The Real Palestinian Refugee Crisis

Asaf Romirowsky

Asaf Romirowsky

Executive Director, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Asaf Romirowsky ~

From the Blog

Who are these refugees? How many actual refugees from 1948 are alive today? How is it possible that while other refugee populations shrink, the Palestinian refugees only grow? Why do they have their own UN agency separate from the other refugees around the world? A sobering look at the hijacking of humanitarian concepts for political ends.

Perhaps the most insurmountable and explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the so-called “right of return”—the demand that millions of Palestinians must be allowed to “return” to the State of Israel under any peace agreement. While Israel has made clear that it cannot agree to this, since it would effectively destroy Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians have steadfastly refused to compromise on the issue. This has made the “right of return” the primary obstacle to any peace agreement.

Despite the latest round of peace talks, there is little sign that the Palestinians are willing to change their stance. Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has unequivocally stated, “Let me put it simply: the right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return.” Abbas is by no means alone in this. In fact, whenever it appears that Abbas might waver, the reaction tends to be swift and ferocious.

At one point, for example, Ali Huwaidi, director of the Palestinian Organization for the Right of Return (“Thabit”) in Beirut, lashed out at Abbas, saying,

Regardless of Abbas’ statements, the right of return is guaranteed, individually and collectively, through UN resolutions. The refugees will not give up their right no matter where they are living today. Abbas is worried about flooding Israel with five million refugees while Israel has brought one million people from the former Soviet Union and no one complained about this. Our refugees will not accept any alternative to their right to return to their homeland and we do not care what Abbas’ position is.

But how many actual refugees are there? Surely over the years, many of those displaced have passed away, and such status does not normally transfer from generation to generation.

The issue is so emotive because, in many ways, Palestinian identity itself is embodied in the collective belief in a “right of return” to “Palestine.” Along with the belief that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy, Palestinian identity is largely based on the idea that the Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees; that they have been made so by Israel; and that the United Nations should support these refugees until they can return to what is now Israel.

This belief is passionately safeguarded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The organization was established in 1949 following the failure of the Arab war against Israel’s independence, and its original mandate was to provide services to the approximately 650,000 Arabs displaced by the conflict. Today, it is essentially a massive social welfare system serving millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. At the same time, its activities go well beyond simple humanitarianism. It plays a distinctly political role in Palestinian society, working to further the cause of Palestinian nationalism through politicized education, activism, anti-Israel propaganda, and other activities.

In effect, UNRWA has come to depend on the refugee problem itself. While the refugees benefit from its services, the organization benefits even more from the refugees. They are, of course, the organization’s raison d’être. UNRWA has no incentive whatsoever to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem, since doing so would render it obsolete. As a result, the agency not only perpetuates the refugee problem, but has, in many ways, exacerbated it. In doing so, it has made Israeli-Palestinian peace all but impossible.

UNRWA’s role in perpetuating and even expanding the refugee problem is a complex one; but, more than anything else, it is the result of the agency’s own definition of a Palestinian refugee—which is unique in world history. The standard definition of a refugee, which applies in every case except that of the Palestinians, includes only those actually displaced in any given conflict. UNRWA has defined 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.” But it has also continually expanded this definition, now stating “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.”

As a result, the number of official Palestinian refugees—according to UNRWA— has expanded almost to the point of absurdity. The best estimates are that perhaps 650,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-1949; but UNRWA now defines virtually every Palestinian born since that time as a refugee. That number now reaches well into the millions. This is quite simply unprecedented. In no other case has refugee status been expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.

UNRWA’s involvement in Palestinian society is equally unique. Its role there has expanded from simple refugee relief to one of the most important and influential Palestinian institutions. In particular, the agency now employs nearly 30,000 people, most of whom are Palestinian. This makes UNRWA the single largest employer in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and indispensable to the Palestinian economy. As such, there is a strong economic incentive to keep the prosperous organization afloat.

Palestinian children perform with parachutes during summer camp activities supervised by UNRWA in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, June 30, 2011. They attempted to break the Guinness world record for most parachutes bounced simultaneously. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

Palestinian children perform with parachutes during summer camp activities supervised by UNRWA in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, June 30, 2011. They attempted to break the Guinness world record for most parachutes bounced simultaneously. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

It cannot be said that the agency is ungenerous to its subjects. When the world hears words like “refugees” and “refugee camps,” it instinctively pictures desperate people living in tents or shantytowns. This generates automatic sympathy and financial support for organizations like UNRWA, which regularly receives monetary contributions amounting to millions of dollars. All this is due to the belief that these funds provide humanitarian aid and help with the assimilation of Palestinian refugees. In many cases, the reality is entirely different. UNRWA-administered refugee camps are often fully-functioning suburbs of Palestinian cities, with water, electricity, and even satellite television.

UNRWA’s role as a jobs machine and a pillar of the Palestinian economy has led to institutional bloat on a huge scale. Its 30,000 employees, for example, dwarf the approximately 5,000 who work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose remit is the rest of the entire world. The UNHCR mandate, moreover, is clearly focused on the resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees, not on providing services that maintain the status quo. The role played by economic incentives in these organizations is very telling. While UNHCR—forbidden by its mandate to work with Palestinians—has worked to decrease the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA has worked to increase the number of Palestinian refugees, prolonging and exacerbating the problem rather than solving it.

