By Asaf Romirowsky
Special to the WJW
One of Palestinian society's core beliefs is that at some point there will be a full return to the land they consider to be "Palestine," aka, the modern State of Israel. Their expectation and demand is rooted in the in UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194 of December 1948, which stated that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." This "right", though explicitly contingent on peace, has bloomed into an unconditional "right of return" for all refugees and their descendents, now in their third or fourth generation.
The "right of return" is, at the core, a rejection of any Jewish rights or sovereignty. But it is fashionable to disguise this reality in more palatable terms, including the improbable suggestion that in fact, Palestinian "return" would not challenge the Jewish demographic majority of the State of Israel.
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 1948-1949. 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 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 ever end its operations. Western taxpayers are expected to shell out indefinitely, or at least until the UN General Assembly declares the problem resolved.
Enter Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has introduced wording into legislation that would limit number of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East -- a move that could result in a change of status for millions of Palestinians. The Kirk language sets out a more precise series of definitions for American aid to UNRWA, to be specified in the Memorandum of Understanding with the organization. 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 American funding.
On May 24th the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed the Kirk amendment as part of the $52.1 billion 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill. It is critical to understand that Kirk and company are not calling for the elimination or even reduction of benefits to those who claim refugee status but in practice may not be. Pragmatically, the bill is just challenging the hereditary status of Palestinian refugees and thereby UNRWA's target audience.
Kirk and company should be commended for their sincere efforts to tackle one if not the main ingredients that ensures and exacerbates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is UNRWA that advocates that notwithstanding the reality Palestinians are sine die occupied. UNRWA claims that its service will no longer be needed when there is solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here is an opportunity to move in that direction which is not predicated on the organization's self interests but rather on the clientele it serves.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum.