FIRST HAND ACCOUNT: MY VISIT TO UNWRA PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMPS
For a two a two state solution to ever be feasible, Palestine’s would have to forego the right of return.
by Rhonda Spivak, posted March 30, 2011
Winnipeg Jewish Review
I have recently been to two Palestinian refugee camps run by the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency [UNWRA] near Bethlehem. My visit has unfortunately have left me with the impression that the Palestinians as a whole are far from giving up on the right of return to their 1948 homes and villages in Israel. I saw first hand how Palestinian refugees in UNWRA camps live in what I can only describe as a ‘time warp,” as these UNWRA camps perpetuate the illusion of them one day returning to former homes and villages in pre-67 Israel.
For example, I was rather shocked to see that the entrance to the Aida UNWRA refugee camp has a “huge key” that says “not for sale,” promoting the notion of a right of return, which can not be bought. [This begs the question why the West allows this to be put up in a UN refugee camp that the West funds, which only feeds the illusion of a mass right of return , which means the ultimate destruction of Israel. ]
Entrance to UNWRA’s Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, with key representing the right of return that says "not for Sale"
photo by Rhonda Spivak
Mural of a former Palestinian village (as it was in 1948) in UNWRA’s Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp
photo by Rhonda Spivak
Mural of first Female Palestinian suicide bomber on UNWRA School in UNWRA’s Deheishe Palestinian Refugee camp.
photo by Rhonda Spivak
Mural of a Shahid, terrorist who died for casue of liberating all of Palestine on street near UNWRA school in UNWRA’s Deheishe Palstinian Refugee Camp
photo by Rhonda Spivak
Many years ago, in 1989 when I co-founded the chapter of Peace Now in Winnipeg it was because I believed that Palestinian in UNWRA refugee camps would forego the right of return to 1948 Israel and would live in a future Palestinian state (in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) that would co-exist alongside Israel ( which would have a Jewish majority) . For a two a two state solution to ever be feasible, Palestine’s would have to forego the right of return.
But on my recent visit , I saw that in UNWRA Palestinian refugee camps people live in streets according to the villages they came from [i.e. refugees and their descendants from Jaffa all live near each other], children’s sports teams are divided according to former villages [i.e children who are descendants of Jaffa refugees are on one team].All of this serves only to perpetuate the conflict by feeding the false and unrealistic notion of returning to pre-67 Israel. In both UNWRA refugee camps I visited there were “NAKBA” signs that showed maps of Palestine, which included all of pre-67 Israel.
When I was in Aida refugee camp, I saw several long blocks of huge murals of all the Palestinian villages to which the refugees talk about returning. I was struck by the fact that one of the villages in these murals, for example, depicted Be’er Sheva as a small pastoral village with several houses.[ Today of course Be’er Sheva is a developed city of 200,000 people]
When I was at a J-Street conference in Washington last month, I met a naive Jewish peace activist who spent time in UNWRA’s Deheishe Refugee Camp run in Bethlehem where she volunteered in running an art program. She told me that when the children were asked to draw something, rather than draw a tree or a sun or a moon -THEY ALL DREW THE SAME THING –a large key, representing the key to the home of the village where their grandparents lived in 1948, to which they would one day return.
“It was disturbing to realize that this was the first thing the children drew”, the art teacher told me, as for there to be a peace agreement youth in UNWRA’s Palestinian refugee camps need to be taught to focus on moving on, upgrading their lives and resettling into nice homes in Bethlehem, Ramallah in the West Bank, not in pre-67 Israel.
Having been to UNWRA’s Palestinian Refugee Camp in Deheishe, I can attest to the fact there is a large mural of a female suicide bomber [a graduate of the school] on an UNWRA school right near the entrance to the camp. In allowing this mural to remain, the UNWRA school glorifies terror, and perpetuates the continuation of the conflict. The suicide bomber becomes the person children admire and seek to aspire to become. Why the United States and other Western countries fund a UN school without requiring it to remove a huge mural of a terrorist on the school defies reason, does it not?
I also saw the street near the back of the school and noticed a number of other large murals of terrorists (martyrs) who have died for the cause of liberating all of Palestine.
At the J-Street conference in Washington, I met George A Laudato, who works for US AID [The U.S. Agency for International Development], in the Middle East Bureau. Laudato confirmed that although the US Aid builds schools in UNWRA Palestinian Refugee Camps, US Aid “does not monitor the content” of what is taught in those schools, which he acknowledged “ is a problem.” Laudato told me of a situation that “occurred 3-4 years ago” at an UNWRA camp he visited in Egypt.
“When I looked at one of the globes in a classroom, I realized that the globe didn’t have Israel on it. All of the globes in the school were the same [missing Israel]. I knew that the American Congress wouldn’t want to be paying for this,” he said
Laudato said he stepped in and insisted that all these globes be replaced with ones that did have Israel on the map. But Laudato emphasized that normally US AID wouldn’t have intervened in something like this. “I did intervene because we have had a relationship in Egypt for over 30 years so I felt I could do something about replacing the maps. But this is not the usual case.”
Andrew Whitley the outgoing director of the UNWRA’s New York office, made headlines this past fall when he told the told the National Council for US-Arab Relations’ annual conference on October 22 2010 that it was time to level with the refugees:
“If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be – for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes – then we are storing up trouble for ourselves….We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent…It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”
When Whitley said this he was roasted over the coals by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and others in the PA and several days later he retracted the statement and apologized for it, clarifying that his remarks were “ inappropriate and wrong” and that his “ remarks did not represent UNRWA’s views.” You can read the full Whitley retraction by clicking here.
Many refugees claim that Palestinian leadership can not give up the right to return, since it is not theirs to give up. They claim therefore that each refugee family can decide what they wish to do—receive a compensation package and live elsewhere, return to the West Bank/Gaza or go back to their original villages in 1948 Israel.
It should be noted that Lt. Col (Res) Jonathan Dahoah Halevy has pointed out that Saeb Erekat, when he was PA chief negotiator, delivered two speeches at Fatah conventions in Hebron and Jericho during 2009 in Arabic in which he said "the right of return" is the individual right of each refugee and cannot be conceded by anyone in negotiations [ http://www.dore-gold.com/2011/01/saeb-erekat-shows-his-cards-the-palestinians-will-demand-the-return-of-refugees.php ] This is consistent with what Erekat wrote in December 2010 in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/10/israel-palestine-refugee-rights.
This is also what Palestinian Huwaida Araf, one of the key organizers of last year’s infamous Floatilla to Gaza told me when she appeared in Winnipeg last week as a speaker for Israel Apartheid Week. http://www.winnipegjewishreview.com/article_detail.cfm?id=908&sec=1&title=WOMAN_WHO_PLANNED_THE_FLOTILLA_TO_GAZA__WAS_AT_ISRAEL_APARTHEID_WEEK_HERE
The question that needs to be answered is who in Palestinian society is coming forward to level with Palestinian refugees and their descendents to say that they aren’t going back to their villages in Israel?
In other words, who in the PA leadership is telling the refugees in the UNWRA camps I saw near Bethlehem that it’s time to start planning on the Bethlehem area as being their permanent residence, and to begin redirecting their energies towards rebuilding their lives and their future?