Natan Sharansky Doesn’t Know What the Meaning of Refugee Is

The UN refugee agency occupies itself with over 30 million refugees across the world. In about the only words worth quoting positively from Natan Sharansky’s otherwise galling op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today, the organization “works tirelessly to improve [refugees’] conditions, to relocate them, and to help them rebuild their lives as quickly as possible.” However, in Sharansky’s sickening formulation, the UN refugee program in Gaza is also responsible for perpetuating the vast suffering of Palestinian refugees.

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Sharansky’s problem, it seems, is that the UN program in Gaza, known as the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has not been forceful enough in clearing the estimated 1 million refugees (out of a population of about 1.4 million) out of camps in Gaza. He takes particular umbrage at the perfectly legitimate question raised to him by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas: “How can we move [the refugees] if we do not know where they will live?”

The Gaza strip, it bears reminding, is about one-seventh the size of the state of Rhode Island. With 1.4 million people. The job of a refugee agency is not to force people to their homes — even presuming they have homes to return to. On the contrary, the UN operates under humanitarian law that explicitly upholds the rights of refugees not to face forced return to places where their lives are in danger. And while Sharansky may claim that leaving camps would not endanger refugees’ lives, the situation in Gaza right now, coupled with Mr. Abbas’ very pertinent question, makes this contention, at the least, deeply unsettling.

The UN is not abetting terrorists in Gaza. It is helping address what, by any account, is a dire humanitarian emergency, and it, unlike Mr. Sharansky, unequivocally considers every refugee’s life — Palestinian or Israeli — equally worthy of protection.

(map from Wikimedia Commons)