Israel intends to ask the U.N. to close down the aid agency that assists Palestinian refugees living in Judea and Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem, saying the organization poses an obstacle to any future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians because of its distorted definition of the term "refugee."
The Israeli initiative, proposed by MK Einat Wilf (Independence), follows months of Palestinian efforts to obtain unilateral recognition of statehood at the U.N. and membership in several of its agencies. UNESCO (the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) granted "Palestine" membership last month, prompting the U.S. to cut funding in accordance with a law requiring financial ties to be cut with any U.N. agency that affords the Palestinians membership. Israel also said it would freeze funding to UNESCO and announced plans to ramp up construction in Judea and Samaria as a punitive measure against the Palestinians.
Now Israel plans to pursue its own measure at the U.N. to shutter the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in an effort spearheaded by Wilf. UNRWA is the only U.N. aid agency dedicated to helping refugees from a specific region or conflict, and is separate from the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, which is dedicated to aiding all other refugees around the world.
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Israel places the number of Palestinian refugees at 250,000, while UNRWA claims that there are close to 5 million Palestinian refugees. According to the agency, a Palestinian refugee is anyone who left his or her home in British Mandate Palestine between the years 1946 and 1948, and their descendants. This includes second-, third- and fourth-generation Palestinians whose ancestors lived in what is considered Israel today and who fled their homes during the 1948 War of Independence.
Political sources said the status of Jerusalem and the issue of refugees are the most difficult matters at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a broad consensus among Israeli politicians and the public that Israel cannot absorb all Palestinians refugees into its territory. As long as UNRWA exists, officials say, there will be disagreement about how many Palestinian refugees there are, and as a result there can also be no consensus on how many Palestinian refugees Israel will need to compensate if they cannot return.
Israeli officials have also said that the Palestinian Authority and other Arab countries have refused to settle the Palestinian refugees, which Jerusalem views as an unwillingness on the Palestinians' part to compromise to reach a final-status agreement and end the conflict.
UNRWA, which operates in Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, provides humanitarian aid and social services to Palestinian refugees. Israel has coordinated with the agency to transfer goods beyond the Green Line and has worked to prevent harm to UNRWA employees and structures. Despite this, the agency's buildings and employees have sometimes been caught in the cross-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, resulting in the deaths of several of its workers.
Wilf has garnered support for the initiative from the Foreign Ministry and has succeeded in neutralizing opposition from some in the Defense Ministry.
"This agency is unnecessary," Wilf said on Sunday. "Other refugees around the world are not afforded refugee status for generations. I support U.N. assistance to the Palestinians in terms of education and health care, but not through this agency that disrupts the peace process."
A comment from UNRWA was not available by press time.
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