Refugee or Not Refugee? No Longer a Question
Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) recently proposed a bill examining the United Nations' uniquely absurd definition of a Palestinian refugee. The original bill correctly designated a Palestinian refugee as an individual actually displaced between 1946 and 1948, but not his or her descendants. This (commonsense) definition reduces the actual number of U.N.-termed Palestinian "refugees" from the currently estimated millions to 30,000. However, under the influence of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a watered-down version of the bill requiring that the number of originally displaced Palestinian refugees be counted and reported separately from the number of their descendants.
While millions of refugees around the world must rely on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians are served by their own special agency -- the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Similar to the term's dictionary definition, UNHCR defines "refugee" as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted ... is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." In a highly discriminatory fashion, UNRWA has distinguished the Palestinian refugee from those of any other descent by inventing its own arbitrary definition, applicable only to Palestinians. According to UNRWA, "Palestinian refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948" or who are "descendants of the original Palestinian refugees." Moreover, and most shockingly, UNRWA allows Palestinians to retain their refugee status even if they have obtained citizenship elsewhere! In Jordan, for example, 82% of UNRWA's Palestinian refugees "do not live in camps and many of them have full Jordanian citizenship."
UNRWA's definition not only fails to differentiate between individuals who voluntarily left their place of residence and those who left due to fear of persecution or who were forced out, but also creates an infinite perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee situation by including the descendants of the so-called "original" refugees. Ultimately, this definition lacks any basis in logic or law.
Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949 and currently receiving approximately 25% of its funding from the United States, UNRWA is tasked with providing "assistance, protection and advocacy" to the millions of people it encompasses in its definition of refugee. The consequence of UNRWA's mission, starkly different from UNHCR's mission of resettling refugees (i.e., reducing the number of refugees worldwide), is that the number of Palestinian refugees grows year after year. The number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned from 650,000 in 1949 to five million today, according to UNRWA, the latter of which is a problematic and misleading figure. Perversely, rather than resolving the crisis, UNRWA is exacerbating it at the expense of the very people it was established to benefit.
Beyond creating an expanding population of "nationless" individuals, UNRWA's deliberate miscalculation constitutes a veritable hindrance to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinian Authority (PA) claims a "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees as a non-negotiable privilege and has insisted that acceptance of this "right" is a key condition for any peace process to move forward. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that Israel has repeatedly offered to resettle 100,000 Palestinian refugees within Israel's borders, first in 1949 at the Lausanne Conference and again at the Camp David Summit in 2000. These offers have been consistently rejected by the PA, which contends that the five million UNRWA-defined refugees have a right to flood Israel's border. Not surprisingly, the PA's demand for a "right of return" for five million Palestinians into Israel's society of only 7.5 million citizens -- 17% of whom are Muslim -- would effectively destroy the world's only Jewish nation. The "right of return," coupled with UNRWA's definition of a Palestinian refugee, is merely a euphemism for Israel's destruction. As such, the Israeli government has refused demands for recognition and actualization of the "right of return" in the past.
Also troubling, Israel's neighbors are complicit in maintaining UNRWA's dramatically inflated number of refugees. Many Palestinian refugees live in countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where refugee camps and UNRWA-sponsored schools abound. Out of UNRWA's five million Palestinian refugees, fewer than two million live in Gaza and the West Bank; 1.1 million inhabit the former and 688,700 the latter. The approximate three million remaining dwell in neighboring countries: two million in Jordan, 455,000 in Lebanon, and 486,000 in Syria. Instead of integrating the refugees into their societies, these countries perpetuate the problem. Lebanon, for instance, bars Palestinian refugees "from owning property or practicing in more than 30 professions," as well as other oft-taken-for-granted privileges. Similarly, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, and most recently Jordan have enacted discriminatory laws revoking citizenship from Palestinians or anyone of mixed Palestinian origin. Libya, Kuwait, and Iraq deny Palestinians the right to own homes and bar them from holding seventy enumerated occupations. Syria restricts property ownership for Palestinian refugees "to one apartment and one economic asset." In 1991, within a single week, 400,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait and other countries without a single U.N. resolution in protest.
Even the PA appears bent on propagating the refugee situation. According to international law, when a refugee is granted citizenship in another country, he loses his refugee status. Yet, according to UNRWA's definition, even individuals who have been granted citizenship continue to be labeled as refugees. Further, in 2011, PA Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah declared that if an independent Palestinian state were to be created, no Palestinian refugees -- even those living within the new state's borders -- would be granted citizenship. Still, the world is led to believe that creating a Palestinian state would solve the problem by providing a home for the Palestinians where they could enjoy the types of rights enshrined within the concept of nationality. So why would UNRWA and the PA purposefully sustain this ever-growing crisis?
