It’s the same old tune – renewed discussion about “reconstructing and redeveloping” the Gaza Strip. Again people are talking about some kind of “arrangement” for managing Gaza’s reconstruction, whether under Egyptian, Qatari or American auspices. There’s more talk of huge investments in a port and in water and power infrastructures, and about creating jobs.
Wasted efforts, all. They’re doomed to fail, the same as all the other reconstruction attempts in recent years. As long as the political land mine at the heart of the matter – the perpetuation of the status of Gaza’s residents as refugees from “Palestine” – is not defused, there’s no real possibility for rebuilding and developing the Gaza Strip.
The problem is that Gaza’s inhabitants do not view that piece of land as their home, but rather as a transit camp they will inhabit until the day they can return to what they believe is their home. Because of this, they will far prefer to invest their efforts and resources in returning to their “true” home – by force if necessary – than in cultivating the temporary one where they currently reside.
Of the 1.8 million people living in Gaza, 1.3 million are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In other words, three-quarters of the people in the Strip possess a status that is by definition temporary in character – one granted to someone who is between permanent residence in one locale and permanent habitation in a second place.
When UNRWA was established, in the wake of the 1947-1949 war, it spent its first few years in an earnest effort to assist the Arab refugees from the war (the Jewish ones were taken care of by the newly established State of Israel) in rebuilding their lives in their new locations, whether in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon or Syria. But within a few short years, it became painfully clear that neither the Palestinians themselves, nor the Arab host countries were willing to let this process take place, as it would legitimize the outcome of the war in the form of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Having failed to prevent the vote on partition in the UN General Assembly, or prevent partition itself and the birth of Israel through war and military invasions, the Palestinians and the Arab host states mobilized to turn the demand for “return” to Israel into one of the central means by which the outcome of the war, in the form of a sovereign state for the Jewish people, could be undone. To that end, UNRWA then was taken over by the Palestinians, becoming an organization that would grant them the official status of “refugees” until that day of “return.”
These 1.3 million refugees, some of whom are the fifth generation of Palestinian families who arrived in the Strip in 1948, long for the moment when they will be able to return to their ancestral homes (most of which do not exist anymore) in Ashdod, Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva, and believe that this moment is possible and close at hand. Their dream – and that of their brethren in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – has coalesced into a collective demand whose import was and continues to be a continuing war on Israel by other means. Clinging to the dream of return makes it possible for the Palestinians not to accept the consequences of their defeat, and to believe that even if they lost a few battles, the overall war against Zionism still isn’t over.
Still, there’s a tangible difference between dreams and the demands that are nurtured by international support under UN sanction. The State of Israel cannot exert a direct influence on the Palestinian dream of return, but it can definitely act to deny the dream the fuel that sustains it, and that fuel comes from the West.
Under the influence of various interests in the Arab world, the international community became complicit in the process of leaving so many Palestinians in a legal, social and economic limbo, awaiting “return.” The West in particular, providing the bulk of the funds for UNRWA’s operations, unwittingly became the central source of sustenance for the Palestinian idea that it is better to continue to struggle for “return” rather than come to terms with the legitimacy of Israel and build a new life of prosperity in the West Bank and Gaza.
This has to change. Israel can and should intervene with UNRWA’s donor countries – the United States, Australia, Britain and the European Union – and insist that they cease and desist from supporting the Palestinian demand to annihilate Israel, by way of their support for UNRWA. Countries that officially support the two-state solution cannot underwrite an organization whose aim is to ensure that the Jewish people, as a people, will not have a sovereign state.
UNRWA’s essence involves making it clear to the more than 70 percent of Gaza inhabitants registered as refugees, that Gaza is not their true home. It does so by providing the political infrastructure that grants Palestinians the status of “refugees,” which they would not otherwise merit if international standards were applied to them; by passing this status on to their descendants automatically and in perpetuity, while opposing any effort to find solutions for those registered as “refugees,” other than in the context of the collective demand for “return.” It is this that UNRWA often refers to by the code words “just solution” and “legitimate rights,” of which it calls itself the protector. UNRWA makes it clear to the “refugees” in Gaza (and in all of its other areas of operations) that their “true home,” wrested from them by force, lies across the border. People who grow up with that belief will assuredly use cement, when given it, not to build permanent homes, but to dig tunnels to the place which, as far as they are concerned, is their real home.
It is not only parents and grandparents who cultivate this dream. Every day, residents go into the streets of Gaza and see UNRWA signs on the schools and clinics that the organization operates. They read those signs to mean that the UN – that is, the world community – recognizes them as refugees and encourages their “return” to Israel.
The chances of reconstructing and developing the Gaza Strip will be greater without UNRWA, and even if some benefit accrues to cooperation with the UN organization in Gaza, it is far outweighed by the damage the agency has wrought. Ever since 1967, when Israel’s security establishment chose to cooperate with UNRWA and enable its ongoing operations in the West Bank and Gaza, it has argued that UNRWA is a moderating force, without whose education and healthcare services greater violence would prevail. But given that in Gaza and Lebanon, where UNRWA’s operations are most extensive, and the ratio of Palestinians served by UNRWA who still live in refugee camps is the greatest (50 percent as compared to 25 percent in the West Bank, and 18 percent in Jordan) – the time has come to ask how many Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed in the rounds of fighting in Gaza and Lebanon because of the extreme terrorist elements that the refugee-camp culture there has spawned.
