The Case for Ending UNRWA: A Review of The War of Return

A few years ago, as I was researching a book about Israel and Palestine, [A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine], I visited a refugee camp in Nablus on the West Bank. Named Balata, it was home to about 25,000 people, all living cheek by jowl in one of the most densely populated places on earth. What had begun in 1950 as a collection of tents for Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation was now a claustrophobic jumble of tall apartment blocks overlooking streets so narrow that when someone died the body would have to be carried across rooftops to remove it. Posters of teenagers with Kalashnikovs looked down from the walls. 

a main street in Belata – UNRWA camp in Nablus

At the entrance of the camp there was a mural featuring a key, symbol of all the hopes for return, not so much for the original residents, who have mostly died, but for their descendants to the third generation who have grown up with the belief that their true home was not in Balata, where you can barely see the sky, but in the sunny beachfront city of Haifa and other villages in what is now Israel. I thought to myself as I walked through the streets, my shoulders brushing against buildings on either side, “Peace, whatever it looks like, has to deal with this.”

In their well-researched and closely-argued new book, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, two figures of the Israeli Left, agree, but the dose of realpolitik they offer involves a total break with the mythos that pervades Palestinian refugee camps like Balata. Their title tells you that their focus is narrow and pointed: The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace. And if that doesn’t make clear their unequivocal stance, the image on the cover underlines it: the key on the mural in Balata (and every other camp wall), broken.

The camps run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are one of the longest-running U.N. undertakings. The camps are dotted around the Mid-east from the West Bank and Gaza, two areas under nominal Palestinian control, to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Millions of refugees are registered in these camps, although many no longer live there, having sought opportunities wherever they could from Kuwait to Chile. But the work of UNRWA goes on.

Most internationally-recognized refugee situations are short-term operations and are usually addressed by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The goal in these situations is to resettle populations displaced by war and conflict, either in their home country or in other receiving nations. This was the situation of millions of Jewish refugees after World War 2 and again after the 1948 war when they were forced out of Arab countries around the Middle East.

Palestinians who fled the land that became Israel were ultimately given a status that no other refugees have, and their own UN agency to ensure its perpetuation. The goal for most of the displaced Palestinians was not resettlement but return. Wilf and Schwartz recount the tension between Western and Arab understandings of UNRWA’s purpose as the 1950s progressed.

It was clear then from UNRWA’s birth and in the following months that two different godparents with competing intentions had been appointed for the same child: the international community, which saw economic rehabilitation and resettlement of the refugees as the only realistic way to end the problem on the one hand; while on the other hand, the Arabs were striving to perpetuate the problem by maintaining an ever-increasing roster of Palestinian “refugees” and keeping the hope of return alive and very present. (78)

Eventually that hope of return became institutionalized, with UNRWA camps nurturing a return ideology. Children and grandchildren were granted refugee status, unlike any other UN-recognized displaced groups. The educational system in the camps reinforced the message. “The Palestinians’ position was actually highly coherent,” the authors say. “Their supreme concern—above any humanitarian considerations—was not to recognize the state of Israel.” (91)

There are a lot of blind spots in this book; the most obvious being the inevitable self-interest that two Israelis have in explaining Palestinian issues. And anyone looking for a balanced look at Israeli and Palestinian approaches to peace will not find it here. Israeli settlements, which are at least as big an obstacle to a two-state solution as the Right of Return, get barely a mention. But then again Wilf and Schwartz don’t pretend to objectivity.

Their concluding chapter is an extended argument for dismantling UNRWA and confronting the Right of Return directly. The authors feel that we are long past the time when Western diplomats could pretend that the Palestinian claims to a sacred right to the homes they left were just a bargaining chip in peace negotiations. “The West needs to craft a clear message and ensure that all its policies and actions are aligned with it. There can be no legitimacy, no support, and no fuel given to the Palestinian demand for return; only full legitimacy, support, and fuel for a moderate Palestinian vision that does not entail the erasing of Israel under any guise.” (181)

Einat Wilf

It’s tempting to write off Israelis like Wilf and Schwartz as hardliners with no sympathy for the Palestinian situation. But they actually represent a very moderate position within Israel, one that is not heard from often enough. They are realists who believe that a two-state solution is still possible, but only if the clear obstacles to peace are dealt with and not down-pedaled in an attempt to reach a fuzzy peace plan. 

Given that Israel seems to be moving ever closer to discouraging options like the annexation of lands that would be part of a future Palestinian state, theirs is a message that deserves a larger platform, even if it treads in uncomfortable territory. But it’s no more uncomfortable than the narrow confines of Belata, constrained as it is in a never-ending narrative of despair.

–Alex Joyner

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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