by Hugh Fitzgerald
Experts have reacted with surprise and consternation to Swiss foreign affairs minister Ignazio Cassis’ comments that the United Nations’ aid work for Palestinian refugees is a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East.
So long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they can dream of returning home, Cassis said in an interview published in several Swiss newspapers on Thursday, which came after his first official trip to Jordan. Five million Palestinian refugees currently live in such camps, with aid and protection provided by the UNRWA.
“He said that UNRWA had become part of the problem rather than the solution and it supplied the ammunition to continue the conflict. “By supporting the UNRWA, we keep the conflict alive. It’s a perverse logic,” Cassis said. He called for the integration of long-term refugees in their countries of residence.
Ignazio Cassis, having seen for himself the “Palestinians” kept in camps, understood the cruel hypocrisy of the situation: the Arab countries deliberately keep the “Palestinians” in camps, do not allow them to become citizens (save for a brief period in Jordan), nor to enjoy full access to higher education, nor to enter certain professions, all in order to keep them in harshly constrained conditions, prevented from integrating into their host countries, so that their own resentment of Israel is kept at a boiling point, and at the same time, in those UNRWA-run camps, their wretched state is a constant reminder to the “international community” of the “plight of the Palestinians.” No one, and especially no one at UNRWA, wants it to be known that the other Arabs are to blame for the condition of the “Palestinians” in the camps.
Decades ago Ralph Galloway, former director of UN aid to the Palestinians in Jordan, summarized this situation succinctly. He wrote that
“The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.” (quoted in The Palestinians: People, History, Politics by Terence Prittie, p. 71)
And another voice, from a time when truth-telling about the matter was still possible, is that of Elfan Rees, the World Council of Churches’ Adviser on Refugees, who declared in 1957:
“I hold the view that, political issues aside, the Arab refugee problem is by far the easiest post-war refugee problem to solve by integration. By faith, language, race and by social organisation they are indistinguishable from their fellows of their host countries. There is room for them in Syria and Iraq [and even more room, and need, now, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil states]. There is a developing demand for the kind of manpower they represent. More unusually still, there is the money to make this integration possible. The United Nations General Assembly, five years ago, donated a sum of $200,000,000 to provide, and here I quote the phrase “homes and jobs” for the Arab refugees. That money remains unspent, not because these tragic people are strangers in a strange land — because they are not, not because there is no room for them to be established — because there is, but simply for political reasons.”
Elfan Rees wrote before the OPEC oil bonanza reached its zenith. Since 1973 alone, the Arab states of OPEC have received $25 trillion dollars; they could easily pay for closing down the “refugee” camps in other Arab states (there is not a single such camp in the Gulf oil states themselves) and for building more than decent housing for “Palestinians” where those camps formerly stood — or indeed, wherever in the Middle East or North Africa such housing might be welcome. But as Elfan Rees wrote, this won’t be done, because of “political reasons.”
Ignazio Cassis saw the camps in Jordan, and understood that UNRWA is a major part of the problem: it contributes to keeping the “Palestinians” in the camps, keeping their false and vengeful narrative alive, preventing them from integrating, as they so easily could if allowed to do so by their host countries.
“So long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they can dream of returning home.”
Cassis said that UNRWA had become part of the problem rather than the solution and it supplied the ammunition to continue the conflict. “By supporting the UNRWA, we keep the conflict alive. It’s a perverse logic,” Cassis said. He called for the integration of long-term refugees in their countries of residence.
What was the response? From supporters of UNRWA, which is overwhelmingly staffed by “Palestinians” and headed by their European sympathizers, there was horror that someone should dare to tell the truth about UNRWA’s main function, which is not to help the refugees but to keep them from integrating, so that the conflict with Israel can be kept alive, and the world can see the “Palestinians” as a group permanently deserving of sympathy, with so few understanding that those maltreating them are not the Israelis, but the Arabs of their host countries, and UNRWA itself, help keep them in a state of dependency.
Former Swiss diplomat to the Middle East Yves Besson – and a former UNRWA director – told swissinfo.ch that he was astonished by these comments. “The UNRWA is today the last vestige of the international community’s interest in the Palestinians and their refugees. What’s more, these comments are anything but neutral: this argument will be of service to Israel and the United States.”