Israel has declared preventing aggravation of the situation in Gaza as a security interest, and it still operates on the assumption that it is not possible to aid the Strip without UNRWA, which is helping to prevent a humanitarian disaster there. Indeed, because UNRWA has succeeded in concealing its political raison d’etre of sustaining the Palestinian demand for “return” designed to undo Israel, and it has done so under a humanitarian guise – it enjoys cooperation from Israel as well as international funding. In Gaza the organization has also become, in good part thanks to Israel, the principal conduit for the international aid that is supposed to be used to rebuild the Gaza Strip.
That is a mistake: UNRWA cannot be a true and sincere partner in Gaza’s reconstruction. On the contrary: The fact that UNRWA is a major actor in the attempts to rebuild Gaza plays a decisive part in the repeated failure of those efforts.
Perhaps Israel cannot take away the Palestinians’ dream to return to Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, but at the very least it can and should take action to terminate international support for the agency that stokes that dream. As such, it is necessary first and foremost to recognize the fact that the damage caused to Israel by UNRWA’s continued existence dwarfs any tactical advantage it may offer.
No place for cooperation
It is possible, however, to preserve Israel’s security interests while aiding in the development of Gaza and preventing further deterioration of living conditions and growing extremism.
First, Israel must demand that every international move to rebuild and develop the Gaza Strip be accompanied by clear declarations on the part of the donor countries, certainly the Western ones, that they do not recognize the claim that the residents of Gaza are refugees from Palestine. On the contrary, Israel must demand that the donor countries assert that, because Gaza is part of Palestine, and because Israel has no territorial claims on it – all residents of Gaza are Palestinian Gazans and they have no right to make claims to the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, or demand “return” by virtue of their being registered as “refugees” from Palestine. They already live in Palestine.
It is time to tell the Palestinians loud and clear: There is no “right” of “return” and there never will be. The future of the Gazans is in Gaza. There will be no Arab Palestine from the sea to the river. There can be an Arab Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank, but certainly not one that supersedes Israel. In fact, the price of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is forgoing any claims to an Arab Palestine in the rest of the territory where Israel exists.
Second, Israel itself must announce the termination of its voluntary cooperation with UNRWA in the Gaza Strip. The fact that Israel did cooperate for so long stems from decades of shortsightedness, during which such cooperation seemed to be providing quiet. But that “quiet” was ultimately bought at a bloody cost, due to the conflict’s prolongation and exacerbation.
If an arrangement becomes possible in which the Palestinian Authority is once more the main administrative factor in Gaza, it can become the principal channel for aid. The countries that donate to UNRWA will be able to transfer the hundreds of millions of dollars they now give to UNRWA annually directly to the PA to benefit UNRWA hospitals and schools. Nothing will change in terms of the actual provision of services – only the sign outside the buildings. The UNRWA school will become the school of the PA, but students, teachers and curriculum will remain the same. Likewise for the hospitals. The Palestinians are likely to continue teaching in those schools that all of Palestine is exclusively theirs, but they would no longer do so under the aegis of the UN.
Such steps will show that Israel does not object to the services being provided in a manner that helps build an infrastructure for a functioning Palestinian state, but does object to their provision through an organization that is actively preserving the dream of Israel’s destruction.
If the PA is unable to operate in Gaza, aid should be transferred through a new and apolitical umbrella organization whose only purpose would be the reconstruction and development of the Strip. Israel would declare its willingness to take far-reaching actions on behalf of this effort, but make them conditional on the establishment of the new organization and transfer of all of UNRWA’s activity to this organization, whose operations would not involve granting refugee status to its clients.
If the United Nations is capable of acting instantaneously to dispatch rescue operations to disaster areas around the world, and to assist earthquake victims in Haiti or tsunami victims in Southeast Asia without necessarily classifying them as refugees, it is also capable of doing so in Gaza.
Another possibility is for the Western donor countries to act in conjunction with other humanitarian organizations already operating in Gaza, such as USAID, UNICEF and others. Every one of these groups is preferable to UNRWA, because UNRWA links the humanitarian aid that Gaza needs to its own political support for the idea of “return,” and this only precludes the possibility of any future conciliation between the peoples.
The rebuilding process must be based on the simple insight that those who live in the Gaza Strip will themselves invest their efforts and resources in the Strip only if they believe that their future lies there. Therefore, it is out of the question to entrust rebuilding efforts to those who are subverting that message. It’s not by chance that over time, significantly larger sums per capita have been funneled into the efforts to develop Gaza and into UNRWA than went into the Marshall Plan. As long as the ostensible reconstruction efforts are implemented by those who do not truly wish to build a new future for the residents in question, this will be a bottomless pit.
Only a decision to stop fueling the idea of return completely will create a true chance to rehabilitate Gaza so that its inhabitants will transform it into a worthy place, and in the long run perhaps achieve something else: coming to terms with the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people, on the path to peace.
Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf are co-authors of the book “The War for Return,” recently published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan (in Hebrew).