How to Depoliticize Palestinian Refugee Status
In a bold
reversal of longstanding Israeli policy, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu recently called for dismantling the United Nations Relief and Works
Agency (UNRWA) and rolling its functions into the United Nations High Commission
on Refugees (UNHCR), which handles the rest of the world's refugees. Previously,
despite the multitude of failings of UNRWA, Israel has long cooperated with the
group and hitherto opposed proposals to shut it down, fearing the humanitarian
consequences and resulting instability.
regret that UNRWA, to a large degree, by its very existence, perpetuates — and
does not solve — the Palestinian refugee problem," Netanyahu said,
referring to UNRWA's expansive definition of a "refugee."
prime minister's call was well-timed: UNRWA just used a picture of a
Syrian child as propaganda, suggesting incorrectly she was a Gaza
resident, and revelations of Hamas
using UNRWA schools as cover for tunnels aimed at kidnapping and
murder have flooded the news. While UNRWA was
initially intended to resettle refugees, it has since dropped that
task from its mission. Indeed, it resists resettlement and has continually changed
its definition of a refugee to include people generations removed
from the conflict, people who are citizens of new states, and people who are in
their internationally recognized home of the West Bank and Gaza. No other
organization uses a similar definition.
Walls like this abound in the UNRWA camp in Aida. The names include
Ibrahim Jundiya (left) and
Bassam Abu Akr (2nd from
left), both in jail for masterminding suicide bombings in Israel. Photo by
the U.S. originally protested UNRWA's evolving definition, in recent years, the
State Department has defended
UNRWA's current definition. In practice, this means is that while there were
about 700,000 refugees in 1950, there will be a
projected 6.4 million faux "refugees" in 2020, even though
most live normal lives for people in the region. An estimated 2 million are
Jordanian citizens. This bizarre definition is purely political, aimed at
protecting the so-called "right of return," a novel legal claim that
people generations removed from the conflict have the right to return to a
country their ancestral leaders tried to destroy.
reasoning behind merging UNRWA into UNHCR is that UNHCR does not work to
perpetuate the conflict, but to improve the lives of their clients. UNHCR,
unlike UNRWA, actually works to resettle refugees (over
600,000 to new countries between 2005 and 2015). UNHCR disallows
"citizen refugees" and does not automatically confer refugee status to
descendants. UNRWA does the opposite.
Transferring existing UNRWA infrastructure to UNCHR
would likely have little practical effect.
first hand, UNRWA camps are dedicated to violent anti-Israel
propaganda and indoctrinating their clients into demanding a "right of
return," above all else, unlike UNHCR camps.
in practice, transferring existing UNRWA infrastructure to UNCHR's charge would
likely have little practical effect. UNRWA is staffed largely by Palestinians
who are hostile to Israel and have worked to feed incitement and terrorism. Many
continue in their jobs under new management, merely renaming the
problem. Moreover, UNHCR's definition of a refugee, while different from UNRWA's,
loopholes. For example, while UNHCR does not generally allow for
generational refugee status, it has made exceptions in some cases, including by
dependency" into consideration, a concept prone to abuse by
is little appetite in the UN for dismantling UNRWA.
any event, UNRWA can only be dismantled by a vote of the UN General Assembly. As
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made clear in his quick rebuke of
Netanyahu's statement, there is little appetite in the UN to implement such a
change, and it would be virtually impossible for the U.S., or any other country,
to achieve it.
most effective thing the U.S. can do to combat the pernicious impact of UNRWA is
surprisingly simple — start applying its own laws and policies, which disallow
both citizen and generational refugees, and would disallow West Bank and Gaza
residents to be refugees in their own home, to its transactions with UNRWA. In
other words, in the eyes of America, you are a "refugee" only if you
would meet America's standard of a refugee, otherwise, you are simply a
Palestinian in need. UNRWA funding would continue, but while reserving the
designation of "refugee" only for those few who left their homes
during Israel's War for Independence (by some
estimates, as few as 30,000 people).
We must stop paying homage to UNRWA's politicized
definition of 'Palestinian refugee.'
UNRWA's biggest donor since its inception, the U.S. can persuade other donors,
many of whom agree concerning UNRWA's problems (Canada went so far as to withhold
UNRWA funding before political winds changed), to do the same.
Together, they can exert pressure on UNRWA to change its destructive definition,
and perhaps eventually to dispense with its propaganda about six million
Palestinian "refugees" altogether and stop preaching that the life
goal of every Palestinian should be to "return" to a place he or she
has never known.
It will take time, but ending this destructive belief is
possible. The first step, however, is to stop paying homage to it ourselves.