Mike Pompeo’s Twitter account has apparently tucked a notable policy statement into an otherwise unremarkable legacy-burnishing tweetstorm — and it has significant implications for U.S. support of Israel at the U.N.
The tweet was just one of the dozens that the secretary of state’s account has fired off every day since the start of 2021 to note his foreign-policy accomplishments as he nears the end of his tenure. It’s generally unremarkable stuff — some old pictures and graphics with snappy, occasionally stilted sloganeering (though more than a few Pompeo critics have seized on it as an opportunity to go after the top Trump official).
But Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noticed a decision that has otherwise gone unremarked upon: When @SecPompeo shared the 2018 press release announcing the U.S. decision to halt funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the post stated that “it’s estimated <200,000 Arabs diplaced in 1948 are still alive and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria.”
UNRWA serves Palestinian refugees exclusively — it says that there are 5.8 million of them in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine — and it’s the only organization within the U.N. system that focuses on a specific set of refugees. (All other refugee groups are handled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.) It’s a testament to the U.N.’s single-minded obsession with criticizing Israel, holding the Jewish state to a different standard.
But what actually makes someone a refugee? Many have disputed the 5 million number as a gross inflation that purposefully overstates the true refugee population in order to undermine Israel at the U.N. Goldberg, dissecting Pompeo’s statement, takes square aim at a longstanding myth:
UNRWA claims to serve millions of “Palestinian refugees.” These “refugees” are in some cases kept in poverty and hopelessness, told they are waiting for the day when they will return to their rightful homes within modern Israel (to end the Jewish majority of the state).
Of course, most people served by UNRWA don’t meet basic criteria for refugee status. Most are either citizens of other countries or live within Palestinian territories. Most were not displaced by conflict. Yet @StateDept has promoted UNRWA’s fiction for decades – with taxpayer $.
And so, the U.S. government’s estimate, as the outgoing secretary of state notes, is that the actual number of refugees is less than 200,000 — and Goldberg suggests that it could be even lower than that. And despite what skeptics of the current administration’s foreign policy may think, this isn’t a Trump-era fabrication. In fact, the figure appears to come from a report completed during the Obama administration that has remained classified in the years since.
These numbers matter. For one, there remains significant support at the U.N. for the agency and its activities as they stand (never mind the numerous corruption and anti-Semitism scandals that have roiled the agency over the years). Just last month, the U.N. General Assembly passed one of its annual, lopsidedly anti-Israel resolutions expressing its continued support for UNRWA. According to the tally kept by U.N. Watch, an NGO that monitors U.N. malfeasance, only four countries opposed it.
To a domestic audience, this figure will play a role in the future debate over U.S. support for UNRWA, which is facing a significant budget shortfall. Before the Trump administration cut off funding for the agency, the United States accounted for about a quarter of its budget. With a new president set to take office, there could well be a return to the status quo. UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini expressed his hopes during a press conference this week that the incoming Biden administration would resume funding for the organization. He also admitted that the agency had distributed textbooks that glorify violence and identify Israel as “the enemy.”
The disclosure of the number of people that can truly be considered refugees should make anyone think twice about returning to the status quo of U.S. support for the agency, and it chips away at some persistent myths.