With the recent breakdown of another iteration of attempts to “make forward progress” in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, many have remarked on the basic intractability of the issues that divide the two. Among these, the disposition of the Palestinian refugees remains a focal point as a “redline” concern for both sides. The long-politicized historical narrative of the Palestinian refugees has taken center stage, sidelining attempts to inject objectivity or practicality into the negotiations.
But the ingrained blame-game pattern that interminably seeks to tease out who bears the “original sin” of culpability for the crisis misses a crucial piece of the puzzle.
The Palestinian refugee population is the single recipient of its own United Nations agency, a designation that defies historical logic given the massive number of worldwide refugee dislocations around the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is this conundrum that Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe explore in their new volume, Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.
The authors, noted Middle East experts, deconstruct the involvement of NGOs with the Palestinian refugees over the 20th century and examine the relationships among early independent (religious) NGO the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker) and the UN agencies created to address the refugee crisis that Israel’s creation in 1948 engendered.
Thoroughly researched and documented, this scholarly volume is readable and engaging. The authors outline the ambivalence of the AFSC toward Israel and the Palestine issue: a fundamental commitment to humanitarian relief of disadvantaged and uprooted people across the globe, at odds with an equally foundational belief in a supersessionist Christianity that could not reconcile the possibility of a rebirth of Jewish nationhood in the Land of Israel. A symbiosis between the Quaker Friends/AFSC and the outgoing British Mandatory authorities only amplified this ambivalence, colored as it was by British exasperation with the region and its inhabitants, and the “complexities of Quaker theology and [British] Protestant politics.”
The Quaker commitment to the values of pacifism and humanitarian aid was at odds with AFSC’s practical needs on the ground regarding refugee relief.
Romirowsky and Joffe emphasize the point: “The fundamental contradiction was that the AFSC’s relief mission was also part of a specific pacifist mission to find a political solution to the refugee crisis that necessitated debilitating moral consequences… AFSC’s participation in the [Palestinian refugee] program was represented as non-political rather than pacifist; but the AFSC entered into the operation with a hard-boiled relief agenda rather than explicit pacifist goals.”
This juxtaposition of competing principles manifests to this day with the AFSC’s underwriting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The 1950 shift to the UN Relief and Works Agency as the agency with standing to serve the refugees did not substantively change the reality on the ground, insofar as local staffing meant ideological co-optation that filtered up to the highest administrative levels. Ultimately this served to subvert the ostensible goal of the NGOs: ameliorating the refugees’ immediate material exiguity while final statuses were negotiated. That nothing has changed in this regard – quite the opposite, in fact, as UNRWA facilities in Gaza and the West Bank have been compromised by the infiltration of Islamist and recidivist Palestinian activists – illustrates the inherent complexity of the situation.
Despite AFSC’s grassroots experience in the decades before UNRWA took over, the logistical challenges of providing comprehensive support to the refugees continued to overwhelm the agencies. AFSC acted as a contractor to UNRWA, interacting closely at the administrative and ground levels to implement policy. Yet the relationship was fraught with conflict over jurisdiction, as well as with jealousy and suspicion; bureaucrats actively undermined each other, to the detriment of the refugees.
Even after the AFSC ceded to the United Nations in providing for the Palestine refugees’ needs, it remained entangled. As the authors explain, “after 1967 the AFSC took up the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its primary missions. It uses the network of Quaker schools in the West Bank established in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as more recently NGO activities to support Palestinians and attack Israel, in Israeli courts, international fora, and at the grassroots levels. Since 1967 it has become more extreme in its disdain for Israel, gradually adopting elements of Protestant supersessionism and ‘liberation theology’ that see modern Jewish Israel as having lost its covenant with God, replaced by a near sacred Palestinian people.
All the while it professes respect for Jews, but demands that Jews give up support for Israel.”
Unstated by AFSC but clearly integral to UNRWA’s mission was a commitment to facilitating a political resolution that would resettle – and/or reintegrate – Palestinian refugees. An especially knotty glitch was that by the early 1950s, UNRWA had already fused the two goals, viewing them as one and the same. A blatant adoption of the Arab League’s policy statement that no reintegration would occur without the reinstatement of all Palestinian refugees (in a new Palestine that would erase Israel), this meant that operations to make life livable for refugees were significantly truncated – without permanent housing, investment in employment infrastructure, arrangement for political representation or citizenship in their adopted countries, or a coherent civic social network.
As the authors elucidate, UNRWA’s steadfast espousal of the Palestinian “Right of Return” reveals both the degree to which it has been politically co-opted and compromised by its constituency, and that it is a position at odds with the United Nations’ own Charter; such a right “necessarily entails the dissolution of Israel as such… Jewish sovereignty as envisioned by the Zionist movement and the 1947 Partition Plan, would be ended and Jewish political and cultural rights necessarily curtailed.” In other words, for both AFSC and UNRWA, an initial commitment to humanitarian aid and relief became heavily politicized, reflecting the complexities of merging philanthropic (or religious) intention with geopolitics and regional conflict.
Romirowsky and Joffe are exhaustive in their research and consistent in describing an aspect of the Palestinian refugee historical experience that has heretofore been neglected in the scholarly and policy literature.
The dilemma the global community faces – building social and economic progress along with a political resolution that brings stability (if not peace) – is ultimately hampered by an agency of its own creation that pursues its agenda at the expense of the greater goal. UNRWA bears culpability for enlarging, intensifying and prolonging a refugee calamity it was intended to ameliorate. AFSC’s pragmatic withdrawal from Palestine refugee relief five decades ago, juxtaposed with UNRWA’s persistent re-entrenchment even in the face of decades of the breakdown of agency operations and the collapse of its chartered goals, should be a clear signal that a different strategy is necessary in the pursuit of Palestine refugee relief and the question of the resolution of the refugees’ status.
The writer is a political scientist. She holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis and is a former Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She has published widely on topics in Middle Eastern and Israeli politics.