Last week, U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, sent shockwaves throughout Gaza and the West Bank when he called for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to be dismantled – effectively declaring that the Palestinian’s longtime demand for the “right of return” be taken off the table in any future U.S.-sponsored peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“UNRWA is currently running on fumes,” Greenblatt told the UN Security Council, “surviving on a surge in foreign donations in 2018 that is unlikely to be sustained this year, or in the future.”
Greenblatt is helping to craft a peace proposal for the Israelis and the Palestinians. Last year, the U.S. cut over $300 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – breaking from Washington’s decades-long policy to tacitly accept the Palestinian demand.
For Palestinians, the “right of return” is considered sacred. The demand calls for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War to return to cities and towns that have long been under Israeli control. Initially, after the 1948 war, there were an estimated 500,000-750,000 Palestinian refugees.
But now, that number has soared to over 5 million, as Palestinians, and UNRWA – the UN agency that provides education and housing in refugee camps – permit refugee status to be passed down from generation to generation. It also does not remove Palestinians who have moved and acquired citizenship in other countries.
From birth, Palestinian children are taught that the “right of return” is sacrosanct. Parents tell stories about former Arab villages and explain to their children that their hometowns are not in the West Bank or Gaza, but in major Israeli cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba. In refugee camps, the symbol of the key (to former homes) is painted on houses, walls and entrances to the squalid cities. Teachers in UNRWA schools also include the “right of return” in their curriculum, further bolstering the children’s hope that they will one day move to a place that has been promised to them.
Greenblatt’s desire to pull the “right of return” off the table is a lucid thought based on common sense, and serves as a reality check for the Palestinians. For decades, Palestinian leaders have drilled this fantasy into their children. Rather than disbanding the refugee camps and creating new villages that could boost residents’ overall quality of life and the local economy, they have allowed these camps to remain, and brainwashed generation after generation into believing that their lives will somehow radically transform one day. This has led to frustration and often murder: a majority of the suicide bombers who killed Israelis have come from refugee camps, and were educated in UNRWA schools.
The time has come to end the fantasy of the “right of return,” and allow the Palestinian refugees to live a life of dignity.