Palestinian refugees forever? (UPI) UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL COMMENT) By ALEXANDER JOFFE and ASAF ROMIROWSKY WASHINGTON 05/25/12)
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WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- Palestinian identity is founded in on
three parts. One is that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy.
Another is that Palestinians are, individually and communally,
refugees, made so at the hands of Israel. The third part is that the
world, specifically the United Nations and Western countries, must
support these refugees until they can return to a future Palestine
and to homes in what is now Israel.
Since 1950 the vehicle for Palestinian refugees to be supported has
been the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. Costing almost $1 billion per
year, with funding provided by the U.S. and European states, UNRWA is
an open-ended, educational, social welfare system for millions of
Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
But in what sense are any of these individuals refugees?
Publicly, UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose "normal
place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15
May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result
of the 1948 conflict."
In reality UNRWA has continually expanded the definition to
include "the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible
for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b)
living in the area of UNRWA´s operations, and (c) in need."
The best estimates are that perhaps 700,000 Palestinians became
refugees in 1948-49. By UNRWA´s accounting, however, virtually every
Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number
reaches into the millions.
This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other
situation has a group been extended specific status that has been
continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period
of decades. The result of this 60-year-long process is that
incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and
elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to end its
operations. Western taxpayers are expected to shell out indefinitely
or at least until the U.N. General Assembly declares the problem
This state of affairs has provided Palestinians with a basic level of
health, education and welfare at the cost of reintegration into local
Arab societies. The development of Palestinian civil society and
democratic institutions has been retarded by financial dependence on
the international community and this has in turn fostered Palestinian
intransigence toward Israel. For the United States and other
countries that have paid out tens of billions, this situation is
In 2009, U.S. Reps. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Steve Rothman, D-N.J.,
introduced provisions for UNRWA Accountability into appropriations
bills. They called for transparency and responsibility from UNRWA and
sought to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United
States don´t fund acts of terrorism in any way, thereby bringing the
funding of Palestinians into compliance with the U.S. Foreign
Assistance Act of 1961.
The bill went further and underscored the need to evaluate the
textbooks used in Palestinian UNRWA schools to ascertain there was
no "inflammatory and inaccurate information about the United States
and the State of Israel, anti-Semitic teaching, as well as the
glorification of terrorists." The amendment died in committee.
In the three years since Kirk and company proposed their amendment
the situation has become more complicated. Direct U.S. funding of
UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority has increased but the latter has
gone ahead with an ill-advised push for a unilateral declaration of
independence in the United Nations and its various organs.
While part of the Palestinian Authority has worked toward building
governmental institutions, the leadership under Mahmoud Abbas has
boycotted talks with Israel while demanding that funding for itself
and for UNRWA be ensured.
It is long past time that limits are set on the never-ending
expansion of Palestinian refugees. A new proposal from Kirk therefore
sets out a more precise series of definitions for American aid to
UNRWA, to be specified in the Memorandum of Understanding with the
The draft amendment states that "a Palestinian refugee is defined as
a person whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and
May 1948, who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or
1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, who currently does not reside in the
West Bank or Gaza and who is not a citizen of any other state."
Refugee status would therefore no longer be heritable, at least if
UNRWA were to continue to receive U.S. funding. The amendment would
also require the secretary of State to report to Congress about the
notoriously slippery numbers of refugees and what measures the U.S.
government is taking to ensure these limits are abided by.
Even more specific provisions could be introduced. Historical
evidence has shown that UNRWA continually expanded its refugee rolls
in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan with unknown numbers of non-
Palestinians, to avoid confrontation and as a means of regional
development. UNRWA could be therefore required to demand evidence
that demonstrated an individual was resident in Palestine from 1946-
48 and that they were personally displaced as a result of the
UNRWA could also be required to independently verify that recipients
of aid aren´t currently citizens of other states. UNRWA could also be
directed to begin planning the handover of its operations to the
Palestinian Authority as well as to other Arab governments. And a
truly daring innovation would be to leave the executive branch no
wiggle room to evade congressional mandates with a presidential
The global financial crisis has had few silver linings but demanding
financial accountability and setting limits on refugee status from
UNRWA and the Palestinians are long-overdue changes that will improve
the Palestinians´ ability to become self-reliant. It may also improve
the chances for peace with Israel.
--(Alexander Joffe is a historian and writer in New York. Asaf
Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies and Middle East Forum.
--(United Press International´s "Outside View" commentaries are
written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of
important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect
those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an
open forum, original submissions are invited.) (© 2012 United Press
International, Inc. 05/25/10)
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