The Myth of the Palestinian 'Refugee Camps'

Controlling the vocabulary is a crucial part of any political debate, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically the 1948 exodus -- or one should really say, the 1948 departure -- of Palestinians from Israel, is no exception.  A typical formulation, chock-full of code words, appeared in a recent letter to the Boston Globe: "Generations of families living in squalor in refugee camps still await their right to return under international law to their homeland Palestine."

Many, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama, have pointed out how the "right to return" would impose an untenable situation for the Israeli democracy.  The 860,000 or so who left in 1948 have grown to 4.8 million "registered refugees" living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.  Of this number, 1.4 million are "RRCs" -- registered refugees in camps.  An influx of this magnitude, added to the 1.2 million Israeli Muslims, would create a Muslim population of 6 million, outnumbering Israel's 5.6 million Jews, potentially turning Israel into a sharia state.  In other words, whatever "right to return under international law" may be asserted, as Netanyahu said, "it's never going to happen."

Describing Palestinians as "refugees" living in "refugee camps" is a further example of politicized word choice.  The original group of Palestinians in 1948 left their homes in the face of an impending aggression by Arab countries and moved into canvas tents with primitive sanitation.  Regardless of arguments about whether Israeli Palestinians "fled" or, as Noam Chomsky would have it, were pushed out by a campaign of ethnic cleansing, this original group can rightly be called refugees.  However, to continue to call their descendants refugees sixty-three years later, as Obama did in his Middle East/North Africa speech, distorts the truth of their situation.

Sixty-three years is time enough for three, perhaps four, generations.  Imagine the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Jewish refugees who came to Brooklyn or Brookline after the Holocaust referring to themselves as refugees.  My own family includes a number of refugees from the Cambodian killing fields, and my nieces and nephews would never think of claiming refugee status and a right to return to Cambodia.

Granted, refugees arriving in America are welcomed as Americans, while Palestinians are not welcome in the Arab countries where they reside.  This makes them political prisoners, bargaining chips, whatever.  But at a certain point, given that the right to return is not an option, you have to move beyond your grandfather's mistakes and accept the lot you were given.

Keep in mind also that the tent cities in the desert from 1948 are long gone.  Over the past sixty-three years the United Nations and the United States have poured billions into the camps to upgrade living conditions.  What Palestinian advocates like to call "camp shelters" or "CS's" are typically 4-5 story concrete apartment buildings with electricity, kitchens, satellite television tuned to al-Jazeera, and municipal garbage collection.  According to the UN, 99.8% of camp shelters are "connected to water networks" and 87% are "connected to sewerage networks."  In other words, Palestinian camps are modern cities.  Yes, they are overcrowded, with high unemployment, and I wouldn't want to live there.  The infrastructure in these so-called refugee camps is however far superior to the shantytowns in Dhaka, Calcutta, Soweto, Kinshasa, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Jakarta, and many other cities where hundreds of millions live without running water, in shacks cobbled together from scraps of tin and cardboard, with open sewers running through the streets.

The conduit for most of the money pouring into the Palestinian camps is the UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, which was set up as a temporary agency in 1949.  Its current budget is $1.2 billion, which compares to the total "regular" U.N budget of $4.9 billion.  Including all "extrabudgetary" programs (which includes UNRWA), the total 2010-11 UN budget is $13.9 billion.  Thus the UN spends an amount equal to 25% of its regular budget, or 8.6% of its total budget on 0.08% of the world's population.

UNRWA is, for obvious reasons, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.  A press release on May 16th following the "Nakba Day" assault on Israeli borders from the UNRWA Commissioner-General (their website offers his photo but not his name) gives an idea of where their sympathies lie:

I deplore the deaths of Palestine refugees in Lebanon, the occupied Golan Heights and the occupied Palestinian territory ["occupied" is another code word for the illegitimacy of Israel--repeated not once but twice]. These sad events demonstrate once more the vulnerability of the Palestine refugees we serve...They underline the need for a just and durable solution, based on UN resolutions, to resolve the plight of those who have endured statelessness, exile and dispossession for 63 years.

Another UNRWA press release last Friday is titled, "Palestine refugee health as much at risk today as in 1950, says new report."  The motivation is obvious, to prove that despite 63 years of activity, the temporary agency UNRWA is still vitally needed.  The text of the press release however reports that a) "the reduction of child mortality (Millennium Development Goal Four) is on track" and b) "UNRWA continues to achieve a near 100 per cent rate of immunization coverage."  The desperate health risks noted include:

  • A rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes [that] have led to acute health challenges
  • New-born screening for hearing impairment in Gaza
  • Integrating mental health and family protection in the West Bank
  • Improving rational use of drugs in Syria
  • Translating health reform into action, with focus on primary health care in Lebanon
  • Screening for phenylketonria (PKU) and hypothyroidism in Jordan

None of these health concerns should be scoffed at, but how ludicrous to compare the risk of diabetes or hearing impairment to life-threatening diseases like dysentery and diarrhea in the 1950 camps and in so much of the world today.

Calling Palestinians "refugees" and continuing to treat them like helpless victims does them no favors, especially when $1.2 billion could be spent more effectively elsewhere.