we reduced the rates, especially when our friends and relatives began to be among those leaving.

We continued collecting this tax until 23 April, when the combined force of the Haganah and the Irgun succeeded in defeating the Arab forces stationed in the Manshiya quarter adjacent to Southern Tel-Aviv. On that day, as we realised that an attack on the centre of Jaffa was imminent, I and my family decided that they had to be evacuated temporarily. We rented a van, into which we crammed all the women and young children and sent them to Nablus.”

Compare this with Ali Abunimah’s version:

“Thrown into the sea

With no escape by land, tens of thousands of residents of Jaffa and neighboring villages fled by sea – scores drowning – leaving just 4,000 of the city’s original people behind.”

Abu-Lughod himself stayed in Jaffa until May 3, when he left by ship together with two friends to make the short trip to Beirut. By July 1948, he was already back with his family in Nablus, from where he soon made his way to the US to study and to build a successful career at Northwestern University. He left there in 1992 to become vice-president of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.

As Abu-Lughod’s account illustrates, nobody was “thrown into the sea.” The majority of Jaffa’s Arab residents fled the fighting over a period of several weeks or even months – by land or by sea – while Jaffa’s self-proclaimed defenders tried to exploit those who wanted to leave by demanding a “tax.”

Moreover, it is also clear that many of those who fled Jaffa in the first months of 1948 were not long-time residents, but had come to the town relatively recently as either legal or illegal immigrants to look for work. There is after all a reason why UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948.” And of course, somebody who lived in Jaffa since 1 June 1946 and then moved just a few dozen miles, either down the coast to Gaza or east to the West Bank, would still qualify as a refugee and be able to pass on this status to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren…

So who knows: maybe UNRWA would be willing to expand its definition of Palestinian refugees to those who would leave Jaffa because they are deprived of being woken up at dawn by blaring mosque loudspeakers or because they feel that it’s really unfair when Osama bin Laden fans are regarded as extremists.

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First published at my JPost blog on Oct. 12, 2013


* The Al-Ahram Special is no longer at this link; but it can be found here: http://issuu.com/issac2011/docs/50_years_of_arab_dispossession. The quoted piece is pp.91-93 under the title “After the matriculation.”


Arab Idol politics

There may be carnage in Syria and plenty of unrest, violence and instability in much of the rest of the Arab world, but there is also the “Arab Idol” singing contest that has provided some welcome distraction for lovers of Arab pop music over the past few weeks. This year’s contest generated particular excitement when a young wedding singer from Gaza reached the finals – and naturally, even the Western media rushed to report his story in the most glowing terms (while Syrian finalist Farah Yousef was apparently deemed less media-worthy).

Already in May, The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood reported happily about the “Gaza refugee tipped to win Arab Idol.” The 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf who was reportedly born in Libya and grew up in Gaza can hardly be considered a “refugee” under any reasonable definition,  but Sherwood was of course right to anticipate that Assaf would win the contest – and tonight around midnight, he was not only declared the new “Arab Idol” but also “the UN’s first Palestinian ambassador.”

According to a story reported by Ma’an news agency as well as other Arab media sites:

“A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a UN ambassador. He will become the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said.

‘A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,’ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship has not yet been announced.

‘It is is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN,’ he added.”

The “man with a golden voice”-theme was already sounded by the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood back in May.  Sherwood also told her readers that Assaf’s “repertoire consisted mainly of patriotic songs,” including presumably this one that places Israeli cities in “Palestine” (– and please;) do click the link to listen to the song):

“My country Palestine is beautiful
Turn to Safed and then to Tiberias,
And send regards to the sea of Acre and Haifa
Don’t forget Nazareth – the Arab fortress,
And tell Beit Shean about its people’s return
By Allah, oh traveling [bird], I burn with envy
My country Palestine is beautiful.”

UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi apparently sees no problem with such a song. According to an Al Arabiya report, Grandi declared that “Mohammed’s music is a universal language and speaks to all of us. How fantastic that a Palestine refugee from Gaza should bring us all together in this way.”

Of course, we can only imagine how very differently Mr. Grandi would react if an Israeli Jew won a singing contest with a repertoire that included a song about the Land of Israel and its ancient Jewish sites in Judea and Samaria…

But according to Harriet Sherwood’s report from May, the new Arab Idol actually longs to perform love songs – which is of course not appreciated in Islamist-ruled Gaza:

“Hamas, he [Mohammed Assaf] said last year, discouraged artists and musicians, and he had been arrested more than 20 times by Hamas security officials. ‘Once I was arrested for a week. They kept asking me to sign a pledge not to sing. But my message as a Palestinian is that we not only speak or fight or shoot, but we also sing.’”

