Fred Gottheil lecture on Palestinian Refugees -- by Seán Kinane

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Yesterday afternoon at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus, the Humanities Institute and the Department of World Languages Education sponsored a lecture by Fred Gottheil. Gottheil is a Professor in the Department of Economics at University of Illinois, Urbana. He spoke about the Palestinian refugee problem and how he thinks the problem could be solved. WMNF’s Seán Kinane reports.


Gottheil described the history of refugees during the 20th century. He said that despite the large number of Palestinian refugees and how much attention they receive around the world, their plight is not much different from that of a dozen or so other large refugee populations that have been created within the last hundred years. In almost all cases, the refugees were either repatriated to their country of origin or resettled in foreign lands.


“In every case of these tens of millions of people, the resolution of the refugee problem takes two forms. One, of repatriation, going back after a conflict. You go back to an area. Or resettlement.  And you find both forces at work in all these cases.”


But Gottheil said that the Palestinians have neither been repatriated to their homeland nor resettled in lands beyond. He thinks that the reason for this might be due to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, also called UNRWA or “unrwa.” While all other refugees in the world are placed under the trust of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNRWA focuses only on Palestinian Refugees. But, Gottheil feels, because the refugees had nowhere to go, UNRWA was destined from the beginning to become a caretaker agency.


“If you were head of UNRWA, 1951, you’re checkmated in both sides. One, Arab states don’t want the refugees in. Two, Israelis won’t take them back. Now the question is, what do you do? And what they did was redesign what they were. Its function now is not repatriation and resettlement, because, heck, they can’t do that. So what do you do? You become a caretaker agency.”


According to Gottheil, this has led to Palestinian refugees becoming dependent on UNRWA rather than attempting to overcome their status as refugees. He calls this UNRWA’s “Moral Hazard.”


“70% of the Palestinian refugees have their own homes. The other 30% rent. But the rent is rent-free. It is handled by UNWRA; UNWRA also pays for utilities, such as water, and sanitation services. It provides healthcare. The healthcare coverage ranks with one of the best healthcare coverages in the Middle East and in Southern Europe. The most important benefit given is education. Literacy rates 80% for males, 72% for females.”


But Jamie Hammad disagrees; Hammad is the Programs Coordinator for the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR and attended the lecture. She thinks that instead of blaming the UN or the Palestinians for still being refugees, the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands is the cause. She also disagrees with Gottheil’s rosy picture of life in Palestinian refugee camps.


“He mentioned that the healthcare, the education, and the water sanitation were very high standards in Palestine. Well, I’ve been to Lebanon and I’ve seen the camps in Sabra and Shatila. And I’ve seen hospitals built there by the U.N. And essentially, at this point they’re no longer hospitals, they’re housing for refugees. So, where he’s basing these claims, I would be interested to know.”


Gottheil’s proposed solution to the “Moral Hazard” of UNWRA, is to end the program by letting its mandate expire.


“I would argue that if the mandate were allowed to expire, it would force a resolution to that organization that has been long in coming and 50 years too late. It’s dramatic, it’s traumatic, but that, I think, is not only the hope for Palestinan refugees, but it’s hope for peace in the region.”


But Hammad does not see that as a humane solution to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees, especially since most foreign aid has been cut to the Palestinians in the aftermath of last year’s democratic elections in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.



“Ending a program that is basically the only source that Palestinians have at this point – all aid has been cut off to them recently, they have nothing coming in. So the very little support they’re getting from the international community, it would be a big mistake to cut off that support.”


As evidence for his theory that UNWRA is a disincentive for refugees to become resettled, Gottheil used the fact that the refugee camps inside the Gaza Strip have not been dismantled and the refugees have not been resettled in the time since the 2005 Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza.



“The Israelis last year [sic] got out of Gaza. No Israeli, not an Israeli soldier, not an Israeli dog, cat, nothing Israeli is in Gaza. You would think that the first thing they would do was to dissolve the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza. No, there is no mention of getting rid of the camps. Reason? Moral Hazard. It is a life of its own.”


Ahmed Bedier is the executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter of CAIR and a programmer on WMNF’s weekly True Talk show. He disputes the claim that residents of the Gaza strip are free to exercise self-determination.



“Before which Gaza was a big open-air prison with guards inside the prison. Now the guards went outside the prison and they’re building a wall around that prison and they’re staying guard at those walls. So it’s continuing to be a prison.  The airspace is controlled by Israel, the borders are controlled by Israel, even the beaches are controlled by Israel. They’re not free to leave their country or enter their country; it’s only at the mercy of the Israeli government. And that doesn’t sound like they really left, they’re still controlling everything.”


For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane




Fred Gottheil


Gottheil, Fred “UNRWA and Moral Hazard” Middle Eastern Studies Vol 42, No. 3, pp. 409-421, May 2006. DOI: 10.1080/00263200500521263


Humanities Institute – USF


Department of World Languages Education


CAIR Florida


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