Politics & Policy

The Real Palestinian Refugee Problem

A Palestinian-refugee camp after World War II
Most of them aren’t really refugees. They’re pawns.

After World War II, the British left India, which was to be partitioned into two independent nations. One of them would have a Hindu majority, the other a Muslim majority. More than 7 million Muslims moved to the territory that became Pakistan. A similar number of Hindus and Sikhs moved to India. Today, not one remains a refugee.

After World War II, the British left Palestine, which was to be partitioned into two independent nations. One would have a Jewish majority, the other a Muslim majority. About 750,000 Muslims left the territories that became Israel. A similar number of Jews left Arab/Muslim lands. Today, not one of the Jews remains a refugee. But there are still Palestinian refugees — indeed, their number has mushroomed to almost 5 million. How is that possible? Through two mechanisms. First of all, a refugee, by definition, lives on foreign soil, but for Palestinians the definition has been changed, so that a displaced Palestinian on Palestinian soil also receives refugee status. Second, the international organization responsible for resettling refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was cut out from the start. A new organization was set up exclusively for Palestinians: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

In 1950, UNRWA defined a refugee as someone who had “lost his home and his means of livelihood” during the war launched by Arab/Muslim countries in response to Israel’s declaration of independent statehood. Fifteen years later, UNRWA decided — against objections from the United States — to include as refugees the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who left Israel. And in 1982, UNRWA further extended eligibility to all subsequent generations of descendants — forever.

#ad#Under UNRWA’s rules, even if the descendant of a Palestinian refugee has become a citizen of another state, he’s still a refugee. For example, of the 2 million refugees registered in Jordan, all but 167,000 hold Jordanian citizenship. (In fact, approximately 80 percent of Jordan’s population is Palestinian — not surprising, since Jordan occupies more than three-fourths of the area historically referred to as Palestine.) By adopting such a policy, UNRWA is flagrantly violating the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states clearly that a person shall cease to be considered a refugee if he has “acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.”

But UNRWA’s plan is to continue expanding — rather than shrinking — the Palestinian refugee population ad infinitum. According to UNHCR projections, by 2030 UNRWA’s refugee list will reach 8.5 million. By 2060 there will be 25 times the number registered by UNRWA in 1950 — even though not one of those who actually left Israel is likely to still be breathing.

Everyone understands what it would mean if all these refugees were actually to be granted a “right to return” to Israel. “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million,” Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said on March 24, 2009. “That would mean the end of Israel.”

But, of course, that’s the goal: The descendants of those displaced more than 60 years ago — when the first offer of what we’ve come to call a “two-state solution” was rejected — are being used as pawns to prevent a two-state solution now or in the future. By increasing the number of refugees, by maintaining that population in poverty, dependence, and anger, by understanding that the “right of return” will be demanded by some Palestinian leaders, UNRWA is helping the extremists to prevent peace and continue to wage a war of annihilation against Israel. This anti-peace policy is being funded largely by Americans: We’ve always been the largest donor to UNRWA, contributing about $4.4 billion since 1950.

A few members of Congress have figured out what’s going on and plan to do something about it. Senator Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) is working on an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that, for the first time, would establish as U.S. policy that only a Palestinian refugee can be classified as a Palestinian refugee — not a son, grandson, or great-grandson, and not someone who has resettled and taken citizenship in another country. The Kirk amendment would require the secretary of state to report to Congress on how many Palestinians serviced by UNRWA fit the traditional definition of a refugee.

Representative Howard Berman (D., Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also is considering legislative options in response to these problems. At the very least, these approaches would ensure that descendants of refugees would be listed — with unaccustomed clarity — as “descendants of refugees.”

They might still be eligible to receive UNRWA “services,” but as “Palestinian Authority citizens” who could look forward to becoming citizens of a Palestinian state — if and when the Palestinians come to the conclusion that establishing a Palestinian state is worth what it will cost: giving up the dream of destroying the Jewish state. Too few Palestinians are there yet. If Congress can rein in UNRWA, more may be moved in that direction.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Clifford D. May — Clifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...

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