How to Depoliticize Palestinian Refugee Status

by Clifford Smith, The American Spectator

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.

“I 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.”

The 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 includeIbrahim Jundiya (left) and Bassam Abu Akr (2nd from left), both in jail for masterminding suicide bombings in Israel. Photo by Clifford Smith.

While 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.

The 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.

As I’ve witnessed 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.

However, 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 would likely continue in their jobs under new management, merely renaming the problem. Moreover, UNHCR’s definition of a refugee, while different from UNRWA’s, has significant loopholes. For example, while UNHCR does not generally allow for generational refugee status, it has made exceptions in some cases, including by taking “emotional dependency” into consideration, a concept prone to abuse by Israel’s foes.

There is little appetite in the UN for dismantling UNRWA.

In 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.

The 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.’

As 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.

Clifford Smith is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project.

July 12, 2017 | 3 Comments » | 252 views

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. In 1976 the movie “All the President’s men” popularized the phrase “follow the money”. It’s always interesting to do so.

    The UNRWA is a huge organization, and it’s very existence is contingent upon the continuing conflict between the Arab nations and Israel. There is in UNRWA zero incentives to actually solve the conflict. Thousands of over-paid UN officials depend on the continuation of the refugee situation and the Israeli-Arab conflit for their salaries. So, yes, it should be dissolved and its tasks rolled into UNHCR.

    The Arab nations also need the conflict with Israel to continue so that they can keep the locals eyes on that ball rather than the fact that they are destroying their own nation for their own gain.

    The sad thing in this conflict is that there is only one party that actually desires peace, and that party is Israel. No other party, international organization or country, has any vested interest in peace in the Middle East, and certainly no interest in an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

    Now, about refugees. When communicating with pro-Arab European politicians about the Arab refugee situation, one of the questions I ask is the following. Looking to the Somali refugee situation of a few years back, imagine a country in Europe taking in a few hundred thousand Somali refugees. On arrival the refugees were stripped of their passports, their statehood and their liberty. They were then thrown into huge prison camps without the right to live in freedom, acquire jobs and an income and a citizenship and a passport. Imagine then that these people had children, and the children were kept in these prison camps. Then the grandchildren. Still imprisoned in their camps. The camps were crowded, under-developed etc.

    I ask them if they can imagine this. Then I ask them, how would you react to such a behavior on part of Germany. They are of course all aghast at the very idea. They would of course oppose this at every angle and protest loudly. So, I ask them why they don’t protest this situation when it is perpetrated by the Arab neighbors of Israel.

    I also point out that two years before the Arab refugee situation started, in 1945, AFTER the end of WWII, Poland occupied significant parts of German territory, forcefully drove out millions of Germans killing as many as half a million Germans in the process, and you don’t have a UN organization fighting for the rights of these Germans to return to their “homeland”.

  2. Sure. Organizations change their ideologies all the time. Just like HIAS, and the ADL which started out advocating for Jews but now advocate for the Muslim migrants who want to kill all the Jews.

    Hmmm.

    With family like this, who needs “friends.”

  3. [PM] recently called for dismantling [UNRWA] and rolling its functions into the [UNHCR]

    Rearranging the deck chairs.

    One government bureaucracy is as bad as the next.

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