Palestinians: Refugees Forever?

The UN looks after millions who are classified as refugees, minimizing incentives to solve the Palestinian refugee issue and constituting an obstacle to future peace negotiations.

Asaf Romirowsky
Alexander Joffe
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Asaf Romirowsky
Alexander Joffe

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed the Kirk Amendment as part of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2013. The bill requires the State Department to specify to Congress, for the first time, what proportion of the five million Palestinians who are supported by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, are refugees who were actually displaced from their homes and what number are descendant of those refugees.

Every year, a sum of $240 million of US public is channeled to the assistance of Palestinian refugees via UNRWA. The Kirk Amendment challenges the notion that being a Palestinian refugee can be passed down through the generations, and thereby questions the ever-expanding numbers of Palestinians that are UNRWA’s target group. The original proposal by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), would have made personal displacement from one's home necessarily for the definition "refugee" as well as the absence of any other citizenship.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and company should be commended for their sincere efforts to tackle one if not the main ingredients that ensures and exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UNRWA claims that its services will no longer be needed when there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is UNRWA – set up as a temporary agency - that advocates an unending narrative of occupation and a perpetuation of refugee-hood.

UNRWA is an open-ended educational social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But in what sense are any of these individuals truly refugees, those who should fall within UNRWA’s remit?

Publicly, UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” In reality UNRWA has continually expanded the definition to include “the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA's operations, and (c) in need.” The best estimates are that perhaps 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-1949. By UNRWA’s accounting, however, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions.
This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades. The result of this 60 year long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to ever end its operations.

UNRWA states that the Palestinians are occupied - indefinitely. UNRWA has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. Of the 30,000 people that UNRWA employs, the vast majority are Palestinian: UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Contrast this to the UN High Commission for Refugees, that only employs 5-6,000 people globally, and which focuses far more clearly on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees and building new lives, and not on maintaining services that prop up the status quo.

In 2009, then U.S. Congressmen Mark Kirk (R - IL) and Steve Rothman (D - NJ) introduced provisions for UNRWA Accountability into appropriations bills. They called for transparency and responsibility from UNRWA and sought to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United States did not fund acts of terrorism in any way, thereby bringing the funding of Palestinians into compliance with the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The provisions died in committee.

Now, for the first time, Israeli politicians are proposing that UNRWA adopt limits on the numbers of refugees it serves. Inspired by Kirk, Israeli MK Einat Wilf (Independence) has launched a new, international parliamentary campaign to restructure UNRWA and “combat the inflation of numbers of refugees” in order to make a two-state solution possible. Wilf has called for the international community to address the continual inflation in refugee numbers, and plans to appeal to parliamentary committees that are responsible for approving budget contributions to UNRWA.

It is long past the time that limits should be set on the never-ending expansion of Palestinian refugees. With initiatives in play in the US Congress and internationally addressing the core of UNRWA’s rationale and operations, there is finally a possibility that the international community can take a serious look at UNRWA’s role in helping perpetuate the Palestinian refugee number question, which will have a decisive role in any future negotiations towards a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a historian and writer in New York.



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