Besson was “astonished” because truths about UNRWA must not be told, and here is Ignazio Cassis, the Foreign Minister of Switzerland fresh from touring a camp in Jordan, doing exactly that, undercutting decades of carefully-tended propaganda by, and for, UNRWA. When Besson claims that “UNRWA is today the last vestige of the international community’s interest in the Palestinians and their refugees,” what can he be talking about? The “Palestinians” are hardly in danger of neglect, with only UNRWA as the “last vestige of.the international community’s interest” in the “Palestinian” refugees. In fact, they receive far more sympathetic attention at the U.N. than any other people or group in the world. Consider, for example, that from its creation in June 2006 through June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted 135 resolutions criticizing countries; 68 out of those 135 resolutions were against Israel (more than 50%). And from 2012 through 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 97 resolutions criticizing countries; 83 out of those 97, or 86%, were against Israel (86%). That’s some last vestige.
Notice that Besson finds Cassis’ comments “anything but neutral,” that “this argument [about UNRWA helping to prolong the Arab-Israeli conflict] “will be of service to Israel and the United States.” We can’t have that, of course. Mustn’t say anything, even if you believe it to be true, even if it is true, that could help the United States or Israel. To be “neutral,” you have to limit yourself to remarks that will help the “Palestinians” and the Cause of Palestine. That’s what neutrality is all about.
Besson added that, during the Oslo peace process, the Palestinians had not called for the effective return of millions of Palestinians, but the recognition of Israel’s responsibility towards the 700,000 Palestinians who fled in 1948.
Cassis shows little concern for these people who rely on their origin and right and [sic] return – even if they would necessarily not use it,” said Besson.
Besson wants us to believe that when the “Palestinians” demand the Right of Return, as they have been doing quite violently during their six-week Great March of Return in Gaza, they don’t really mean it, because they did not call for it during that ill-fated “Oslo peace process.” But they certainly are calling for it now. Everything we know about the “Palestinians” shows that they mean what they say when they make their maximalist demands. They intend, if they can, to return to claim houses, communities, towns that their grandparents came from in what is present-day Israel, and intend, too, to dispossess the Jews. This will take place by degrees. They hope, for now, to gradually overcome the Jews of Israel, not through military means, but demographically.
Cassis is being accused of showing “little concern” for the inhabitants of the camps, but it is he, in fact, who who shows real concern for real people. He doesn’t think the “Palestinian” refugees should be barred from citizenship and full participation in the life of their current host countries; he doesn’t think they should be forced to live in camps; he doesn’t think they should be barred from certain professions. It is Cassis, and not his outraged critics, who is truly sympathetic to the “Palestinian” refugees. He wants to end their exploitation as political pawns, kept in camps so as to ensure that their “Palestinian” sense of grievance against Israel does not diminish, and to keep the world’s sympathy for, and focus on, their cause.
Riccardo Bocco, Middle East expert at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, agrees. “We should not confuse the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948 with the solution found for the Palestinian refugees. And the situation for Palestinian refugees is different depending on the country they are in. Who is advising Cassis?
Riccardo Bocco does not tell us what he thinks the “origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948” was, but perhaps we can help him out: the origin of that conflict was the absolute refusal of Muslim Arabs to countenance an Infidel-run state smack in the middle of Arabdom, on land that was once possessed by, and therefore must always belong to, Muslim Arabs. Still worse, those Infidels were the despised Jews. The 1948 war was a Jihad by military means; the Jihad against Israel has continued ever since, carried out through warfare (1956, 1967, 1973), terrorism (both inside and outside Israel), diplomacy (as at the U.N.), economic warfare (boycotts), and propaganda (billions of dollars spent, with great success, to blacken Israel’s name).
Bocco’s comment about the “Palestinian” refugees being treated differently in different countries is not quite true. In all Arab countries save Jordan, they are denied the right of citizenship; in Jordan, some of the refugees had citizenship granted but it was then taken away; their status in Jordan remains insecure, and can depend on which part of Palestine their ancestors came from. They are in all of their host countries deprived of full access to higher education and prevented from entering certain professions. There is less difference in their treatment than Bocco would have you believe.
Speaking to the Le Temps daily, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Swiss current head of the UNRWA, did not want to wade directly into the debate around the comments. “Switzerland has until now given excellent support to the UNRWA,” he told the newspaper. This collaboration includes a good number of “innovative projects” which help the organisation to “reinvent itself”.
On the question of whether the UNRWA is an “obstacle” in the peace process in the region, Krähenbühl said: “We don’t have the same perspective on the issue.” “From our point of view, UNRWA,is not part of the fundamental issues which explains why there is no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added. “If you look at what has happened in the Middle East, our role as provider of humanitarian assistance, medical work and training has increased in importance.”