The emphasis here is presumably on “also sing” because Sherwood rushes to assure her readers that “Assaf has not abandoned his roots or his beliefs. He has spoken against the Israeli occupation and has supported hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.” According to Sherwood, Assaf declared: “If I had to choose between winning the Arab Idol title and the freedom of [prisoner] Samer Issawi, I would choose freedom for the Palestinian hero whose steadfastness is peerless […] I can’t differentiate between my art and my patriotic attitude.”

Like most Palestinian heroes, Samer Issawi is of course a convicted terrorist.

It would certainly be unrealistic to expect the newly crowned Arab Idol and UNRWA Goodwill Ambassador Mohammed Assaf to break with the long tradition of glorifying Palestinian terrorists. Indeed, Assaf is apparently widely seen as having “helped locals forget how Palestinians, once united against the Israeli occupation of their land, are busy fighting one another.” An Atlantic report even quotes a Ramallah resident as claiming that “[no] other figure since Arafat has been this popular.”

Yet, not everyone is enthusiastic: according to an AP report, the recent Friday sermon at Jerusalem’s  Al Aqsa Mosque included a sharp rebuke that “Palestinians lost sight of their struggle for independence by getting preoccupied with the show.” Echoing views that have also been expressed by Hamas, the preacher reportedly insisted: “Voting for songs and immorality, evil and sin is not only forbidden, it is a crime against the cause of our people.”

Given the dearth of good news from the Middle East, it’s definitely good news when a lot of Arabs get excited about something the Islamists abhor – and it’s even better news if this is a show that is clearly modeled on “American Idol.”

I think it’s even good news that UNRWA was so eager to press the new Arab Idol into their service. As I noted above, this entirely inappropriate step has already provided some good illustrations of UNRWA’s problematic role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem. Indeed, UNRWA officials have openly acknowledged that they work hard to foster a distinct Palestinian refugee identity based on the myth of a “right to return” for generations of Palestinians who have never seen the places in Israel they want to “return” to. The new Arab Idol is an excellent example: born in Libya to Palestinian parents who presumably worked there, Assaf reportedly spent most of his young life in Gaza, which is supposedly part of Palestine. Yet, he and his family live in a “refugee camp” – demonstrating perfectly that even when Palestinians live in Palestine under Palestinian rule, they will continue to insist that they are “refugees,” and UNRWA will eagerly support them in this ridiculous claim. It is downright obscene that this decades-old scam continues at a time when aid agencies anticipate that the number of refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria will soon pass two million.

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First published on my JPost blog on June 22, 2013.


The child-soldiers of Palestine

* Originally published at my JPost blog on January 26 *

Last Thursday, many Sunni Muslims celebrated the birth of Islam’s founder Muhammad. As the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh reported, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced during a ceremony to mark this occasion that Hamas was planning to establish a “military academy” that would offer training to children as young as twelve. The children attending the school would be able to “graduate with a diploma or a BA in military affairs.”

However, as a widely quoted Associated Press (AP) report indicates, this was apparently not an entirely new initiative: since last September, Hamas has been offering a military training program as “a weekly elective…in all Gaza high schools,” and the ceremony on Thursday included celebrations of the “graduation” of the first 3600 participants:

“More than 3,000 Palestinian teenagers on Thursday graduated from the ruling Hamas terror group’s first high school military training program in the Gaza Strip, displaying mock weapons, crawling commando-style on the ground and taking up fighting positions for thousands of cheering supporters.

Hamas officials said the Futuwwa, or ‘Youth,’ program is aimed at fostering a new generation of leaders in the struggle against Israel.”

A fifteen year old graduate of this program quoted in the AP report was enthusiastic:

“My officer taught me the values of courage, sacrifice and love of jihad, as well as some battle tactics […] I feel that I can free my energy in a good way. I can do for real what I do in video games.”

There may well be a connection between this “educational” initiative by Hamas and the efforts mentioned by senior Hamas commander Zaher Jabarin in a recent interview with Hamas’ Al-Quds TV. In the interview, Jabarin boasted that Hamas labors “day and night” to educate Palestinian children to become suicide bombers.

“There was training of the divine generation, the true generation of martyrdom-seekers, through which we can participate in the battle. First, before anything else, before any Jihadi action, before the transfer of weapons, money, etc., and everything required for action, first and foremost is the individual person. The Islamic Movement [Hamas] took care of the education of this youngster who will participate in this battle […] We labored day and night to build the person, who will participate in this battle […] The Palestinian youngsters, the resistance and Jihad warriors, fight and quarrel over performing a courageous suicide operation.”

Jabarin emphasized that Hamas was “now preparing for the battle of liberation, and not just the resistance as we have done in the past” – and tellingly, the teenagers “graduating” on Muhammad’s birthday were called “Liberation Vanguards.”

