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Rationale for Refugee Agency May at Last Be Scrutinized

June 14, 2012 By:
Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe
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The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently passed an amendment to the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that could help change the conversation about Palestinian refugees.

The bill requires the State Department to specify to Congress, for the first time, how many of the 5 million Palestinians who are supported by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, are refugees who were actually displaced from their homes and how many are descendants of those refugees.

Every year, $240 million in U.S. funds go to assist the Palestinian refugees via UNRWA. The Kirk Amendment challenges the notion that being a Palestinian refugee can be passed down through the generations, and so questions the ever-expanding numbers of Palestinians that are UNRWA's target group. The original proposal by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would have gone even further, making personal displacement from one's home and the absence of any other citizenship necessary conditions to be designated a "refugee." But that was too hard a sell.

Kirk and company should be commended for their efforts to tackle a key ingredient that exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UNRWA says that its services will no longer be needed when there is a solution to conflict. But it's UNRWA, set up as a temporary agency in 1949, that advocates an unending narrative of occupation and refugee-hood.

UNRWA is an social welfare system for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But in what sense are any of these individuals truly refugees?

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. It now says: "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 from 1948 to 1949. By UNRWA's accounting, however, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions.

This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been expanded to include subsequent generations over decades. The result of this 60-year-long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries or elsewhere are minimal.

UNRWA says that the Palestinians are occupied indefinitely and has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: As long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. Of the 30,000 people that UNRWA employs, the majority are Palestinian: UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Contrast this to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which employs just 5,000-6,000 people globally, and which focuses more clearly on resettlement of refugees and building new lives, and not on maintaining services that prop up the status quo.

In 2009, Kirk, who was then in the House, and U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who last week lost his primary bid for re-election, introduced provisions into bills that called for transparency from UNRWA. They sought to ensure that U.S. monies funneled to it did not fund acts of terror in any way, thereby bringing the funding of Palestinians into compliance with the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The provisions died in committee.

Now, Israeli politicians are proposing that UNRWA adopt limits on the numbers of refugees it serves. Inspired by Kirk, Knesset Member Einat Wilf of the Independence party, has launched a new campaign to restructure UNRWA and "combat the inflation of numbers of refugees" to make a two-state solution possible.

It is long past the time that limits be set on the expansion of Palestinian refugees. With initiatives in play in Congress and globally to address UNRWA's rationale, there is a possibility that the international community can take a serious look at UNRWA's role in helping perpetuate the refugee question -- and this may have a decisive role in finaly settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and at the Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a historian and writer in New York. A version of this article appeared in Ha'aretz.

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