Eventually, All Humans Will Be Palestine Refugees

February 22, 2012 7:58 am 1 comment

Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. Photo: wiki commons.

Of all the issues that drive the Arab-Israeli conflict, none is more central, malign, primal, enduring, emotional, and complex than the status of those persons known as Palestine refugees.

The origins of this unique case, notes Nitza Nachmias of Tel Aviv University, goes back to Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Security Council’s mediator. Referring to those Arabs who fled the British mandate of Palestine, he argued in 1948 that the UN had a “responsibility for their relief” because it was a UN decision, the establishment of Israel, that had made them refugees. However inaccurate his view, it still remains alive and potent and helps explain why the UN devotes unique attention to Palestine refugees pending their own state.

True to Bernadotte’s legacy, the UN set up a range of special institutions exclusively for Palestine refugees. Of these, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, founded in 1949, stands out as the most important. It is both the only refugee organization to deal with a specific people (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees takes care of all non-Palestinian refugees) and the largest UN organization (in terms of staff).

UNRWA seemingly defines its wards with great specificity: “Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” The ranks of these refugees (who initially included some Jews) have, of course, much diminished over the past 64 years. Accepting UNRWA’s (exaggerated) number of 750,000 original Palestine refugees, only a fraction of that number, about 150,000 persons, remain alive.

UNRWA’s staff has taken three major steps over the years to expand the definition of Palestine refugees. First, and contrary to universal practice, it continued the refugee status of those who became citizens of an Arab state (Jordan in particular). Second, it made a little-noticed decision in 1965 that extended the definition of “Palestine refugee” to the descendants of those refugees who are male, a shift that permits Palestine refugees uniquely to pass their refugee status on to subsequent generations. The U.S. government, the agency’s largest donor, only mildly protested this momentous change. The UN General Assembly endorsed dit in 1982, so that now the definition of a Palestine refugee officially includes “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children.” Third, UNRWA in 1967 added refugees from the Six-Day War to its rolls; today they constitute about a fifth of the Palestine refugee total.

These changes had dramatic results. In contrast to all other refugee populations, which diminish in number as people settle down or die, the Palestine refugee population has grown over time. UNRWA acknowledges this bizarre phenomenon: “When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.” Further, according to James G. Lindsay, a former UNRWA general counsel, under UNRWA’s definition, that 5 million figure represents only half of those potentially eligible for Palestine refugee status.

In other words, rather than diminish 5-fold over six decades, UNRWA has the population of refugees increase almost 7-fold. That number could grow faster yet due to the growing sentiment that female refugees should also pass on their refugee status. Even when, in about 40 years, the last actual refugee from mandatory Palestine dies, pseudo-refugees will continue to proliferate. Thus is the “Palestine refugee” status set to swell indefinitely. Put differently, as Steven J. Rosen of the Middle East Forum notes, “given UNRWA’s standards, eventually all humans will be Palestine refugees.”

Were the Palestine refugee status a healthy one, this infinite expansion would hardly matter. But the status has destructive implications for two parties: Israel, which suffers from the depredations of a category of persons whose lives are truncated and distorted by an impossible dream of return to their great-grandparents’ houses; and the “refugees” themselves, whose status implies a culture of dependency, grievance, rage, and futility.

All other refugees from the World War II era (including my own parents) have been long settled; the Palestine refugee status has already endured too long and needs to be narrowed down to actual refugees before it does further damage.

Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. This article is based on a recent MEF seminar in Jerusalem on UNRWA.© 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  • the irony, jews wete given israel, after 2000+ years of refugee status given to decendants of bith male and female, as well as converts. yet now palestinians dont deserve half that privilege?

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.