Among the many questions that should be raised in this context is whether the claim by AP that Hamas has been offering a military training program as “a weekly elective…in all Gaza high schools” means that UNRWA – which runs 245 schools for 225,000 students in Gaza – cooperates with Hamas in hosting or otherwise facilitating the military training of teenagers. UNWRA also has a program for donors to “adopt” a Gaza school, and recently, the German government donated 3 million Euros for the construction of two additional UNRWA schools in Gaza. No doubt these donations are well-meant, but they obviously also allow the Hamas-rulers of Gaza to avoid committing resources to the education of Gaza’s children while leaving them free to finance instead “jihad” training for teenagers.

It is perhaps also time that the organizations that are so eager to indict Israel for any harm that comes to Palestinian teenagers in situations of conflict take note of the longstanding and prevalent Palestinian practice to provide children with some sort of military training.

In June 1970, Life Magazine featured a report on “Palestinian Arabs” with a cover photo that showed a group of boys holding what seems to be real guns; the photo was captioned: “The ‘Tiger Cubs’ train at a camp in Jordan.”

Life 1261970 cover

The report included another similar photo accompanied by a text explaining that it showed “student guerillas in Jordan receiv[ing] weapons instruction in a tent under the stern gaze of Che Guevara. The course is sponsored by the liberation front.”

Life 1970 Pal story

Or consider this revealing testimony, first published in 1985 and reprinted 1998 for a special Al-Ahram series on “50 years of Arab dispossession”: in an interview, Nagi El-Ali, a prominent cartoonist, decries Israel’s 1982 campaign against Palestinian terror groups in Lebanon, but then he boasts:

“I saw for myself how afraid the Israeli soldiers were of the children. A child of ten or eleven had sufficient training to carry and use an RBG rifle. The situation was simple enough. The Israeli tanks were in front of them and the weapon was in their hands. The Israelis were afraid to go into the camps, and if they did, they would only do so in daylight.”

Right: those cowardly Israeli soldiers, utterly shocked when they encounter heavily armed children sent by cynical adults to fight for them… And of course, these adults know very well when to switch from the perverted pride reflected in El-Ali’s recollection – and countless other similar statements – to a display of abject victimization.

To be sure, Palestinian youngsters no longer train “under the stern gaze of Che Guevara,” but otherwise, not all that much has changed: nowadays, they get trained as “Jihad warriors” who proudly graduate on Muhammad’s birthday, indoctrinated to regard it as a privilege to perform “a courageous suicide operation.” The international community makes sure Hamas won’t have other expenses for education and continues to overlook the vicious legacy of decades of determined Palestinian efforts to teach children that violence and terrorism are noble and admirable.


Dezionization: Hanan Ashrawi’s own goal

As upset as veteran Palestinian spokeswoman and high-ranking PLO member Hanan Ashrawi seems to be about recent Israeli efforts to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, there is little doubt that she felt very clever when she came up with the assertion that Israel’s stance in this matter amounts to “dezionization.”

After arguing in an article for the Arab press that the “claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’ who were uprooted from their homelands… is a form of deception and delusion,” Ashrawi apparently thought that she should “improve” on this point. Writing  a few days later in the Huffington Post, she decried “Israel’s Cynical Definition of ‘Refugee’” and claimed:

“At the very core of Zionist ideology is the idea that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. If this is the case, and Jews living in Israel are citizens of their singular national homeland, then the state cannot consider them refugees — they cannot be returnees to Israel and refugees from another homeland at the same time. Demanding that the international community treat Jewish immigrants as refugees is therefore an act of ‘dezionization.’”

It’s an argument that is stupid in so many ways that it is hard to list them all.

For starters, Israel of course doesn’t claim that the Jewish refugees who were forced to abandon their ancient communities all over the Middle East since the late 1940s are still refugees. But it’s an undisputable historical fact that many of them came to Israel as destitute refugees. Collectively, these refugees were forced to leave behind assets that would nowadays be worth several billion dollars, and it has been estimated that the “total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles — about five times the size of Israel’s entire land mass.”

Why Ashrawi would think it makes sense to argue that acknowledging these well-documented historical facts amounts to “an act of ‘dezionization’” is rather mysterious. Perhaps she is so busy trying to score points that she doesn’t stop to think through the implications of her “argument.”

