UNRWA Chief’s Bizarre Views on the Conflict

Pierre Kräehenbüehl, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, was interviewed by Colm Ó Mongain on RTE’s ‘This Week’ current affairs radio show on  June 19th. The interview largely focused on the rebuttal of a Syrian NGO’s claims recently, in which it is charged that the Assad regime has undue control of UN aid distribution in Syria. This is not the first time that such claims of political partiality were made. However, Kräehenbüehl argued that the real alternative was to disengage from the region.

Kräehenbüehl made some interesting admissions on the status of Arab-Palestinian refugees, however. Early in the interview, he described the Arab-Palestinians as “a refugee community since 1948,” adding that:

“I think for UNRWA it is indeed necessary to continuously remind the people of what it means to have been a refugee community for so long. And at the end of the day, something that isn’t very well known, is that the Palestine refugees represent 40% of the world-wide long-term refugees.”

Arab-Palestinian refugees may represent such a large percentile of long-term refugees because they are afforded a unique status as having an ever-lasting status even if they obtain citizenship elsewhere, where their status passes onto the descendants of actual refugees. They are also afforded a  uniquely liberal definition – the UNRWA definition includes residents who merely lived in British Mandate Palestine between 1946 and 1948 and became dispossessed as a result of the conflict.

Kräehenbüehl went on to praise the efforts of the UNRWA in Syria. His statement suggests UNRWA refugees are afforded better treatment than the Syrian populace, which only comes a under the protection of the broader UN refugee agency if they flee to Lebanon or Jordan:

“Its clear that through the provision of regular services such as education and healthcare, we have been a contributor to giving the Palestine refugees at least the choice, its not a guarantee, but a choice to stay in the region.”

Latterly, Kräehenbüehl contends that the “moderate paths” toward a peace-solution have been rebuffed by Israel. This is a rather bizarre claim given the trenchant extremism within Arab-Palestinian society, for which UNRWA has played no small role. With particular reference to Gaza, which prompted Kräehenbüehl’s response, the people he serves in the region chose to elect Hamas on a continued mandate of strife with Israel, a decade ago – is this the moderate path to which Kräehenbüehl refers? The reason for an embargo that limits Arab-Palestinian mobility is clear: sustained conflict by belligerent non-state actors.

“[T]here is just simply no political horizon – and that is very very serious because it measn that young people loose hope and faith in the possibility that  negotiated process lead to an outcome. They were told that there would be a reward at the end of the way if they chose moderate paths. There has been no such reward in terms of a Palestinian state, so of course that horizon seems closed. That the world has to pay attention to, and re-engage in, and I think one of the things I encounter time and time again during my visits in Europe and elsewhere, in capitals, is a sort of sense of skepticism about the possibility to achieve results. It is exactly that skeptical attitude that has brought us where we are, and Europe has to understand that if one doesn’t address, not just manage, but resolve conflicts in the Middle East, the spill-overs that we saw last summer, in terms of movements of people, will continue.”

In the above quote, Kräehenbüehl appears to argue, when taken in context, that the kind of mass Syrian influxes into the West, could also become a normative phenomenon for Arab-Palestinians due presumably to the Israeli-Jewish/Arab-Islamic conflict. Unfortunately, the remarks were again left unchallenged by the RTE interviewer.


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