The result of this over-60-year-long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries or elsewhere are minimal, and practically none exist for UNRWA to end its operations. UNRWA states that the Palestinians are an occupied people, and will remain so until the General Assembly declares an end to the conflict; so as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. The minute they are not, it disappears.

UNRWA’s flaws have not gone unnoticed, even by members of the organization itself. Indeed, the most important critique to appear in recent years was that of James Lindsay, a former legal advisor and general counsel to the organization. Lindsay worked for UNRWA from 2000-2007 and, after leaving, produced a 2009 monograph for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that caused a firestorm.

Lindsay concluded to much controversy that “the vast majority of UNRWA’s registered refugees have already been ‘resettled’ (or, to use the UN euphemism, ‘reintegrated’),” and that the “only thing preventing citizens from ceasing to be ‘refugees’ is UNRWA’s singular definition of what constitutes a refugee.” Accordingly, Lindsay recommended that UNRWA responsibilities be handed over to Jordan. He acknowledged that legal restrictions on Palestinians being resettled in Syria and Lebanon were difficult, but not impossible to overcome given time and effort.

He also recommended that UNRWA move to a need-based model:

Some might question whether scarce international aid should be used to fund relatively sophisticated programs for Palestinians—not just education and health care, but also microfinance, urban planning, and so forth—rather than, say, food for starving Africans in places like Darfur. Even putting that question aside, why should such services be provided for free to those who can afford to contribute at least a portion of the cost?

Finally, Lindsay suggested that the United States “urge UNRWA to limit its public pronouncements to humanitarian issues and leave political speeches to the political echelons of the United Nations.”

Lindsay’s fairly modest suggestions for reform were not well-received by the organization and its supporters. A press release issued by Andrew Whitley, director of the UNRWA representative office at United Nations headquarters in New York, said, “The agency is disappointed by the findings of the study, found it to be tendentious and partial, and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used.” It added, “The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures…. Someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Responses from other UNRWA officials were equally harsh. Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman in Jerusalem, said that Lindsay “makes selective use of source material and fails to paint a truthful portrait of UNRWA and its operations today.” John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza, attempted to deflect Lindsay’s criticism of negative depictions of Israel and Jews in UNRWA textbooks. In effect, he blamed the Palestinian Authority for the problem, saying Lindsay had “no basis to say that it is UNRWA’s decision because our mandate is given to us. I agree that it is a political failure, but we don’t set up the mandate, we are only the implementers.” This echoed previous UNRWA responses to similar evidence as far back as the late 1960s.

Palestinian students take part in a robotics workshop organized by UNRWA at a school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

Palestinian students take part in a robotics workshop organized by UNRWA at a school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90

Critiques like Lindsay’s have had some political effect, but attempts at forcing institutional reform have tended to be undertaken piecemeal, rather than tackling the overall problem. Since the 1960s, for example, American lawmakers have tended to focus specifically on one of UNRWA’s darkest legacies: Its relationship with terrorism. As far back as Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (P.L. 87-195), as amended, Congress decreed,

No contributions by the United States shall be made to [UNRWA] except on the condition that [UNRWA] take[s] all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.

This was certainly an important issue. Unfortunately, UNRWA’s relationship with Palestinian terrorism has been a long one, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) achieved both international political status and practical authority over the UNRWA refugee camps. Through agreements with the government of Lebanon in 1969 and its eventual UN status as a formal observer, the PLO gained a quasi-governmental role in local and international Palestinian affairs. In his article, “UNRWA and the Palestinian Nation-Building Process,” Jalal al-Husseini wrote that the PLO soon began using UNRWA facilities as terrorist bases.

This continues to be a problem today. Lindsay himself noted,

UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, from joining its staff. These failings have occurred not because UNRWA consciously supports terrorism, but rather because it is not particularly concerned about the issue, its main focus being the provision of services and protection of Palestinian refugees.

The American government has not ignored this issue. Since the 1970s, a number of Congressional resolutions have sought to limit or cut off funding to UNRWA; and Congress regularly introduces language into appropriations bills requiring UNRWA to promote transparency, self-policing, and accountability with regard to vetting employees for terrorist connections, as well as eliminating the promotion of terrorism in educational materials. Similar provisions are regularly written into United States Agency for International Development budgets—administered by the State Department—in regard to the Palestinian Authority.

High-ranking members of Congress have also taken the problem up directly with the UN. In 2002, for example, a letter from U.S. Representative Tom Lantos—then the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee—to then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, complained, “UNRWA officials have not only failed to prevent their camps from becoming centers of terrorist activity, but have also failed to report these developments to you.” Annan simply replied, “The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory.”