Ashrawi’s bizarre notion that Jews who came to Israel could not be refugees if Israel is their homeland can easily be shown to be complete nonsense. Just consider what happens when Ashrawi’s criteria are applied to other refugees who ended up in their homelands: as I and others have pointed out, there were some 25 million people in post-war Europe and post-partition India who had to abandon their long-time homes to seek refuge in their respective homelands. According to Ashrawi’s “reasoning”, these 25 million people never were refugees – they were simply people who went home…

Moreover, if the Jews from the Middle East who fled to Israel shouldn’t be considered refugees, then neither should the Jews from Europe who fled the Nazis or who survived the Holocaust. According to Ashrawi, we have the choice to either agree with her view that it would be “cynical” to regard these people as refugees, or we insist on calling them refugees and risk “dezionization.”

Ashrawi seems to have convinced herself that somehow, Zionism crumbles if not all the Jews who came to Israel were motivated first and foremost by their Zionism and decided to make Aliyah out of their own free will. This is of course an utterly mistaken idea, as Ashrawi could have easily realized had she bothered to check out a document as basic as Israel’s Declaration of Independence. There she would have discovered that right from the start, the re-established Jewish state was meant to offer a refuge for persecuted Jews:

“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. […]

The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.”

There are of course countless other documents and texts one could quote to illustrate how ridiculous Ashrawi’s idea is that it would be “an act of ‘dezionization’” to acknowledge that many of the Jews who came to Israel arrived as refugees. Indeed, if Ashrawi accomplished anything with her “dezionization”-bombast, she scored a spectacular own goal.

If we consider for a moment what it would mean for Palestinian claims of refugee-status if we took her argument about the supposed impossibility of being a refugee in one’s own homeland serious, we see that Ashrawi has single-handedly managed to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. Since Palestinians consider historic Palestine their homeland, there can’t be any Palestinian refugees there – not in Gaza, not in the West Bank, and arguably also not in Jordan.

Moreover, since official Palestinian documents describe the Palestinian people as “part of the Arab Nation, Palestinians who live in Arab countries really live under the rule of their nation and thus also cannot really claim to be refugees, right? Well, at least that’s what we get if we accept Hanan Ashrawi’s logic…

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This is a somewhat belated cross-post from my JPost blog, where I posted this piece a few days ago.


Hanan Ashrawi’s cynical definition of ‘refugee’

Recent Israeli efforts to counter the widespread ignorance about the plight of the Jewish refugees who were forced to abandon their ancient communities all over the Middle East since the late 1940s have been widely denounced in the Arab media.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, veteran Palestinian spokeswoman and high-ranking PLO member Hanan Ashrawi added her voice to the chorus of disapproval when she penned an article arguing that there was no such thing as Jewish refugees from Arab countries. A few days later, she propagated her views on this matter also in an English-language article published in the Huffington Post under the title “Israel’s Cynical Definition of ‘Refugee.’”

But if anyone is proposing cynical definitions, it is Ashrawi.

As David Harris rightly emphasized in a devastating response to Ashrawi’s article, the views she expresses are part of longstanding Arab and Palestinian efforts to rewrite and deny Jewish history, and ultimately, these efforts are a deplorable reflection of the unwillingness to accept Israel’s right to exist.

But it’s actually not just about Israel. One of the reactions to Ashrawi’s article is entitled “Hanan Ashrawi’s war on history,” and the author Daniel Mandel rightly notes that, according to Ashrawi’s “logic”, “the millions of Muslims who fled India and the millions of Hindus who fled Pakistan around the same time [i.e. in the late 1940s] were not refugees either, since each ended up in their respective nation states.”

Indeed, in the late 1940s, when some 800 000 Arabs fled the fighting initiated in their name to prevent or undo the establishment of Israel, there were many millions of refugees all over the world, particularly in Europe and in South Asia, where the partition of India created at least an estimated 12 million refugees.

From all these many millions of refugees, only the Arabs from Palestine became eternal refugees who, up to this day, insist on a hereditary refugee status that has swelled the ranks of the original 800 000 to about 5 million, who are served by UNRWA, the UN agency created exclusively for Palestinian refugees.

While UNRWA officials and supporters are apparently happy to endorse the preposterous Arab notion of “positive discrimination” – a convenient euphemism for the cynical denial of basic rights to Palestinian refugees in Arab countries – the political motivation for this very real policy of apartheid is clear: while official Palestinian documents describe the Palestinian people as “part of the Arab Nation,” the refugees were not integrated into their Arab host countries in order to keep their demand for an imaginary “right of return” to Israel alive; and whenever this “part of the Arab Nation” was offered the opportunity to establish for itself yet another Arab Muslim state, the price of peaceful co-existence with Israel was apparently too high.

The sophistry of all the arguments that are used to justify continued Palestinian rejectionism and the cynical claim that Palestinian refugees must be considered a very special case with special rights is once again illustrated by Hanan Ashrawi’s current efforts to deny that the roughly 800 000 Jews who fled Arab and Muslim countries were refugees.

