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The Palestinian refugees: ending their lingering plight

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Monday, 20 October 2014


During the donor conference held in Cairo a few days ago, the US, EU, and other countries pledged $2.7 billion for reconstruction in Gaza. It is undoubtedly necessary to make such a humanitarian effort to rebuild the shattered lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who suffered the most as a result of the last violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas. That said, regardless of how admirable this financial commitment may be, the fact that it was not linked in any way to the peace process, and in particular to solving the most acute and endemic problem of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza, is another gross missed opportunity.

The Palestinian refugee problem, especially those who live in their homeland-the West Bank and Gaza-remains as one of the thorniest problems preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. A dignified solution is what the refugees deserve to restore their self-esteem – not a continuing handout to perpetuate a life-long stigma.

It is nothing short of a travesty to allow another generation of Palestinians to grow up in a state of limbo, only so their corrupt leaders can ride on their backs and cry wolf about their plight while shamelessly enjoying the good life.

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The statistics are startling; according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of registered refugees in Gaza is 1,240,082 out of a total population of 1.5 million, and 754,411 are registered in the West Bank (out of a population of 2.4 million).

Any Palestinian 50 years old or younger was born in the West Bank and Gaza; this represents more than 80 percent of the population in these two areas. In the refugee camps, over 50 percent of the inhabitants are under the age of 25. Only 30,000 are original refugees.

No efforts have been made to resolve the tragic refugee problem on its own since 1948. Instead, it has been exploited at the expense of innocent men, women, and children, who have been mislead, mistreated, marginalized, and used as sacrificial lambs only to feed the insatiable hunger for power of their misguided and self-absorbed leaders.

In what was initially a disastrous event, the 1948 exodus turned into a Greek tragedy, festering over time and engulfing innocent souls. Since then, the refugees have multiplied nearly sevenfold, with many living under subhuman conditions which serve as incubators for militancy and violence, which Hamas in particular seeks to cultivate.

Many countries have played a role in contributing to the prolongation of the Palestinian refugees' plight.

UNRWA in particular is guilty of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis. It was established by the UNGA in December 1949, and its mandate to care for the refugees is renewed every three years; the current extension runs until June 30th 2017.

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The agency employs more than 25,000 workers and has developed a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the refugees in order to remain relevant. Moreover, since the vast majority of UN member states do not want to appear as being unsupportive of the refugees, UNRWA's mandate has consistently been renewed for more than six decades.

Out of the top 20 donors to UNRWA, 15 are western countries or organizations. Western European countries keep providing monetary assistance for humanitarian reasons, but this only protracts the refugees' humanitarian plight instead of promoting their permanent resettlement.

The United States continues to acquiesce to the status quo and became an enabler, which has inadvertently prevented a humane solution to the refugees for decades.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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