HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Palestinians: bargaining chip in Mideast poker

The Palestinians, one of the modern world's longest-lasting refugee problems, haunt all efforts to achieve an acceptable Middle East peace settlement. Relief officials maintain that as long as the issue remains unresolved the Palestinians will continue to require international assistance. As a result, they have occupied the unique position of permanent refugees under the special protection of the United Nations Relief and Works Association (UNRWA).

Today UNWRA cares for 1.8 million Palestinians -- those who lost their homes and livelihoods in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict plus their descendants. They are spread across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria; but only 15 percent now still actually live in refugee camps.

Despite the "permanent" status of the Palestinian refugees, UNWRA itself -- created in 1949 to provide food relief, health services, and education -- is considered a "temporary organization" and must periodically renew its mandate. Its present one extends to June 30, 1981.

UN sources say that the agency, headquartered here, is finding it more and more difficult to obtain funds. The greater part of its $185 million budget for 1980 was contributed by the United States, the European Community, Sweden, and Japan. Arab countries have given limited support. The East bloc hasn't given anything, arguing that the West is responsible for the Middle East crisis and must therefore pay for it. Yugoslavia, however, donates $25,000 a year.

Jews who settled in Israel itself a country of refugees, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflit were not considered refugees. They automatically became citizens.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the UNHCR has been providing assistance to the Kurds who fled to Iran after an unsuccessful revolt against Iraq in 1974 and 1975. Those fleeing the civil war in Lebanon have tended to do so under their own steam, or with the help of voluntary agencies. In Cyprus many of the 200, 000 displaced Greeks and Turks have now been resettled. Relief officials forecast a gradual reduction in housing, education, and health assistance.

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