Ignazio Cassis, Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared on Thursday 17 May 2018 that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is an obstacle to peace in the Middle East as it actively hinders the integration of Palestinian refugees in their host countries. Cassis claimed that the preservation of refugee camps, specifically in Jordan and Lebanon, sustains a “dream of returning home” for Palestinians who reside in them.” He added that the funding of UNRWA by the international community contributes to keeping the conflict alive. He stated, “For a long time UNRWA was the solution to this problem, but today it has become part of the problem. It is unrealistic that all of them [Palestinian refugees] can fulfil this dream. Yet UNRWA keeps this dream alive.” He instead proposed the diversion of funding from UNRWA to host countries in order to foster the integration of Palestinian refugees, a policy which not only disregards the rule of law, but supports the position of the Israeli Prime Minister who called for the termination of UNRWA last month.
BADIL highlights that the main obstacle to solving the Palestinian refugee question has been Israel’s denial of the right return of Palestinian refugees to their homes of origin, an ongoing policy since 1948. Another key obstacle has been the failure of international community to fulfill its responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees enlisted in the numerous UN resolutions adopted since 1948. Unable to return to their homes, Palestinian refugees have been forcibly exiled in neighboring countries. These refugees are not “dreaming” of returning home, they have a right to do so. Their right of return is specifically stated in UNGA Resolution 194 of 1948, which has been approved annually by the UN General Assembly as well as by other international bodies.
UNRWA’s services to Palestinian refugees are not sustaining the present conflict; rather, responsibility lies with the Israeli policies denying Palestinian refugees the right to return home, in contravention of international law. And as long as they remain displaced, Palestinian refugees have a right to humanitarian assistance. UNRWA was established in 1950to provide relief to Palestinian refugees; it has never been mandated to seek solutions to the conflict. The UN Agency that was established to fulfil such duty, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), has been inactive since the 1950s, leaving Palestinian refugees with no international agency mandated to seek durable solutions.
Accusing UNRWA of keeping the conflict alive is ignoring the root cause of the problem and disregarding Israel’s central role in it. The redirection of funds from UNRWA to host countries in an attempt to integrate Palestinian refugees is not a strategy aimed at improving the well-being of those refugees nor at ending the conflict, it is a move that aims to put the Palestinian refugee issue to rest. This strategy is intricately linked to the demise of UNRWA, which serves as a reminder of the international community’s failure to find a viable solution for the world’s largest and longest standing displaced population. Palestinian refugees today comprise two thirds of the total Palestinian population, around 7.5 million, the majority of whom still live less than 100 kilometers away from their homes of origin.
Cassis’ statement that “it is unrealistic that all of them can fulfil this dream” represents both a complete disregard of the Palestinian right of return, by referring to it as a dream rather than an internationally recognized right, and also an implicit acceptance of Israel’s refusal to recognize this right. The reason the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes of origin could be considered “unrealistic” is because Israel enjoys complete impunity for its illegal actions and bares no consequences for its continuous denial of Palestinian refugees’ right to return. It is not a matter of space, geography, or logistics, but rather politics: the unwillingness of both Israel and the international community to recognize and realize the rights of Palestinian refugees.
We conclude this letter by reminding the international community, including Switzerland, of its obligation to provide protection and seek durable solutions for Palestinian refugees. We also remind the international community that the right to reparations, including return, of Palestinian refugees is an internationally recognized right and that Israel’s denial of return is not only illegal, but fuels further displacement in light of the lack of accountability for its actions. If Switzerland and other countries genuinely care about ending the Palestinian refugee issue and the resulting conflict in the Middle East, they should start by ensuring respect for international law, ensuring the realization of the basic rights of everyone involved, including Palestinian refugees, and putting an end to the ongoing violations of such rights.