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Refugees: The Ticking Time Bomb

Avi Friedman

While many of the 4.7 million people defined by the UN as Palestinian refugees have found permanent homes, some 1.4 million still dwell in teeming refugee camps in Israel and the Middle East. After generations of squalid living conditions and a steady diet of hate, these refugees view next week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood as the first step toward a right of return. Has the UN perpetrated a culture of Palestinian victimhood and resentment?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Aida refugee camp is dusty and hot on a sweltering summer day. A young boy rides a bicycle down a narrow alley, but there is little other movement and very little noise. Like Jerusalem and Hevron, each less than thirty minutes’ drive from here, the roads here are narrow and conditions are tight, but unlike  hose ancient cities, the alleyways of the Aida refugee camp have no charm.
The gate to the camp is crowned with a massive key. In Palestinian parlance, the key is an icon of resistance, symbolizing the homes that the children and grandchildren of refugees from Israel’s1948 War of Independence plan to return to in their struggle for the right of return. The houses here are plain and simple. Services appear to be no more than functional, at least from the outside, and stand in sharp contrast to the super-posh Intercontinental Hotel that backs onto the camp. Of course, the hotel is also an oasis of luxury when compared to the surrounding neighborhoods of Bethlehem.

Compared to the Shuafat refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalemon a slope
between the Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Zeev and French Hill, Aida looks
like paradise. There, the stench of rotting garbage in the summer sun attacks
the senses as soon as one arrives, and remains throughout a visit to the camp.
The barely paved roads seem to have more potholes than smooth surface. In
contrast to Aida, the overcrowding here is palpable immediately: Estimates of
the total camp population range from 35,000 to 65,000 people, in approximately
1.5 square miles; and, as Shuafat is located within Jerusalem’s
municipal borders, most residents carry Jerusalem
identity cards. At least half are not registered as refugees.

Both camps are part of a fifty-nine-camp network established to house
Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in
1948. Education, health, and relief services are provided to registered
refugees by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees
(UNRWA), which leased land from the governments of Jordan,
Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon in the 1950s to create the

In a region where loyalties — and suspicions — run deep and absolute,
there is no organization that arouses more ire on the part of many pro-Israel
advocates, who say that UNRWA is now the largest nongovernmental organization
(NGO) in the Middle East and that it promulgates everything from “refugeeism”
among the children and grandchildren of 1948 refugees, to active support for
Hamas and suicide bombers.

Today, UNRWA bears little resemblance to the temporary relief arm of the
United Nations that was formed in 1950 to provide aid to refugees from the 1948
War of Independence. From an original budget of $33.7 million that was used
mainly to distribute food and healthcare to refugees living in tent cities in
Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, UNRWA now has an annual budget of more than
$1.1 billion, and the organization employs 24,000 workers to attend to the
needs of an estimated population of 4.5 million registered refugees — from an
estimated 400,000 to 700,000 who initially abandoned their homes — in camps
located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Judea and Samaria.

In contrast, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
the agency tasked with resolving all other refugee problems worldwide, employs
a quarter of that staff for nearly three times the number of refugees — approximately
6,300 staff to care for a population of 11.4 million refugees worldwide.

The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing the UNHCR spells out that a
refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group,
or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable
to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of
that country.” Since then, UNHCR has offered protection and assistance to tens
of millions of refugees, finding durable solutions for many of them.

Why, then, does the Palestinian refugee issue continue to exist? If the
UNHCR prides itself on having found durable solutions, how is it that UNRWA
hasn’t managed to use its resources to create a better future for its
constituents, instead of relegating the descendants of refugees to another
generation of poverty and rebellion?

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