Assume that you could identify the origins of your great-grandparents, and you discover that all eight of them emigrated to the United States from liberated Europe at the end of the Second World War. Subsequently, you find, all four of your grandparents were born in America, both your parents were born in America. and you yourself were born and bred there. Would you consider dubbing yourself a displaced person and a refugee?
This is the fiction that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) seeks to perpetuate in respect of millions of inhabitants of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, people and their descendants who fled from their homes during the Arab-Israel wars of 1948 and 1967. UNRWA deems all of them, even unto the third and fourth generation, to be Palestinian refugees.
At around the time the State of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes – some on advice, some from fear of the forthcoming conflict, some during it. Of the Palestinians who left, one-third went to the West Bank, then under Jordanian control; one-third went to the Gaza Strip, then under Egypt’s control; and the remainder fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
A highly relevant factor in their subsequent unhappy history is that the UN body established to assist them – UNRWA – began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result, Palestinian refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees, the world over, ever since.
The 1949 General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA called for “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestine refugees.” Yet the resolution also stated that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.” In other words, the new refugee agency’s mission was intended to be temporary.
70 years have passed. The “temporary” UNRWA has been transformed into a bloated international bureaucracy with a staff of 30,000 and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. As for the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees, that has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5.6 million today.
How could such a situation have been allowed to develop? The transformation occurred according to the diktat of UNRWA itself, which decided to bestow refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," in perpetuity. The growth in UNWRA’s client base is therefore exponential, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.
A main function of UNHCR has been to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years. UNHCR facilitates their voluntary repatriation, or their local integration and resettlement. By contrast a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation.
In pursuing this course, UNRWA has been complicit with the anti-peace policy of many Arab leaders in respect of the Palestinian refugees. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would have had the effect of normalizing the situation and removing a formidable bargaining chip. UNRWA, by officially washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations, has in effect sustained and supported this policy of using the Palestinian refugees as a pawn in the political effort against Israel. UNRWA, it has been claimed, has done more than any other player over the years to prevent a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Consider the unfortunate Arab refugees who made their way to nearby Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where today over three million of them and their descendants are living as “registered refugees”, (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps.
As for Lebanon, that unhappy country now in thrall to Hezbollah and its controlling power, Iran, the extent of its Palestinian refugee population is almost impossible to determine. UNRWA’s most recent count was 450,000, while the Lebanese government census in 2017 offered 174,000 as the total. Whichever it is, most Palestinians living in Lebanon do not have Lebanese citizenship, and therefore do not have identity cards and are legally barred from owning property or earning a living from a whole list of desirable occupations. Less than 2 percent of Palestinian refugees have acquired a work permit.
As regards Syria, just before the civil war broke out in 2011 UNRWA reported total Palestinian refugees there as over 525,000. They had been granted neither citizenship nor the right to vote. Since then, the conflict has led many Palestinians, along with native-born Syrians, to flee the country, and the number of registered refugees has fallen to some 450,000. There is no indication that the Syrian government is minded to change its policy on granting them citizenship.
Jordan is a different case. Here, even though the state has conferred citizenship on most of its 2 million Palestinians, they are still registered as refugees by UNRWA. It is far from clear how an individual can be a fully naturalized citizen of a country yet still be considered a refugee. But UNRWA’s modus operandi is even more illogical. In Jordan only the million-and-a- half Palestinians who live in the camps are regarded as the legitimate concern of UNRWA. Some Palestinians who are not living in the camps fall under the auspices of UNHCR. So some Palestinians are being actively rehabilitated by UNHCR, while most of them, together with their children and their children’s children, are having their refugee status maintained and reinforced by UNRWA.
No wonder in January 2018 US President Donald Trump called for a “fundamental reexamination” of UNWRA, and has just announced that the US will no longer fund the agency.
All in all, the Palestinian refugee story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, with little regard for their welfare or human rights. This inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” in perpetuity must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for fifty years or more to settle and become full citizens.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2018: