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Thursday, June 24, 2010

UNRWA's 1951 report: The beginnings of a welfare culture

As a follow-up to my post on the 1950 UNRWA report, here are some highlights from the 1951 report.

5.... In the large towns such as Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, there was, in addition, a fairly large floating population of unskilled labourers, working in the ports, or for the oil companies, who had migrated from the country owing to the pressure on the land. Since the last census under the Mandate was taken, as far back as 1931, such persons were mostly registered in their village of origin, although for many years they had lived and worked in the large towns. The effect of this unrecorded movement of population has been to introduce a double source of error into any estimates of the number of persons who could have become refugees; since more people came out of towns in Israeli-held territory than were registered there and fewer people were actually living in the villages of the area which was later annexed to Jordan.
Here is another source of error of counting the numbers of refugees: People who really lived in Jordan and the West Bank would work in the coastal cities for much of the year. They fled along with the other Arabs, but they had homes to go to. Even so, they seem to have been counted as "refugees" anyway.

15. Today, after nearly three years, the refugees are still scattered over 100,000 square miles of territory in five different countries; still dependent on relief and without knowledge of the future; the victims of circumstances they are unable to grasp. Legally, humanly and economically speaking, they are little better off than they were when they first left Palestine, since against the sporadic and low-paid work that some of them have found must be set the exhaustion of the resources that others managed to bring out. No government, except in Jordan, has proclaimed their right to stay.

28. The number of refugees housed in UNRWAPRNE camps has risen by some twenty per cent since May 1950, and is still rising. Many thousands of new applications are received each month. These originate from (I) families who have hitherto managed to maintain themselves in lodgings but are now too poor to pay the rent however small; (II) new arrivals from Israel; (III) refugees who have been evicted for quarrelling with the villagers or for cutting down the fruit trees for fuel; and, lately (IV), some considerable movement of the population in the search of water, particularly in Jordan, as a result of the severe drought that has dried up wells and cisterns.
Why were there new arrivals from Israel in 1950 and 1951? I am not aware of any expulsions or mass flight during that time period; on the contrary, as I showed in the previous post, Israel bent over backwards to accommodate the refugees and displaced persons. My only guess is that some Arabs either wanted to go to the same camps as their families; they were disgusted at the idea of living in a Jewish state; or they decided that it would be better to move to a camp with free lodging, education and medical care than to try to find jobs in Israel.

This next section is probably the most accurate description of how Palestinian Arab refugees thought, written before UNRWA became hopelessly corrupt:
(c) The morale of the refugee

32. Owing to his intense individualism, the refugee has little sense of solidarity with his fellows. The concept of giving increased relief to the very needy is incomprehensible to him, making it very difficult for the Agency to distribute welfare goods to special cases. In the same way, much persuasion is necessary before he is willing to contribute labour for the greater good of the camp, or even for mending his own tent, unless he is paid for it.
In 1951, Arabs from Palestine exhibited zero sense of nationalism or unity. The idea that they self-identified with a nation called Palestine is a joke. To be sure, they were attached to their homes, but these ties were familial and tribal, not national. As we saw during the 1948 war, Palestinian Arabs would not fight for any other villages besides their own.

33. To his natural individualistic tendencies has now been added the characteristics of the typical refugee mentality, and its passive expectation of continued benefits. In the crowded and abnormal existence that the refugee leads, moral values tend to deteriorate and the authority of the head of the family, which would formerly have kept such behaviour in check, has seriously declined; yet, in spite of this, he has retained his inherent dignity to a remarkable degree.
A welfare state generates laziness. To be sure, many Palestinian Arabs took the initiative and started finding jobs; tens of thousands moved to Gulf states in the 1950s and helped build countries there from scratch. However, the camps tended to attract the ones who felt a sense of entitlement, and they in turn bred more of the same. This mentality infested UNRWA itself over the years, as the agency lost interest in finding jobs for the PalArabs.
34. It is probably true to say that the refugees are physically better off than the poorest levels of the population of the host countries; and in some cases better off, in the way of social services, than they were in Palestine; but, in their minds, the overwhelming fact of being uprooted from their homes, dependent and yet insecure, is more than enough to cancel out these benefits.
The mentality can be understood in 1951, but the fact that it has become institutionalized today is one of the greatest failings of UNRWA. The report mentions a number of times how its services were very attractive to neighboring Arabs who were not directly affected by the war.
35. The United Nations, in particular certain of the great Powers, are considered by the refugee to be entirely responsible for both his past and present misfortunes, and for his future fate. They say that they have lost faith in United Nations action since, after more than thirty months, the General Assembly resolution recommending their return home, although not revoked, has never been implemented and no progress has been made towards compensation.

36. The relief given by the Agency is therefore considered as a right, and as such is regarded as inadequate. Individual efforts to explain the situation to them are usually in vain; the refugee will listen politely but in the end remains convinced both of the bitter injustice done to him, and the fact that little or nothing is being done to rectify it.

37. The desire to go back to their homes is general among all classes; it is proclaimed orally at all meetings and organized demonstrations, and, in writing, in all letters addressed to the Agency and all complaints handed in to the area officers. Many refugees are ceasing to believe in a possible return, yet this does not prevent them from insisting on it, since they feel that to agree to consider any other solution would be to show their weakness and to relinquish their fundamental right, acknowledged even by the General Assembly. They are, moreover, sceptical of the promised payment of compensation.

38. This sense of injustice, frustration and disappointment has made the refugee irritable and unstable. There are occasional strikes, demonstrations and small riots. There have been demonstrations over the census operation, strikes against the medical and welfare services, strikes for cash payment instead of relief, strikes against making any improvements, such as school buildings, in camps in case this might mean permanent resettlement; experimental houses to replace tents, erected by the Agency, have been torn down; and for many months, in Syria and Lebanon, there was widespread refusal to work on agency road-building and afforestation schemes.
This mentality became institutionalized, and eventually accepted by the UN. The nadir of the same counterproductive thinking that caused the 1951 refugees to tear down houses may have occurred in 1977, with UN Resolution 32/90, in response to Israel's having built permanent housing for Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip. The resolution called on Israel to return the Arabs to the camps rather than let them have real homes, thus showing how important the perpetuation of the "refugee" problem had become to the UN itself thirty years after it had started.

39. This then is rich and tempting soil for exploitation by those with other motives than the welfare of the refugee. Happily, there are defences that blunt this effort. There are enduring religious defences and there still exist resistant strengths of communal ties and leadership. There are sustaining services of food, shelter, health and education from many sources. There are refugees who left no assets in Palestine. There are refugees who wish to live in Arab countries. There are refugees who have sought and found new roots.
The refugees who no longer needed to be on the UN dole were therefore ignored in future reports, and the idea that all Palestinian Arabs are needy refugees became the conventional wisdom in part since UNRWA had no responsibility for the many who actually took control of their lives.