A great visual illustration of Ashrawi’s dishonesty is at the blog It’s Complicated, where you can find a set of eight photos of Jewish and Arab refugees with the challenge:

“See if you can tell the Arab refugees from the Jews. Both sets lived in very similar conditions upon losing their homes. Life was hell for both. One of these groups has been exploited mercilessly and most of its members are still mired in misery, but do not belittle the suffering of the other group whose story now is very different.”

But it’s also worthwhile to consider just how preposterous Ashrawi’s main “argument” is. According to her, the “claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’ who were uprooted from their homelands… is a form of deception and delusion.”

What then about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who never even left the areas they considered as their homeland and just moved a few miles to Gaza, the West Bank or Jordan?

If Ashrawi wants to argue that people who left their original homes for whatever reason and ended up living in their historic homeland cannot be considered refugees, then surely the Palestinian Arabs who moved just a short distance and remained within the boundaries of what was historically regarded as Palestine never qualified as refugees. So according to Hanan Ashrawi’s criteria, we have to conclude that there is no such thing as Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

Of course, the Palestinian Arabs who remained in the area of historic Palestine would indeed normally be regarded as internally displaced persons, and not as refugees.

Needless to say, nothing could be further from Ashrawi’s intentions than to have Palestinian refugees defined and treated just like any other refugees.

Indeed, she couldn’t care less about other refugees, as is amply illustrated by the fact that when her ridiculous criteria for Jewish refugee-status are applied to other refugees, most of the refugees from the late 1940s magically disappear. You see, the some 12 million German refugees after World War II and the probably even greater number of refugees created by the partition of India weren’t really refugees: after all, Ashrawi tells us that the reasons why these people left their homes aren’t that important, what is important is that the Germans who were expelled from formerly German areas or from long-established communities in other European countries mostly ended up living  in their homeland; the same applies to the Muslims and Hindus who moved between India and the newly created Pakistan.

According to Hanan Ashrawi, all these people just went home, and their plight paled in comparison to the Palestinians, who must be considered desperate refugees even when they remained within the boundaries of historic Palestine, and even when they live under Palestinian rule in Gaza and the West Bank.

And while Ashrawi is busy trying to convince the world that these Palestinians and their descendants deserve unquestioning support and empathy as refugees, her definition of refugees of course also denies that the Jews who fled Nazi persecution and those who survived the Holocaust were refugees: as far as Hanan Ashrawi is concerned, at least those Jews who came to Israel were never refugees, they just went home…

Truly: Palestinian propaganda at its best – or rather, at its cynical worst.


Finally, a personal note. When I read Hanan Ahrawi’s recent output, I couldn’t help remembering the times when I and many of my friends used to nod along with whatever she said. That was of course back in the hopeful Peace Now 1990s, when many Israelis believed that Hanan Ashrawi represented the Palestinians who were just like us, and wanted nothing more than peaceful coexistence.

For me personally, the rude awakening came in October 2000 when Ashrawi defended the gruesome lynching and mutilation of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, where Ashrawi lived. Her neighbors behaved like animals, but the internationally admired Palestinian spokeswoman couldn’t bring herself to condemn the barbarity and preferred instead to invent some sort of justification.  That was the moment when I realized who Hanan Ashrawi was, and what she stood for.

Leila Hilal’s bizarre defense of UNRWA

The question of who should qualify as a Palestinian refugee has recently received renewed attention due to an initiative by US Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) that will require the State Department to report how many of the roughly five million Palestinians serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were actually displaced during the Arab war against Israel in 1948 and how many are descendants.

Alluding to the ensuing controversy, Zvika Krieger, Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and an Atlantic contributor, posted a tweet recommending a piece by Leila Hilal “on why UNWRA services refugee’s descendents .”

It is indeed useful to know Hilal’s views on the matter, because as a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Negotiations Department, she is now often quoted when the subject of Palestinian refugees comes up.

Given Hilal’s background, it is perhaps not surprising that the piece recommended by Krieger is entitled “Israeli Leader Wrongly Blames UN and Arab States for Palestinian Refugees.”

Hilal begins her piece with a somewhat lengthy attempt to discredit the Israeli leader mentioned in her title: Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is described as a “Knesset member representing Yisrael Beitenieu [sic], an ultra-nationalist party” and Hilal claims misleadingly that Yisrael Beitenu “advocates the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of a political settlement.” Presumably, this is meant as a reference to the so-called Lieberman Plan that envisages a land swap including populated areas – an idea that was first formulated in the mid-1990s by a left-wing researcher who, like many Israelis back then, mistakenly believed that all the rhetoric about how strongly Israel’s Arabs identified with their Palestinian brethren meant that they would be eager to become citizens of a Palestinian state.

