Palestinian Refugees: Still Being Used as Pawns

Since Yasir Arafat’s death in 2004, the cleavages within Palestinian society have become much more apparent. We are witnessing a telling and significant growth in violence between Palestinians -- a phenomenon which is notable both for its frequency as well as its obscurity in the mainstream press.

Just a few short days ago, a masked gunman carried out an attack on a summer camp run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Setting fire to the camp, the gunmen attacked the guard and issued threats against UNRWA officials, including John Ging (director of UNRWA operations in Gaza). UNRWA’s ostensible crime? Teaching girls.

The attack was condemned by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and Hamas claimed to arrest some of the perpetrators. But the practical consequence is that these pronouncements lend a halo effect meant to highlight a putative level of accountability within Palestinian society. Islamism is growing rapidly in Gaza -- predominantly nurtured and uncensored by the Hamas leadership. The losers are all Gazans, who are deprived of -- among other things -- the rule of law, the right to free expression and religion, and the opportunity to live in a society which values building education and infrastructure rather than diverting resources into terror and war.

Even more unfortunate is the dedication of Palestinian and NGO institutions to preserving the status quo. Although UNRWA gets to play the victim card in this instance, it is in fact the ultimate "embedded" NGO. UNRWA has long been co-opted by its own constituents and has in the past had its involvement with terrorist elements and corruption revealed in the West. Fueled by negative attention and an initiative in the U.S. Congress to legislate transparency in American funding to UNRWA, the organization has made attempts to address the charges.

There is a larger issue at work, however. Nearly seventeen years after the signing of the Oslo Accords and a decade since Palestinians achieved autonomy via the apparatus of the Palestinian Authority, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians retain the designation of "refugee" and live in "refugee camps." Every single one of these camps is within the jurisdiction of an Arab government. Despite a history of flowery pronouncements celebrating the "commitment" to the resolution of the refugee issue, Palestinian refugees continue to be used as pawns by their own leaders.