The story of two Nakbas

Emily Schrader contrasts the treatment of Palestinian refugees from Israel with Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East

This week on May 15, millions of Palestinians marked the annual day of mourning they call "Nakba" day, which means catastrophe in Arabic. The Nakba occurred when Arabic states and Palestinian leaders rejected the UN Partition plan in 1947, and launched a multi-front war against the newly announced Jewish state, who did accept the partition. 

The fledgling Jewish state survived, but the war tragically resulted in 750,000 Palestinians fleeing, with some being expelled. In the years that followed, 10 Arab states began a barbaric campaign of expulsion, land confiscation, murder, and other forms of instituionalized apartheid and ethnic cleansing of their Jewish populations in revenge. 850,000 Jews of the Middle East were expelled or forced to flee.

The Jewish refugees were resettled as all other refugees are, starting over and building new lives for themselves in other countries, including Israel. To date, not a single Arab state has made reparations for their bloody persecution campaigns and theft of Jewish property and businesses. Yet today, the Jewish Nakba is over. In contrast, for the Palestinian people, the Nakba continues due to organizations like UNRWA and the political interests of the Arab states. 

After Arab states refused to take in and resettle Palestinians - a discrimination trend that continues today in various Arab states, UNRWA was established in 1949 with the mandate of assisting the Palestinian refugees. Yet in contrast to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the other UN agency which handles refugee crises around the world, UNWRA's stated purpose isn't to settle Palestinians in their new lives (in any location) but to perpetuate the refugee crisis by providing humanitarian services until a political solution to the refugee problem is reached. 

Additionally, refugee status in UNRWA continues over generations, in stark contrast to the standard definition of UNHCR refugees. "UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees. It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees...The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration," says UNRWA on their website. It is for this reason that a population of 750,000 refugees has turned into 5.2 million refugees today with zero known Palestinian refugees being settled permanently in any location. In contrast, in 2016 alone, UNHCR, settled 189,300 refguees.

Another notable difference between the two United Nations refugee organizations, and one of the reasons why the Nakba tragedy continues today, is because in UNHCR, a refugee ceases to be a refugee when they obtain full citizenship of another country. "Cessation of refugee status therefore applies when the refugee, having secured or being able to secure national protection, either of the country of origin or of another country, no longer needs international protection." says UNHCR.

Yet in UNRWA, even when a Palestinian refugee has full citizenship in another country, UNRWA defines them as a refugee. For example, there are 2.2 million Palestinians in Jordan today, of which 1.5 million have full Jordanian citizenship. Yet they, and their descendents are defined as "refugees" by UNRWA.

How is it logical that UNHCR, which services 65.6 million refugee worldwide, has one staff member for every 5,982 refugees, while UNRWA has 1 staff member for every 186 refugees? That UNWRA spends $149 per refugee, yet all other refugees under UNHCR recieve $117 per person? Are the lives of some refugees more important than others to the United Nations?

It should be noted that UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians themselves, making UNRWA's very existence a conflict of interest. In other words, there is a vested interest in maintaining Palestinians as refugees.  

Sadly, the Arab states have had no compassion for the Palestinians either, choosing instead time and again to use this population as a political pawn in their antisemitic refusal to accept the very existence of the state of Israel. 

In Lebanon, Palestinians are forbidden from working in certain desirable professions such as medicine and law, and they are prohibited from even owning land (much less becoming full citizens). In Syria, Palestinians have fared no better. The discrimination the Palestinians face from other Arab states is something largely ignored in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as is the fact that the motivation behind it is a political refusal to accept the reality that Israel exists. In point of fact, it was Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser who stated himself that "If refugees return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist..." and there in lies the problem. Because of this, Palestinian face discrimination and danger today, like in the case of Syria, where over 3,000 have been killed in the Syrian Civil War alone.

It's time the Arab world and the United Nations both put an end to playing politics with people's lives. Imagine what could have been if the Arab leaders had accepted a Palestinian state one of the many times it was offered to them? Or if the goal of UNRWA had been to settle Palestinians permanently, instead of perpetuating their refugee status? Just as the Jewish refugees have become one of Israel's greatest strengths contributing in every field of society, Palestinians too could have had that in their own state of Palestine today. Instead, they have suffered for 70 years for a conflict with no end in sight because of the political interests of others. Let's do the humane thing, and finally make the Palestinian Nakba a thing of the past.

Emily Schrader is a freelance writer focusing on the Middle East, and the Digital Director of educational organization StandWithUs.