Hilal then takes aim at Ayalon’s You Tube clip about the plight of Palestinian refugees, noting that it was removed from a French website for supposedly “violating guidelines against racist postings” – though, as Hilal’s own link to a post on the Point of no return blog  shows, this is again a somewhat misleading claim, because the French website failed to explain what was “potentially defamatory” or “potentially racist” about the clip.

Once Hilal gets around to spelling out her specific objections to Ayalon’s video, her readers encounter quite convoluted arguments. Let’s look at her first point:

“Ayalon’s primary criticism of the UNRWA is that it has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency — the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) — so that Palestinians can be treated somewhat like refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur. This would actually subvert his own argument for resettlement, though; UNHCR’s long-standing policy, based in international law, is that the preferred durable solution for refugees is voluntary return. […] In other words, if Palestinians were to be treated like refugees from Bosnia or other conflict zones, the international community would be forced to address their long-standing demand to choose whether to return to their place of origin — namely Israel.”

The first problem with this argument is that Israel is not considered the “place of origin” of the UNRWA-serviced Palestinians. UNRWA itself provides this definition:

“Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

UNRWA’s definition of refugees is of course unique because it requires only two years of residency and confers refugee-status even on people who actually remained in “Palestine” – that is to say, they would usually be considered internally displaced persons. But irrespective of the designation, the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians who fled the Arab war against Israel’s establishment since late 1947 left an area that became the territory of a state whose existence Palestinian and Arab leaders violently opposed for decades – up to now. This precluded their “right of return,” which is based on the willingness to “live at peace with their neighbours.”

Moreover, given UNRWA’s definition of “Palestine refugees”, one could argue that also Jews “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict” should qualify for UNRWA assistance, since “[no] Jews were allowed to live in territories held by the Arab forces. Therefore the remaining Jews of Jerusalem, and those of Gush Etzion, Atarot, Neve Yaakov and kibbutzim in the Gaza strip were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their property without compensation.”

But unsurprisingly, Hilal objects to arguments “equating Jewish and Palestinian refugees” and at one point, she even asserts that there is a “fundamental distinction between the vast majority of Jews who left Arab countries and Palestinian refugees: whether Jews fled out of a fear of persecution or out of a desire to settle in Israel, they did not face a similar denial of the option of return.”

What she is trying to say here remains a riddle, since she cannot possibly be trying to claim that the Jewish refugees from Arab countries had “the option of return” to the ancient communities they fled due to officially sanctioned efforts to drive them out.

Hilal’s point is not much clearer when she claims that Ayalon’s criticism of UNRWA “ignores the fact that the agency is not mandated to find solutions for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA’s authority, given to it by the UN General Assembly, is limited to providing humanitarian and development assistance.”

Of course, this is exactly the point of Ayalon’s criticism: UNRWA isn’t there to find solutions for the Palestinian refugees; instead, the agency’s work allows the Arab states – whose war against Israel created the refugees – to dodge their responsibilities and maintain them as refugees for generations.

Hilal also complains that Ayalon “relies on archaic public statements from former pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and long-passed UNRWA commissioners. Rather than quoting Arab leaders in 1969 or UN officials from the 1950s, Israeli officials should be honest about where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today.”

Again, it remains unclear what she means. I think many Israelis would agree that when it comes to “the political conflict on the refugee question…today,” the views expressed at the beginning of this year by Israeli politician Einat Wilf are not only “honest”, but also realistic:

“MK Wilf shared her own experience as a member of the peace camp who has grown skeptical in recent years, saying that when she hears Palestinian leaders insist that there exist five million refugees possessing a ‘right of turn’ into the sovereign state of Israel, she questions whether the Palestinians truly desire peace and accept the idea that the two state solution means two states for two peoples: Jews and Arabs.”

Moreover, when it comes to the question “where the political conflict on the refugee question lies today,” it is revealing that veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly feared for his life in early 2011 when the leaked “Palestine Papers” seemed to indicate that among some other compromises, the Palestinian negotiating team considered “limiting the number of Palestinian refugees returning [to Israel] to 100,000 over 10 years.”

In this context, it is also interesting to note that both Europe’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Commissioner-General of UNRWA Filippo Grandi recently emphasized that UNRWA was proud to instill a sense of identity among the “refugee” children who are educated by the agency – and the context of the two relevant speeches leaves no doubt that both officials referred to a distinct “refugee” identity that would forestall the children’s desire to seek assimilation in the states they were born. This is particularly ironic given the fact that the Palestinian constitution of 2003 prominently asserts in Article 1:

“Palestine is part of the large Arab World, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab Nation.”

