With the stroke of a pen, a new bill in Congress could slash the number of Palestinian refugees -- and open a world of controversy (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY JONATHAN SCHANZER 05/21/12)
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A war is brewing on Capitol Hill. And while wars tend to create
refugees, this one may result in fewer of them.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is trying to get a handle on the real number of
Palestinian refugees in the Middle East -- a move that could result
in a change of status for millions of Palestinians. His proposed
language for the 2013 foreign appropriations bill would require the
U.S. government to confirm just how many Palestinians currently
served by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) -- the body tasked
with providing assistance, protection, and advocacy for Palestinian
refugees -- are actually refugees. The bill, slated for markup on May
22, would challenge the status of the children, grandchildren, and
great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees -- a great many of whom
claim to be refugees despite the fact that they were never personally
displaced in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.
The aim of this proposed legislation, Kirk´s office explains, is not
to deprive Palestinians who live in poverty of essential services,
but to tackle one of the thorniest issues of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict: the "right of return." The dominant Palestinian narrative
is that all of the refugees of the Israeli-Palestinian wars have a
right to go back, and that this right is not negotiable. But here´s
the rub: By UNRWA´s own count, the number of Palestinians who
describe themselves as refugees has skyrocketed from 750,000 in 1950
to 5 million today. As a result, the refugee issue has been an
immovable obstacle in round after round of negotiations between the
Israelis and Palestinians.
How have these numbers swelled, particularly as the Palestinians who
fled or were forced from their homes in 1948 and 1967 grew old and
died? This question lies at the crux of the Kirk amendment. And the
answer is UNRWA.
The knock on UNRWA is that it exists to perpetuate the refugee
problem, not solve it. It was UNRWA that bestowed refugee status
upon "descendants of refugees," regardless of how much time had
elapsed. As a result, the Palestinian refugee population has grown
seven-fold since the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As one study
projects, if descendants maintain their current status, the number
of "refugees" in 2020 will be 6.4 million -- despite the fact that
few of the actual, displaced Palestinians will still be alive. In
2050, that number will reach 14.7 million.
UNRWA, which calls for a "just and durable" solution to the refugee
problem, has unquestionably been a silent partner to the Palestinian
leadership. The agency´s administration fully understands that if
Israel accepted the PLO´s demand, it would be demographic suicide. As
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself has admitted,
asking the Jewish state to repatriate 5 million Palestinians "would
mean the end of Israel."
UNRWA´s warts notwithstanding, American taxpayers have rewarded it
year after year. In the 2011 fiscal year, U.S. assistance to UNRWA
stood at $249.4 million. Total contributions since its founding in
1949 amount to a staggering $4.4 billion.
In recent years, politicians and policy wonks, including one former
UNRWA administrator, have called for UNRWA reform. The agency hasn´t
merely demurred; it has girded for battle. UNRWA set up shop in
Washington with two Hill-savvy professionals, despite the fact that
its operations are entirely based in the Middle East, anticipating
the need for what looks a full-scale lobby effort to defend its
mission. The agency even toyed with changing its name last year in an
attempt to burnish its image in the West.
UNRWA´s time to defend itself has unquestionably arrived. The Kirk
amendment would require the secretary of state to report to Congress
on how many Palestinians serviced by UNRWA are true refugees from
wars past -- those who could prove that they were personally
displaced. That number is believed to be closer to 30,000 people.
This new tally would then become the focus of America´s assistance to
UNRWA for refugee issues.
Despite congressional Republicans´ current fervor to rein in
America´s out-of-control debt, the bill´s proponents do not call for
a full cutoff to the descendants. Rather, they seek to ensure that
UNRWA services keep flowing to those who are needy. The United States
would simply not view them as refugees -- just people living in the
West Bank or Gaza and below the poverty line.
But funding for the future would not be guaranteed. As Kirk´s office
explains, Congress will soon need to consider tough questions, like
whether U.S. taxpayers should be footing the bill for welfare
programs in the West Bank and Gaza, or whether such services should
be provided by the Palestinian Authority.
The fact that this language has made it to mark-up is nothing short
of remarkable. The Israelis have historically avoided locking horns
with UNRWA at all costs. In fact, they have quietly lobbied against
UNRWA reform in the past. As one Israeli official confided, the
Israel Defense Forces don´t want to risk being saddled with providing
services to the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza should UNRWA
unravel. Indeed, one of the Israelis´ primary purposes in signing the
Oslo Accords and supporting the creation of the Palestinian Authority
was to ensure that they were no longer saddled with the
responsibility of providing services to the Palestinians in the West
Bank and Gaza.
But today, with the peace process moribund, if not dead, the Israelis
believe that UNRWA reform could serve as a defibrillator of sorts. By
tackling one of the toughest challenges of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict without the bedlam that typically accompanies bilateral
negotiations, there would theoretically be one less sticking point
when the stars align again for diplomacy. Under the leadership of
Knesset member Einat Wilf, this idea now has the backing of the prime
minister´s office, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of
In Washington, a coalition is still forming. Rep. Howard Berman (D-
CA), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,
broadly backs this idea but has yet to introduce language on the
House side. However, bipartisanship may not be enough: The State
Department, which pledged an additional $10 million in UNRWA in
March, is expected to put up a fight. The legislation would
undoubtedly anger some of Washington´s Arab allies, and Foggy Bottom
tries to avoid that at all costs.
But such grumblings will likely pale in comparison to the expected
outcry in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in
neighboring Arab countries. The refugee narrative is a sacred one in
Palestinian political culture. Palestinian leaders will not simply
table it because Congress passes new legislation. Rather, it´s a fair
bet they will mobilize. When UNRWA merely mulled a name change in
July 2011, Palestinians organized protests and sit-ins. Proposing
real changes to UNRWA could even prompt violence.
In short, the Kirk legislation would strip Palestinian the
descendants of their political symbolism. It would be a landmark for
this generations-old conflict, but whether it paves the way for peace
or conflict remains to be seen. There are few more potent symbols of
the Palestinian cause. Don´t expect Palestinians to give it up easily.
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