Perversely, UNRWA now claims to have solved the problem by checking its employees against watch lists of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects; yet it remains unwilling to use lists of Hamas, Hezbollah, or other Palestinian terrorist groups provided by Israel. There seems to be a good reason for this. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University—and a ferocious advocate of the Palestinian cause—has written,

Humanitarian and charitable institutions throughout Palestine employ personnel regardless of sectarian or political affiliation and offer services on a similar basis. Thus, UNRWA, NGO-run and public hospitals and clinics, for example, employ members of different political groups such as Fatah, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group.

A serious obstacle to effective action on the issue is that Congressional stipulations are regularly circumvented by presidential waiver, in which the president decrees that continuing aid to UNRWA and other Palestinian entities is in the national security interest of the United States, regardless of terrorist connections or structural concerns.

But this may no longer be enough. As pointed out in Congressional Research Service Report RS40101, concerns about UNRWA-connected terrorism have increased dramatically since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It seems likely that, with the recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, these concerns will only increase. Indeed, as U.S. funding of Palestinian institutions has escalated in recent decades, American lawmakers have repeatedly questioned members of the executive branch about possible diversion of U.S. funds to terrorism and the presence of terrorists in U.S.-funded entities.

As a result, Congress has taken several initiatives to hold UNRWA accountable. In 2009, Congressmen Mark Kirk and Steve Rothman introduced provisions for UNRWA accountability into relevant appropriations bills. They called for transparency and responsibility, and sought to ensure that the monies UNRWA receives do not fund terrorism in any way. This would finally have brought UNRWA funding into compliance with the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. The bill also underscored the need to evaluate textbooks used in UNRWA schools in order to ascertain that they do not contain “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 five years since, direct U.S. funding of UNRWA has only increased.

A Palestinian woman walks in front of the UNRWA building in Gaza City. Photo: Wissam Nassar/ Flash90

A Palestinian woman walks in front of the UNRWA building in Gaza City. Photo: Wissam Nassar / Flash90

A new proposal from now-Senator Kirk, however, might go a long way toward bringing about real reform; in particular, because it goes well beyond the specific issue of terrorism. It proposes a more precise definition of refugee status, to be specified in a Memorandum of Understanding with UNRWA. Under the proposal, if UNRWA wishes to continue receiving American aid, it would have to agree 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.”

This would mean that only those displaced by war could be considered refugees, and the status would no longer be heritable, bringing UNRWA into compliance with the international definition of refugee status. The amendment would also require the Secretary of State to report to Congress about the notoriously slippery number of refugees and the measures being taken to enforce the new definition (this wouldn’t necessarily mean that those accurately classified as refugees would be the only ones eligible for UNRWA services). There is no doubt that, while it would not solve all of UNRWA’s problems, it would be an excellent start.

For over six decades, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has been a unique and uniquely troubled institution. It has unilaterally redefined the international definition of a refugee, expanded its mandate to include the construction of a massive social welfare and employment system, made itself the basis of at least one economy and an essential part of another, and allowed itself to become part of several terrorist movements, some dedicated to the destruction of a UN member state. Rather than being part of any conceivable solution, in other words, UNRWA sustains the problem it was supposed to help solve.

But more than anything else, UNRWA is the institutional foundation of one of the most persistent obstacles to peace in the Middle East. In its relentless defense of its own unique definition of a Palestinian refugee and its complete refusal to reconsider its demand for the “right of return,” it buttresses and perpetuates the Palestinians’ eternal sense of victimhood and the refugees’ narrative. This narrative accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the refugee problem, blaming it entirely on Israel, regardless of the decisions and actions of Palestinians and their leaders. Due to its economic and institutional interests in doing so, UNRWA must continue to maintain and even expand the refugee problem until the refugees’ complete and total repatriation and compensation. This demand for the “right of return” is clear and absolute and has not changed to this day. Over and over again, it has torpedoed any possibility of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian students in an UNRWA college training  program test their Formula 1-style racecar in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

Palestinian students in an UNRWA college training program test their Formula 1-style racecar in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

It seems clear that the UN erred when it created a UN institution devoted exclusively to one population, with a policy and structure in contradiction to those of all similar institutions. This mistake, however, can be rectified.

The simplest solution would be to eliminate UNRWA and immediately subordinate all its agencies to the UN High Council on Refugees. This would be equitable and efficient–but since the prospects of such a decision being effected by the UN are slim to none, it is probably more sensible to look for solutions that can be implemented directly by the United States.

Enacting Congressional demands for greater accountability and, especially, bringing UNRWA’s refugee policies into line with those of the rest of the world, would be essential steps toward meaningful reform. At the same time, we must strive to decrease UNRWA’s hold on Palestinian society. The services UNRWA currently provides should be slowly handed over to parallel agencies within the UN, which already provide these services to others, but which have no financial or political interests in perpetuating the problem. In particular, the ultimate goal should be to wean the Palestinians off UNRWA’s largesse completely, and shift the responsibility for providing services and employment to the Palestinian Authority. Doing so would not only be good for the Palestinians, but also for the peace process. It appears that peace cannot be achieved without compromise on the “right of return,” and there can be no such compromise until UNRWA is either substantially reformed or entirely dismantled.

Banner Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90