Ashton praises the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA

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The widespread criticism of a recent speech by the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was perhaps not entirely deserved, because the impression that she was drawing a parallel between the deadly shooting attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse and IDF operations in Gaza was at least partly due to a faulty transcript of her speech, which left out her mention of Sderot – the city that is most affected by the rockets from Gaza.

But there was arguably a reason why many Israeli politicians and commentators reacted so angrily – and why one Hamas official rushed to Ashton’s defense, arguing that she “deserves thanks, appreciation, and support in the face of Zionist attempts to terrorize and pressure her.”

As a report in the EU Observer points out:

“The Ashton controversy comes at a difficult time in EU-Israeli relations. A series of recently leaked internal EU reports has depicted Israel as stealing Palestinian land and water, trampling on the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens and giving settlers free rein to assault Palestinian farmers. […]

An EU diplomat earlier told this website that Ashton’s visit to Gaza in 2010, where she saw first-hand the squalid living conditions and fear of Israeli air strikes, was ‘a life-changing experience’ for the British politician.”

Indeed, Ashton’s recent speech (pdf) confirms that she is very sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view. Consider her lengthy praise for UNRWA, the UN organization exclusively devoted to Palestinian refugees and their descendants:

“Let me just say a little bit too about what the European Union believes is so important about UNRWA […] It’s not a coincidence that the European Union is the biggest and the most loyal donor. Our donor activity started in 1971 and in the last 11 years we provided over € 1.3 billion in support of UNRWA’s work – along with contributions from EU Member States, the EU overall contributions in 2010 and 2011 accounted for almost 40% of the total support. It is a big effort in difficult financial circumstances.

And I believe it is because it matters so much. I am not giving you figures so that you feel a sense of success from the EU, but so you would feel a sense of commitment from the European Union. Our support goes to where it matters most: health, schools, humanitarian needs, and shelter. The ultimate goal however is for Palestinians to be masters of their own fate, in their own state.

Our goal, consistently spelt out over time, is supporting the creation of a Palestinian state that will not need to depend on donor support, will stand in its own right and will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours. […] we leave no stone unturned and we will do everything possible to try and meet circumstances for the completion of the Middle East Peace Process. We know too that the Palestinian refugees face additional challenges; they leave [sic!] in countries which even after so many years they cannot consider home. This is why UNRWA’s work is so special: it has gone beyond the provision of universal needs and helped them establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of. And that comes about through many things that UNRWA does.”

[Emphasis added]

The highlighted sentence in this quoted passage is truly remarkable, because the EU’s foreign policy chief basically agrees here with the preposterous Arab notion of “positive discrimination,” which is simply a euphemism for the cynical policies of the Arab states that claim they are doing the Palestinians a favor by barring them from integrating into the countries they live in and forcing them to artificially preserve a distinct identity that focuses on the unrealistic demand of a “right of return”. (See e.g. “No refuge: Palestinians in Lebanon.”  Working Papers Series No. 64, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford, June 2010; pdf)

To be sure, Ashton is in a way quite right, because UNRWA is indeed “special”: while the many millions of other refugees from the late 1940s were expected to adjust themselves pragmatically to changed political realities, UNRWA enabled the Arab states that had failed in their efforts to undo Israel’s establishment to keep the Palestinian refugees as political pawns who would pass on their refugee status for generations in order to keep their grievances alive and politically potent.

The problematic role of UNRWA has often been criticized, most recently by the Palestinian writer and academic Mudar Zahran, who passionately argued that “UNRWA’s persistence in keeping the Palestinians refugees in abysmal, overcrowded slums is harming the Palestinians” and suggested that it might be time to conclude that UNRWA has become “an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.”

Zahran also points out that “UNRWA is now the UN’s largest entity with over 30,000 employees. It is such a boondoggle of a jobs program, it almost cannot let the Palestinian refugee problem be solved: if it did, 30,000 people would be out of work.”

Europe’s diplomat-in-chief Baroness Ashton seems oblivious of this criticism of UNRWA’s part in the cynical perpetuation of a refugee-status for Palestinians living in Arab countries – and  scandalously, Palestinian “refugees” living in Hamas-ruled Gaza or the PA-ruled parts of the West Bank don’t fare much better, because even there, the “refugee camps” continue to exist.

It is remarkable how rarely this issue is addressed given the plentiful media coverage of all things Palestinian. One of the few recent reports was published in January 2011 in the German magazine Cicero under the title “Palestine: Refugees of their own choice;” an English translation under the perhaps even more fitting title “Refugees from reality” is available at the blog of Elder of Ziyon.

The author of the article, Ingo Way, first describes his meeting with a young Palestinian woman by the name of Khouloud Al Ajarma who, after studying in Britain, works at the community center of the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Summing up his impressions, Way writes:

“What I find so frightening about Khouloud Al Ajarma is not so much her complete lack of self-criticism. It’s not so much her radicalism […] What really frightened me is this: No representative of the UN, who built the schools and community centers in Aida, nor the EU, who gives the refugee camps such as this financial support, nor the employees of all the Western aid agencies and NGOs that are active here- none of them would tell Khouloud straight out that her demands are not only inhuman – because of course they count on the expulsion and disenfranchisement of Jews in Israel, and this is still the most favorable interpretation – but also unrealistic. Not one says, ‘You will not get your demands. Work instead towards a peaceful compromise with the Israelis, advocate for a two-state solution and waive your threatening right to return. Finally take over responsibility for yourself and your own people, build an infrastructure and tear down the refugee camps. Stop getting nannied by the UN and the EU, get a grip on things yourselves.’ No one tells them this because no one thinks that way. No one is bothered by the graffiti, which is found on every house, showing an undivided Palestine and reaffirming the explicit Palestinian claim even over Greater Tel Aviv.”

With her recent speech, EU foreign policy chief Ashton has of course encouraged just the opposite of what Ingo Way rightly described as the only reasonable and realistic approach to promote peaceful coexistence between Israel and a future Palestinian state. But for Ashton, “UNRWA’s work is so special” precisely because it allows Palestinians to hold on to their decades-old rejectionism by helping them to “establish a sense of identity that otherwise is lost to the world, an identity which people here are absolutely proud of.” The “sense of identity” Ashton finds so praiseworthy is of course exactly the sense of an aggrieved refugee identity that Khouloud Al Ajarma advocates when she says: “We want no normalization… We want to remain refugees to exercise our right of return one day.”

In view of Ashton’s problematic praise for the Palestinian sense of identity fostered by UNRWA, there is reason to wonder if it reflects just her own ambivalence to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It is arguably noteworthy in this context that while her speech included a reference to the EU’s commitment to a Palestinian state that “will exist in peace and security side by side with all its neighbours,” she avoided mentioning Israel.

Some may feel that this is making a mountain out of a molehill, but speeches by diplomats are often scrutinized for nuances – and the nuances conveyed in this speech by Europe’s diplomat-in-chief don’t necessarily inspire confidence in Europe’s commitment to the formula of two states for two peoples.

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.


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