If this is the case, what is wrong with calling on the “Arab Nation” to integrate the Palestinian refugees who have been living in their midst for generations?

Yet, Hilal concludes her piece by claiming:

“Ayalon’s video series simplifies and distorts the conflict with the hope of manipulating public perceptions in favor of rightist Israeli views. […] Whether Ayalon’s criticism is part of the traditional Israeli narrative on the refugee question or signals an intention to escalate attacks against the UN agency [i.e. UNRWA], his extremist interpretations and misrepresentations of the historical record and international law are a dangerous addition to the discourse on the conflict.”

But very different from what Krieger suggested when he recommended Hilal’s piece, her attacks against Ayalon in no way explain why UNRWA should be supported in the efforts to keep generations of Palestinians as “refugees” with only limited rights in the countries they were born. In one of the most candid and substantive articles published on this issue in the mainstream press in recent years, Judith Miller and David Samuels argued in 2009 in the Independent:

“After 60 years of failed wars, and failed peace, it is time to put politics aside and to insist that the basic rights of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries be respected – whether or not their children’s children return to Haifa anytime soon. While Saudi Arabia may not wish to host Israeli tourists, it can easily afford to integrate the estimated 240,000 Palestinian refugees who already live in the kingdom – just as Egypt, which has received close to $60bn in US aid, and has a population of 81 million, can grant legal rights to an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One can only imagine the outrage that the world community would rightly visit upon Israel if Israeli Arabs were subject to the vile discriminatory laws applied to Palestinians living in Arab countries. Surely, Palestinian Arabs can keep their own national dream alive in the countries where they were born, while also enjoying the freedom to work, vote and own property?”

For UNRWA supporters like Leila Hilal, these are apparently “extremist” views.

Last but not least, given the fact that Zvika Krieger is now Senior Vice President of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and that he recommended Hilal’s bizarre defense of UNRWA, it is interesting to note that in August 2008, Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar published a fascinating profile of S. Daniel Abraham under the title “In the business of peace – U.S. billionaire pursues his dream of Mideast peace.” Eldar claims that during a meeting with Abraham, he was shown two documents:

“One described a fascinating conversation Abraham had held with one of Israel’s leading rabbis. The second was a record of a meeting Abraham held half a year ago in the United States with a senior, influential Arab figure. The Israeli prime minister himself [i.e. Ehud Olmert] is very familiar with this document. Without violating the promise to keep its contents a secret, it can be said that it contains a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem – an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing.”

Sounds good – pity that it is kept a secret.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

Ashton praises the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA

The widespread criticism of a recent speech by the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was perhaps not entirely deserved, because the impression that she was drawing a parallel between the deadly shooting attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse and IDF operations in Gaza was at least partly due to a faulty transcript of her speech, which left out her mention of Sderot – the city that is most affected by the rockets from Gaza.

But there was arguably a reason why many Israeli politicians and commentators reacted so angrily – and why one Hamas official rushed to Ashton’s defense, arguing that she “deserves thanks, appreciation, and support in the face of Zionist attempts to terrorize and pressure her.”

As a report in the EU Observer points out:

“The Ashton controversy comes at a difficult time in EU-Israeli relations. A series of recently leaked internal EU reports has depicted Israel as stealing Palestinian land and water, trampling on the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens and giving settlers free rein to assault Palestinian farmers. […]

An EU diplomat earlier told this website that Ashton’s visit to Gaza in 2010, where she saw first-hand the squalid living conditions and fear of Israeli air strikes, was ‘a life-changing experience’ for the British politician.”

Indeed, Ashton’s recent speech (pdf) confirms that she is very sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view. Consider her lengthy praise for UNRWA, the UN organization exclusively devoted to Palestinian refugees and their descendants:

“Let me just say a little bit too about what the European Union believes is so important about UNRWA […] It’s not a coincidence that the European Union is the biggest and the most loyal donor. Our donor activity started in 1971 and in the last 11 years we provided over € 1.3 billion in support of UNRWA’s work – along with contributions from EU Member States, the EU overall contributions in 2010 and 2011 accounted for almost 40% of the total support. It is a big effort in difficult financial circumstances.

And I believe it is because it matters so much. I am not giving you figures so that you feel a sense of success from the EU, but so you would feel a sense of commitment from the European Union. Our support goes to where it matters most: health, schools, humanitarian needs, and shelter. The ultimate goal however is for Palestinians to be masters of their own fate, in their own state.

Our goal, consistently spelt out over time, is supporting the creation of a Palestinian state that will not need to depend on donor support, will stand in its own right and will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours. […] we leave no stone unturned and we will do everything possible to try and meet circumstances for the completion of the Middle East Peace Process. We know too that the Palestinian refugees face additional challenges; they leave [sic!] in countries which even after so many years they cannot consider home. This is why UNRWA’s work is so special: it has gone beyond the provision of universal needs and helped them establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of. And that comes about through many things that UNRWA does.”

