Leder av New York-kontoret til UNRWA, Andrew Whitley, brøt et tabu da han ba palestinske flyktninger innse at de aldri vil kunne vende tilbake til det som nå er Israel. De bør heller akseptere at de bor i et annet land og gå inn for å bli en del av det, sa Whitley.

Det skulle han ikke gjort. De palestinske flyktningene fyller en viktig politisk funksjon: de er pistolen mot Israels hode. Det spiller ingen rolle at deres drøm eller ultimate krav aldri vil bli oppfylt. De bidrar til å opprettholde presset mot Israel.

Andre flyktninger har pent måtte akseptere den bitre sannhet. Men ikke palestinerne. Der går flyktningestatusen i arv, og FNs UNRWA har holdt liv i dem i årtier, slik at de har vokst fra 700.000 til 5 millioner.

The official in question was Andrew Whitley, the New York Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA,) the UN body charged with providing aid and services to Palestinian refugees. When UNRWA began its operations in 1949, there were approximately 700,000 refugees; now there are close to 5 million, by dint of the fact that, in marked contrast to other refugee populations, Palestinians registered with UNRWA can pass down refugee status to subsequent generations. It’s also a pertinent fact that explains why Whitley said what he did.

«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,» Whitley told an audience at the National Council for US-Arab Relations conference. «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.» Instead of entertaining that «cruel illusion,» he continued, Palestinians should start considering «their own role in the societies where they are, rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless.»

For simply articulating a truth known by very many, not the least the Palestinian leadership, for decades, Whitley was chastised by the Jordanians, while Hamas angrily demanded his dismissal: one more example of how speaking your mind can land you in scalding water with those who regard freedom of speech as contingent on what you say.

Still, it’s hard to fault Whitley’s logic. Of the 50 million people who lost their homes because of war and conflict in the twentieth century, practically none of the original displaced returned to their homes, never mind their descendants. The historical record shows that refugees – like those 17,000 displaced Jews administered to by UNRWA back in 1950 – are invariably absorbed by host countries.

What’s different in the Palestinian case is that the refugee question, and its associated «right of return,» has been deliberately positioned by the Arab side as the single biggest obstacle to a final settlement of the conflict with Israel. Accepting that the refugees will not go home, that they will live free of the apartheid conditions imposed on them in states like Lebanon and Syria, and that they might even receive some financial compensation on top, is the height of political incorrectness in the Middle East. It means accepting not only that Israel has the right to exist, but also the right to define itself as the democratic state of the Jewish people.

The Palestinians and Israel: Just Say No