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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The PalArab welfare state

Even though I have been busy with other stuff, I continue to research for the next installment of my Psychological History of Palestinian Arabs series. In August I found a fantastic article by Martha Gellhorn written in 1961 where she described in detail her visits to many UNRWA refugee camps, and more recently I found a short follow-up she wrote for The Nation after the Six Day War (not available for free.)

In this 1967 article, Gellhorn talks about the mindset of the Palestinian Arabs, in camps and outside of them:
In 1961, I had made a long tour of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) Palestinian refugee camps m Lebanon. West Jordan and the Gaza Strip, and I had been at this camp near Jericho before. It is disheartening. The world believes, because it is constantly told, that the Palestinian refugees have lived in physical misery for nineteen years. Middle-class refugees will confide, in private, that their poorer compatriots, those who remarn in the camps. owned nothing at home and are no worse off now than before. The majority of refugees, educated, skilled, semi-skilled, live outside the camps and manage like any other Arabs.

The refugees’ misery is in the head. They are sick in their minds from a diet of propaganda, official Arab dogma and homemade fantasy, which they have gobbled for nineteen years. Schooled in self-pity, encouraged to believe they are the worlds unique vlctims of mjustice, they have never been allowed to forget the daydream past or to settle for the real future. Since the third Arab-lsrael war hardly touched them, they learned nothing from it.

...Then, as on remembered cue, we went into the fantasy phase of conversation. It consists of recounting how many acres of fine fields and orchards, what splendid houses, were left behind in Palestine and stolen by the Jews. There is competition in fantasy ownership: if you add up the lost acreage claimed by the inhabitants of any camp you usually arrive at a total larger than the whole recovered arable land of Israel. One very nice man in another camp told me that he had owned 11,000 acres of citrus groves: legend has it that once the Sultan of Turkey owned that much land in Palestine and sold it to the Rothschilds. But I think this ownership fantasy is the real human core of the Palestinian refugee problem, as opposed to the unreal Arab propaganda problem.
Gellhorn uncovered a basic fact that nobody else noticed. UNRWA created a welfare state for Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants, and while the ambitious and successful ones managed to get out of these camps on their own, the ones who stayed - the lazy ones - are quite happy being on the dole, spinning fantasies about how successful they were in old Palestine while they partake of free food, housing and education.

A hint that this is true can be found, of all places, buried in the "tourism" section of the Palestinian National Information Centre website:
Before its withdrawal from Gaza strip, Israel tried to dismantle some camps and transfer their inhabitants to settlement projects as; Al Sheikh Redwan project. Others tried to do the same procedures before but the refugees insisted to stay in their camps rejecting to leave them without a just political solution to their problem.
This is not quite true - Israel did manage to move some willing Palestinian Arabs out of the camps and into brand new housing projects, as the UN itself admitted (A/43/653 30 September 1988, from Google cache):
11. The Israeli authorities, according to information available to the Commissioner- General, have to date allocated a total of approximately 3,914 plots of land in the Gaza Strip for housing projects. A total of 2,583 plots have been built on by 3,653 refugee families comprising 22,732 persons, buildings on 257 plots are under construction, 937 plots are still vacant and 137 have been built on by non-refugee families. In addition, 3,034 refugee families consisting of 18,823 persons have moved into 2,666 completed housing units consisting of 5,893 rooms.

12. Refugee families are continuing to purchase plots of land at subsidized rates for the construction of houses in the projects developed by the Israeli authorities in the Beit Lahiya, Nazleh and Tel-es-Sultan areas. The construction of multi-story apartment blocks in Sheikh Radwan, sponsored by Israeli authorities and offered for sale upon completion, as reported last year (A/42/507, para. 12), continues.
While some PalArabs took Israel up on this offer, the vast majority did not.

The Gaza City Website adds:
The quarter of Sheikh Radwan was established to the north of the city so as to evacuate Shati Camp and resettle the refugees whose houses were demolished by the Israeli occupation authorities, in the first stage. In the second stage, anyone else who wanted to move from Shati Camp to Sheikh Radwan Quarter had to demolish his house in order to obtain a house there. The goal behind this project was to resettle the refugees and put an end to their case, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Even Palestinian Arabs admit that Israel wanted to help them move out of camps and into houses, but they will twist the facts to make it sound like this was a bad thing:
Since the Gaza Strip is distinguished by a huge concentration of dispossessed Palestinian refugees maintained in large camps, the Israeli authorities, from the early stage of the 1967 occupation of the area, have devoted major effort to breaking up the camps and relocating their inhabitants elsewhere. The Israeli authorities have applied a clear policy of systematic destruction of refugee shelters and initiation of resettlement schemes, aimed in the short run at making the refugee camps less congested, while in the long run, the policy appears designed to remove these camps from the landscape entirely, since they remain a constant reminder of Palestinian uprootedness and exile. To date (1990), the Israeli strategy of demolishing the entire refugee camp network has failed to achieve its final objective.

In general, the Arab leaders have wanted to keep as many people in the camps as possible because keeping them in misery helps their political goals, and it has been no secret that Arab leaders have vied with themselves to use Palestinian Arabs as pawns for decades. But what was not clear was that a large percentage of Palestinian Arabs are willing to perpetuate the problem of being stuck in camps themselves - because it is a free ride. The fact is that their so-called "leaders" will happily exploit this, as will UNRWA in its attempt for self-preservation.

No better proof is needed than the fact that since Israel left Gaza, the camps are still there, along with the free UNRWA handouts. This benefits everyone: the UNRWA stays embedded in Gaza and feels like it is useful, the PA/Hamas can point to "refugee" camps as examples of Israeli cruelty, and the camp residents themselves get all the UNRWA benefits without having to actually try to work for a living.