[Emphasis added]

The highlighted sentence in this quoted passage is truly remarkable, because the EU’s foreign policy chief basically agrees here with the preposterous Arab notion of “positive discrimination,” which is simply a euphemism for the cynical policies of the Arab states that claim they are doing the Palestinians a favor by barring them from integrating into the countries they live in and forcing them to artificially preserve a distinct identity that focuses on the unrealistic demand of a “right of return”. (See e.g. “No refuge: Palestinians in Lebanon.”  Working Papers Series No. 64, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, June 2010; pdf)

To be sure, Ashton is in a way quite right, because UNRWA is indeed “special”: while the many millions of other refugees from the late 1940s were expected to adjust themselves pragmatically to changed political realities, UNRWA enabled the Arab states that had failed in their efforts to undo Israel’s establishment to keep the Palestinian refugees as political pawns who would pass on their refugee status for generations in order to keep their grievances alive and politically potent.

The problematic role of UNRWA has often been criticized, most recently by the Palestinian writer and academic Mudar Zahran, who passionately argued that “UNRWA’s persistence in keeping the Palestinians refugees in abysmal, overcrowded slums is harming the Palestinians” and suggested that it might be time to conclude that UNRWA has become “an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.”

Zahran also points out that “UNRWA is now the UN’s largest entity with over 30,000 employees. It is such a boondoggle of a jobs program, it almost cannot let the Palestinian refugee problem be solved: if it did, 30,000 people would be out of work.”

Europe’s diplomat-in-chief Baroness Ashton seems oblivious of this criticism of UNRWA’s part in the cynical perpetuation of a refugee-status for Palestinians living in Arab countries – and  scandalously, Palestinian “refugees” living in Hamas-ruled Gaza or the PA-ruled parts of the West Bank don’t fare much better, because even there, the “refugee camps” continue to exist.

It is remarkable how rarely this issue is addressed given the plentiful media coverage of all things Palestinian. One of the few recent reports was published in January 2011 in the German magazine Cicero under the title “Palestine: Refugees of their own choice;” an English translation under the perhaps even more fitting title “Refugees from reality” is available at the blog of Elder of Ziyon.

The author of the article, Ingo Way, first describes his meeting with a young Palestinian woman by the name of Khouloud Al Ajarma who, after studying in Britain, works at the community center of the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Summing up his impressions, Way writes:

“What I find so frightening about Khouloud Al Ajarma is not so much her complete lack of self-criticism. It’s not so much her radicalism […] What really frightened me is this: No representative of the UN, who built the schools and community centers in Aida, nor the EU, who gives the refugee camps such as this financial support, nor the employees of all the Western aid agencies and NGOs that are active here- none of them would tell Khouloud straight out that her demands are not only inhuman – because of course they count on the expulsion and disenfranchisement of Jews in Israel, and this is still the most favorable interpretation – but also unrealistic. Not one says, ‘You will not get your demands. Work instead towards a peaceful compromise with the Israelis, advocate for a two-state solution and waive your threatening right to return. Finally take over responsibility for yourself and your own people, build an infrastructure and tear down the refugee camps. Stop getting nannied by the UN and the EU, get a grip on things yourselves.’ No one tells them this because no one thinks that way. No one is bothered by the graffiti, which is found on every house, showing an undivided Palestine and reaffirming the explicit Palestinian claim even over Greater Tel Aviv.”

With her recent speech, EU foreign policy chief Ashton has of course encouraged just the opposite of what Ingo Way rightly described as the only reasonable and realistic approach to promote peaceful coexistence between Israel and a future Palestinian state. But for Ashton, “UNRWA’s work is so special” precisely because it allows Palestinians to hold on to their decades-old rejectionism by helping them to “establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of.” The “sense of identity” Ashton finds so praiseworthy is of course exactly the sense of an aggrieved refugee identity that Khouloud Al Ajarma advocates when she says: “We want no normalization… We want to remain refugees to exercise our right of return one day.”

In view of Ashton’s problematic praise for the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA, there is reason to wonder if it reflects just her own ambivalence to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It is arguably noteworthy in this context that while her speech included a reference to the EU’s commitment to a Palestinian state that “will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours,” she avoided mentioning Israel.

Some may feel that this is making a mountain out of a molehill, but speeches by diplomats are often scrutinized for nuances – and the nuances conveyed in this speech by Europe’s diplomat-in-chief don’t necessarily inspire confidence in Europe’s commitment to the formula of two states for two peoples.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.