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  • MK Einat Wilf addressing the Ambassadors' Forum

    MK Einat Wilf Unveils Proposal for Restructuring UNRWA at Bar-Ilan Forum

    Date: 2012-02-01 Hour: 11:24

    Speaking at the Bar-Ilan University Ambassadors' Forum, MK Einat Wilf (Independence) unveiled for the first time a proposal to restructure the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which she said is essential in order to keep the notion of the two-state solution alive. If her plan is implemented, Wilf asserted, the number of Palestinian refugees worldwide would dwindle from five million to 30,000. 

    The proposal calls for the countries around the world which contribute one billion dollars annually to UNRWA to request that their donations be allocated to targeted programs, as opposed to the organization's general budget. "In Gaza, for example, the money that goes to hospitals, welfare and schools through UNRWA should continue to flow, or even be doubled, she said, but it should be 'de-linked' from the status of refugees because that status sends the message that the two-state solution is dead. This would decrease the number of refugees in Gaza from 1.2 million to about 15,000. Fifteen thousand are those who lived in what is today Israel before 1948. They are the only ones deserving of that status," said Wilf.

    Regarding the Palestinian Authority: Wilf said that like in Gaza, the refugee status in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority is no longer relevant as they live in the future state of Palestine. But she added that in the PA areas there is also the issue of UNRWA undermining the efforts to build the PA as the future government of Palestine. Wilf proposed that the donor countries transfer to the Palestinian Authority the funds going to UNRWA in this area to manage the schools, hospitals and welfare programs, thereby strengthening the PA as the future government of Palestine.

    With respect to all other Palestinians administered by UNRWA in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Wilf proposed merging UNRWA's activities with those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN agency that deals with all other refugees in the world, and under the same principles.

    "When I hear numbers such as five million refugees who believe they have a right to return to what is a sovereign land, I take it immediately as a signal that there is absolutely no interest in peace and there's no interest in a two-state solution," said MK Wilf. "The inflation of the number of refugees is a stumbling block. If you truly care about keeping the two-state solution alive, I would expect you to devote as much attention to removing this stumbling block as you devote to the question of settlements," Wilf told the diplomats. She said she plans to present her proposal to the Knesset in the near future, and will then approach members of parliament from the countries that support UNRWA to discuss the plan.

    Bar-Ilan University Deputy President Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, a specialist in international, human rights and constitutional law, discussed the Right of Return from a legal perspective. Citing UN resolutions and examining precedents from around the world relating to the resolution of ethnic disputes in which the fate of refugees is involved, Prof. Zilbershats argued that there is no legal justification for the return of Palestinian refugees. "The unequivocal position that Palestinians do not possess a right to return to the State of Israel is based on three principal grounds. First, legal analysis proves definitively that international law does not grant the Palestinian refugees a right to compel Israel to allow them to settle in its territory. Second, the experience of other ethnic conflicts, past or present, shows that return to a place where conflicts existed and are not completely resolved is not possible. Third, the entry into Israel of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in large numbers will hamper the continuing existence of a Jewish majority in the state and would be contrary to the right of Jews to self-determination. Nor would the return to the State of Israel be in the best interest of the refugees themselves, since they possess personal and group characteristics that differ significantly from those of the majority population," she said.

    Roy Keidar, CEO of the Reut Institute, who previously served as a senior member of the National Security Council at the Prime Minister's office, said the refugee issue could be significantly reduced if Palestinians are called to return to Palestinian territory (as Jews were called in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel), if those who wish to remain receive full citizenship, if those in refugee camps which will be part of Palestinian territory are given full citizenship and passports, and if UNRWA funding is redirected to the Palestinian state. Once you can dilute the refugee issue, he said, it will be easier in the long term for an Israeli government to recognize that a Palestinian state carries a benefit for Israeli policy and interests," he said.

    The event was moderated by Bar-Ilan political scientist Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who founded the University's Program in Conflict Management and Negotiation. Prof. Steinberg said the refugee issue is at the heart of the Mideast conflict. "Whether in Israel, Cyprus or Sri Lanka, refugees is a core issue. For us it is about identity. I've spoken to the Palestinians about their history of being refugees. PA President Abbas speaks of himself as being a refugee. The conflict between us will not be resolved, or even managed, if we don't solve the refugee issue. Very often we hear that this can be overcome. But it is hard to see how something so deeply ingrained in the Palestinian narrative can be changed. Is Abbas capable of making that change? Unless it becomes a part of the Palestinian internal dialogue, it is hard to imagine that that change will take place," said Steinberg. He also claimed that UNRWA and, increasingly, NGOs have become a political voice for what the Palestinians call the Right of Return.

    "It is heartwarming to see representatives from so many countries in one room," said Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Moshe Kaveh, in delivering opening remarks to the Forum. "Today you will hear things related to international relationships from our prominent professors. But there is one subject which is, I hope, unrelated to politics, and that is pure science, which gives us quality of life." Prof. Kaveh explained that with an investment of $150 million the University has built an Institute for Nanotechnology which is working on cures for three different types of cancer using nanoparticles. "In the near future we will have office windows that will no longer have to be cleaned, we will have hospital blankets free of germs, and we will wear clothes and socks that will never smell, thanks to nanoparticles," he quipped." Prof. Kaveh also noted the landmark research in Alzheimer's being conducted at the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center and offered the diplomatic community a tour of the new Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee. "We are happy to have connections with you and the rest of the world to achieve a better life," said Prof. Kaveh.

    More than 50 ambassadors and senior diplomats attended the Ambassadors' Forum, the seventh in a series initiated by Bar-Ilan University to strengthen its relationships with the diplomatic community by providing up-to-date information on current events, and by making the University's intellectual and scientific capital accessible to the nations of the world.