Saturday, October 23, 2010

UNRWA official: Hamas in contact with most foreign nations


Andrew Whitley says Norway, Switzerland and Germany, among others, "quietly" having contacts with Gaza leadership; calls on Palestinians to prepare refugees for near certainty that they will never return to Israel.

WASHINGTON – A senior UNRWA official broached two largely taboo topics at a conference in Washington on Friday, saying governments across Europe and the world have had contacts with Hamas and that Palestinian refugees should acknowledge that they will almost certainly not be returning to Israel. Andrew Whitley, due to soon leave his post as director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s New York Representative Office, told the National Council for US-Arab Relations’ annual conference that contacts with Hamas were commonplace.

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“I think it’s fair to say that all governments, whether they admit it or not, have had discrete contact with Hamas,” Whitley said. He singled out Norway, Switzerland and Germany as “quietly” having contacts.

Germany has been involved in discussions over a prisoner exchange with Israel for IDF solider Gilad Schalit, whom Hamas has held since 2006.

Whitley suggested that contacts were important as part of efforts to unify the divided Palestinian government as well as alleviate suffering in Gaza.

Whitley also said that Palestinians must start acknowledging that the refugees will almost certainly not be returning to Israel so that they can improve their situation.

Palestinians have long maintained a “right of return” to Israel and the homes they – or their parents and grandparents fled – in Israel 1948 War of Independence. The issue has been one of the most difficult to resolve in peace negotiations.

“If one doesn’t start a discussion soon with the refugees for them to consider what their own future might be -- for them to start debating their own role in the societies where they are rather than being left in a state of limbo where they are helpless but preserve rather the cruel illusions that perhaps they will return one day to their homes -- then we are storing up trouble for ourselves,” he declared.

Whitley acknowledged that few Palestinians and even officials in his own organization have been willing to publicly discuss the issue.

“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,” he said. “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.”

There are now 4.8 million Palestinian refugees, the descendants of less than 1 million who left present-day Israel in 1948. These people are most likely to remain either in Gaza and the West Bank or their current host countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, though Whitley noted a very small number might be absorbed elsewhere in the world.

Though UNRWA currently ministers to the Palestinian refugees needs rather than resettles them, Whitley suggested this is a role the organization might take on.

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