The answer is money and ideology. The PA directly benefits from the millions of dollars given annually by the United States and the rest of the Western world to organizations like UNRWA. Last year alone, the United States was UNRWA's largest donor, contributing $250 million. A decrease in the number of refugees -- the supposed intended recipients of these funds -- would result in the PA losing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid. Furthermore, having fewer refugees would weaken Israel's alleged responsibility in the refugee situation. Similarly, it would put an end to the Palestinian claim for a unilateral "right of return" that would effectively fulfill the radical Islamist calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state. Fatah and Hamas have repeatedly and publicly reiterated their non-recognition of Israel's right to exist, while the Hamas Charter explicitly denies the existence of Israel and calls for its obliteration.
Not only does UNRWA contribute to financing a conflict, but it is also responsible for the grave situation facing Palestinian children. UNRWA actively aids and abets the premeditated murder of Palestinian children by teaching them to revere suicide-homicide bombing for the sake of a jihad, or holy war, against the Jews. UNRWA officials have admitted to hiring teachers who are members of Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization known to recruit children for use as suicide bombers, child soldiers, and human shields. UNRWA's website admits to using the curriculum of its "host governments," Hamas and the PA. Hence, the 658 elementary and preparatory schools funded and operated by the agency in the West Bank and Gaza follow a curriculum of hate that educates Palestinian children to engage in violent conflict against Israel. Martyr posters depicting dead children brandishing weapons adorn classroom walls, and Hamas has reportedly fired rockets into Israel from the UNRWA's facilities and has used its vehicles to transports weapons. An UNRWA staff driver named Nidal Nazzal "admitted to being a Hamas activist who had transported weapons and explosives in his agency ambulance."
James Lindsay, UNRWA's former legal advisor and general counsel, published a report in 2009 criticizing UNRWA's blatant failure to resettle refugees and citing numerous American studies which found that textbooks used in UNRWA schools fail to identify predominantly Jewish cities (or even Israel) on maps. Lindsay also cited instances of direct involvement in attacks. Former UNRWA employee Nahd Atallah, for instance, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison "on charges of using his UN ... travel document ... and UNRWA vehicle to bypass Israeli checkpoints in Gaza while transporting armed Palestinian fighters." Further, Lindsay accused UNRWA of favoring the Palestinian and Arab narrative of events in the Middle East and encouraging young Palestinians to refight long-lost wars instead of promoting peace. Indeed, since the Second Intifada, UNRWA has issued mild criticism of Palestinian attacks while vigorously condemning Israeli counterterrorism efforts, "using language associated with war crimes, though any such crimes were far from proved." Other studies reveal that the Holocaust is not and was never intended to be taught in UNRWA-sponsored schools. Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's doctoral thesis, which claims that Zionist leaders and Nazis worked together to murder millions of Jews, is available in every Palestinian school library. In a 2010 interview, John Ging, head of UNRWA's operations in Gaza, responded to Lindsay's report: "[W]e use textbooks of the Palestinian Authority. Are they perfect? No, they're not. I can't defend the indefensible." Indeed, Lindsay has acknowledged that "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." The same was confirmed in a 2009 State Department report.
Kirk's revised and more accurate definition of Palestinian refugees was an encouraging initial step towards correcting UNRWA's grievous misdesignations and the resultant amplification of the crisis. Though the specific effects of Leahy's intervention remain to be seen, the bill no longer provides for a marked change in U.S. policy, as did Kirk's initial amendment. For the time being, before more effective legislation is passed to adequately address this issue, U.S. taxpayers should demand the cessation of their monies being spent on education of Palestinian children to become suicide bombers and the continuation of the grave Palestinian plight. Canada, for instance, has halted contributions to UNRWA on the grounds that it operates inconsistently with Canadian values.
Are the agency's operations, only briefly detailed above, any less at odds with America's fundamental tenets? The answer is a resounding "no," and the United States should follow the example set by its northern neighbor.
Brooke Goldstein is a New York-based human rights attorney and award-winning filmmaker, as well as the founder and director of The Lawfare Project and the Children's Rights Institute. Benjamin Muller is a student fellow at The Lawfare Project and a rising second-year student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.