UNRWA has not “reinvented” itself in any significant way: it still does not oppose, but collaborates with the Arab governments that want those refugees kept in camps and prevented from integrating. UNRWA’s main purpose is to keep UNRWA itself going, to keep the mass of the “Palestinians” within the closed circle of the camps, made permanently dependent economically on UNRWA, unable even to attempt to break that dependency, given the limits on their educational and vocational possibilities and, as non-citizens, their lack of political rights.
When Krähenbühl claims that UNRWA is “not part of the fundamental issues which explains why there is no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he is wrong. There is “no resolution” to the conflict because the Arabs do not want one; for them, no compromise could possibly be permanent. UNRWA keeps the flame of resentment and murderous revenge in “Palestinian” hearts alight, and acts as the advocate for the “Palestinian” side, making sure that Israel (which long ago integrated the 900,000 Jews who fled Arab lands) is blamed for the “plight” of the “Palestinians” who are kept in camps, quite unnecessarily, by Arab leaders, including their own.
Reaction from politicians was mixed. Christian Imark of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party told the SRF public radio that Cassis’ statement was a “step in the right direction.” Social Democrat Cornelio Sommaruga, however, said he was shocked and announced he would raise the issue during next month’s summer session of parliament.
For its part, the Swiss Foreign Affairs ministry told swissinfo.ch in a written statement: “The Foreign Affairs ministry has nothing to add to the comments that Minister Cassis made in the Aargauer Zeitung.”
Ignazio Cassis has done something rare in the annals of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. He has spoken the truth. Cassis openly recognized that UNRWA is an obstacle to peace. It helps to keep the conflict alive, for UNRWA fosters a climate of angry dependency among the “Palestinian” refugees. UNRWA makes no effort to convince the host countries to offer citizenship to the “Palestinians” in the camps. Nor does it try to get the host countries to allow the “Palestinians” to move out of the camps, or to have the same access to higher education, or to be able to practice the professions, as their own citizens enjoy. UNRWA also uses an extraordinarily expansive definition of a “Palestinian” refugee, to include all those who are descended from someone who once lived in Palestine. Even if your parents and grandparents were born, lived, and died outside of Palestine, you will be considered a “Palestinian refugee” by UNRWA as long as someone among your ancestors — your great-grandfather, or great great-grandfather — lived in Palestine. This definition is applied to no other group of refugees on earth. UNRWA staffers have also managed to keep on its rolls “Palestinians” who have died; that’s why the numbers of those who are dependent on UNRWA for food, clothing, education, housing, health care, continue inexorably to rise. And naturally the sums allotted to UNRWA continue to rise as well.
For having described UNRWA as a part of the problem, Ignazio Cassis has been raked over the coals. He has “shocked” Yves Besson, a former Swiss diplomat and director of UNRWA, and Riccardo Bocco, a Middle East “expert” in Geneva, and Christian Krähenbühl, the current director of UNRWA.
Cassis caused “surprise and consternation” among these Swiss “experts,” former diplomats, directors and heads of UNRWA; among the Arabs he caused rage. The Swiss president Alain Berset was quick to distance himself:
President Alain Berset says there is no change in Swiss policy on the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, which remains a strategic partner for Switzerland.
He was speaking on Friday after a meeting with foreign minister Ignazio Cassis, who caused outcry on Thursday by saying that the United Nations’ aid work for Palestinian refugees is a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East.
Berset said UNRWA “plays an essential role for stability in the region and the fight against radicalisation”. But he said that as a donor it was legitimate for Switzerland to join the debate on the agency’s future.
Will Ignazio Cassis, and the forces of reason, prevail over those who want to continue to exploit the “Palestinians” confined to their UNRWA-staffed camps, so as to make peace between Israelis and “Palestinians” ever more unlikely? Swiss President Alain Berset did distance himself from Cassis’s remarks, but not perhaps to the extent the Arabs expected. He noted, as his parting remark, that it was “legitimate” for Switzerland to “join the debate” on UNRWA’s future. This suggests that he is not dismissive of Cassis. He wants that debate. In the frozen wastes of the U.N.’s policy on Israel and the “Palestinians,” that’s a sign of a not impossible thaw. For Israelis, and for those “Palestinians” stuck in camps who would like to improve their own lives by being accepted as citizens by their Arab hosts, it can’t come soon enough.
First published in Jihad Watch.
I'm actually personal friends with a "Palestinian" who totally agrees with Cassis. He resents the Arab abuse and exploitation of his fellows and sincerely respects Israel and esteems Jews. The irony is that if one takes away the jihadist imperative and its accompanying intolerance, not only the refugees, but all of the states in the region could be integrated into a regional polity with access and physical security for everyone.