On December 8, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East UNRWA will mark its 58th anniversary. That is quite a record for an agency created in 1949 as a temporary relief organization.
One of the FAQS on the UNRWA Web site asks, "If UNRWA was set up as a temporary Agency, why is it still working after over 50 years?" The question is worth considering, not only because the Web site does not answer it the explanation simply cites the Palestinians' "continuing needs" but because the answer bears directly on the Annapolis Conference that America initiated. Originally, UNRWA was established to serve 652,000 Arabs after the 1948 war against Israel. On its Web site, UNRWA says it now has "over 28,000 staff," provides aid to "over 4.4 million refugees" in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and is "by far the largest U.N. operation" in the Middle East.
In comparison, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1950 to serve all other refugees in the world, has a staff of 6,300 that currently serves, by its count, 32.9 million refugees in 111 countries.
Pursuant to the Annapolis understanding, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will address the question of "refugees" over the next year. To properly tackle that issue, however, it is necessary to understand: a) UNRWA's unusual definition of a "refugee," b) the status of the Palestinians currently so categorized, and c) the reason their problems have not been solved in 58 years, despite a massive U.N. agency devoted exclusively to them.
The common conception of a "refugee" is an individual who had to leave his country because of political upheaval or war and resettle in a new place. The common conception of a refugee relief organization particularly a temporary one is an agency assisting such people to resettle into new homes in new countries.
For the Palestinians, however, UNRWA uses a unique definition one that focuses not simply on the refugees themselves, but on conferring "refugee" status on successive generations born and raised in new locations. On its Web site, UNRWA proudly calls itself unique not only in terms of its "commitment to one group of refugees," but its contributions to "four generations" of them. If there are "four generations" of Palestinian refugees, including parents and children who never lived in Israel but simply had grandparents or great grandparents who did, then there are also "four generations" of Jewish refugees the approximately 820,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in 1948 plus their succeeding generations born and raised in Israel.
No discussion of Palestinian "refugees" can fairly take place without a simultaneous discussion of the even larger number of Jewish "refugees" under the same definition, who had their homes and property taken by Arab states states that also waged war against the nascent state of Israel that absorbed the refugees they created.
To charge Israel a place that resettled hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the 1948 war with responsibility for Palestinian Arabs who left amidst a war the Arabs commenced is an extraordinary case of international chutzpah, particularly with respect to successive generations of Arabs born and raised in Arab countries, with a large U.N.organization to help them.
Even if a uniquely broad definition of a Palestinian "refugee" were accepted for purposes of the Annapolis negotiation, it raises other questions: what is the refugees' current situation, and why has it not been resolved in 58 years by an agency whose sole purpose was to solve it?
Consider the current situation of Palestinian "refugees" in Lebanon, who have been living there for four generations but have not been given even elementary rights of resettlement they are barred from citizenship, banned from owning property, prevented by law from working in dozens of professions, and classified as "foreigners" who must pay tuition they cannot afford to attend public schools.
Instead of resettling subsequent generations born in Lebanon, UNRWA works to maintain them in camps, outside the political and social cultures of their longstanding country of residence, living in squalor perpetuated by Lebanese laws.
The situation in Lebanon exemplifies the massive failure of the 58-year-old UNRWA. The Palestinians living there are not "refugees" in the common understanding of the term, but rather successive generations of Lebanese residents who have lived in that country their entire lives, without the right to become citizens, work in significant professions, own property, or otherwise better their lives not because of Israel, but because of Lebanese law.
It is important to remember that there would not be a single Palestinian refugee today, under any definition, if the Arabs had accepted the 1947 U.N. resolution endorsing both a Jewish state and an Arab one. The Arab countries that attacked Israel in 1948, in violation of that resolution, thus bear the historical, political, and moral responsibility for the refugees they caused.
Until those Arab states assume responsibility for absorbing their longstanding residents, now suffering their fourth generation of consequences from the wars Arabs started, there can be no solution to the problem Annapolis has charged Israel and the PA with "negotiating."
Mr. Richman edits Jewish Current Issues.