Before traveling through Israel, Jordan, and Egypt last fall, I selected native-born guides from each country in order to get both a historical and cultural perspective of their land and people. My two Jordanian guides were Palestinians who were well-travelled, articulate, and educated. Surprisingly, one guide lived in the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp 10 miles north of Amman. He spoke fluent German and had moved to Germany for 10 years before returning to live in the Baqa’a refugee camp where he worked as a German-speaking Jordanian tour guide.
The Baqa’a camp houses 100,000 Palestinian ‘refugees’ and was set up 50 years ago as an emergency shelter to house displaced persons from Gaza and the West Bank. I asked both my tour guides why educated and gainfully employed Palestinians live in what I assumed to be the squalor of a refugee camp. The two answers they gave me were both surprising and heart breaking.
First they told me that many educated and wealthy families lived in Baqa’a and other refugee camps. Having a coveted spot in the Baqa’a refugee camp is of great value to them, and their homes are passed down in their families from generation to generation. The refugee camps are run by UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) which was created in 1949. UNRWA provides exclusive healthcare and educational aid to five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants. UNRWA also provides Palestinians with many social services like food, housing, utilities, cash, financing, and other “safety nets” in much the same way the US Welfare system works.
The UNWRA agency has a unique business model which budgets $245 per Palestinian refugee compared to $58 per non-Palestinian refugee from other UN refugee agencies. It also employees 30,000 Palestinians. This number of Palestinian refugees is five times larger than the UN High Commission for Refugees which serves all other refugees in the world. It is not in this agency’s political or financial interest to assimilate the Palestinians into the general population and close their refugee camps as other UN-run refugee camps have done. If they did close UNRWA, 30,000 Palestinians would have to look elsewhere for jobs, and the Palestinians’ bargaining chip in making peace with Israel would be weakened. Therefore, UNRWA doesn’t focus on resettling and rehabilitating refugees as other refugee camps do, but rather on providing services to maintain the status quo.
The UN general assembly continues to renew UNWRA’s mandate each year even though UNWRA is the only UN agency that exclusively serves Palestinians and the only UN agency which provides benefits for descendants of refugees, a benefit unprecedented in the history of refugee camps anywhere in the world. What started out as 700,000 refugees in 1949 has grown to more than 5,000,000 refugees due to UNWRA’S unprecedented ability to count descendants as refugees. No other refugee agency in the world does this.
The second and possibly the most disturbing reason my guides gave me for Palestinians to still live in refugee camps is the refugee families are afraid if they assimilated with general populations, after a few generations, their children and grandchildren would forget they are a displaced people who belong in Israel. By living in the refugee camps, they are able to foment this feeling of victimhood and contempt for Israelis and pass this feeling on from generation to generation. My German speaking guide angrily told me he still carries the key to the front door of the home where his grandfather lived in the West Bank. The key was his daily reminder of the injustice he felt and his hatred for Israelis.
With UNRWA taking care of the Palestinians’ practical needs and Palestinians’ desire to pass on their feeling of contempt for Jews and Israelis, there’s little incentive for Palestinians to become self-sufficient. The “emergency” shelters provided to the Palestinians 70 years ago are still growing in spite of the fact that few of the refugees have ever lived in Israel. Refugees are taught they are victims of the Zionists and it will be Allah’s Will one day to allow them to return to their rightful land. While Jordanians and Israelis live a relatively peaceful co-existence, the contempt for the Israelis and Jews by the Palestinians and the mistrust of the Palestinians and Jordanians by the Israelis is never far below the surface.
As long as UNRWA exists, we will have no settlement on the peace issue. The world knows this but has done nothing about it. Until, that is, the Trump administration said UNRWA is part of the problem and not part of the solution. While some feel closing UNRWA will cause instability in the region, there are other organizations like the UN Development Program (UNDP) available to provide humanitarian services.
UNRWA is a ticking time bomb that if not diffused, will blow up in our faces. We are at a historical crossroad. The Trump administration now refuses to fund organizations that act against the national security interests of the US. UNRWA acts against the national security interests of all countries, including the US, that want a peaceful Middle East solution.
UNRWA minimizes any incentive to solve the Palestinian refugee issue and continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to future peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. The time has come close UNRWA and assimilate Palestinians into other countries as every other refugee group in the history of the world has done. Unless the ticking UNRWA time bomb is closed, you can expect Palestinian refugees and the descendants of their descendants to continue to extend the dubious distinction of being our world’s oldest refugees.