Why We Must Uncover the True Number of Palestinian Refugees
On a desk in the US State Department lies a report that has the power to upend the seemingly endless zero-sum game of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s a short report, no more than five pages. Its contents were considered so threatening by some that Congress fought for years to write a special bill, known as the Kirk Amendment, that ordered the State Department to produce it. And once the report had been completed in 2015, it was deemed so incendiary that the Obama administration classified it.
Today, in spite of a FOIA request, a lawsuit, and a letter from 51 members of Congress to Donald Trump asking him to declassify the report, it is still being kept under lock and key.
But in a sudden development late last week, it appears that one side might have emerged victorious and the report could soon be released. According to two well-placed sources, a high-level State Department official said, “It is no longer a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
And what might be the subject of this controversial document? A simple count of the actual number of Palestinian refugees.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) maintains that it cares for 5.3 million people. It receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year from the US and Europe to pay for their food, health care, and education. US taxpayers alone have donated a total of $4.8 billion to UNRWA since 1950.
But according to those who have seen the report, the actual number of refugees is closer to 30,000.
The significance of the number is far-ranging, both politically and economically. Daniel Pipes, the president of Middle East Forum, maintains that the fiction of five million refugees is the “dark heart” of the war against Israel. Because Palestinian leaders insist that all “refugees” have the right to “return” to the homes their grandparents left in 1948 — in areas that are now in Israel proper — the issue constitutes one of the central stumbling blocks to a peace deal.
Israeli officials maintain that allowing five million Palestinians into a country of six million Jews will end its Jewish character and effectively destroy the Jewish state. Absorbing a few tens of thousands is another story, however.
UNRWA was established in December 1949 to care for the Palestinian Arabs who fled or were forced from conflict areas during the establishment of the State of Israel. Beginning in May 1950, services, mostly in the form of food rations and shelter, were extended to “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.” UNRWA’s work was expected to be completed in one year, after which the Palestinians would be settled into the countries to which they escaped: Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Around the same time that Palestinian Arabs fled to neighboring countries, 800,000 Jews were expelled from their homes in Arab lands. In some of these countries, the Jewish communities predated the advent of Islam. They were promptly settled in Israel and other countries without the benefit of an international refugee agency.
History shows that UNRWA did not wrap up its work in one year, but rather expanded its scope of responsibility, growing from a group to provide emergency relief to one that provided “governmental and developmental services in areas such as education, health, welfare, micro-finance, and urban planning,” according to James G. Lindsey, who served as legal adviser and general counsel of UNRWA from 2002-2009.
Most importantly, UNRWA expanded its definition of “refugee” to include the children and grandchildren of the original refugees — contrary to the designations of most other refugee agencies — as well as Palestinians who had citizenship or residency in other countries. UNRWA refugees include Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, the location of a future Palestinian state. In one of Lindsey’s reports published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, these changes constituted an “incomplete shift from status-based aid to need-based aid” — in other words, shifting from a focus on actual refugees to poor people in need.
Though UNRWA’s original directive was to resettle the refugees in host countries so as to “strengthen the economy of the host countries while providing employment to refugees, and thus make them self-sufficient to a point where their names could be deleted from the relief rolls,” UNRWA never carried out this objective.
Instead, UNRWA almost immediately became a permanent welfare agency run by Palestinians for Palestinians (UNRWA has 30,000 Palestinian employees). And it has succeeded in maintaining massive funding from Western countries, even after abandoning the goal of resettlement. It has become so entrenched that UNRWA recipients receive six times the benefits given to refugees under the care of UNHCR, which is in charge of the 65 million other refugees worldwide.
Because it insists on permanent impermanence for the Palestinians, UNRWA has hampered the development of Palestinian civil structures and economic opportunities. Eventually entwining itself in a symbiotic relationship with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, UNRWA now runs a highly politicized educational system that does not conform with UNESCO standards of peace and tolerance and respect for the other. It has also taken sides in Palestinian politics, campaigning in June 2007 to “convince the West, particularly Europe, to ‘encourage’ and ‘engage with’ Hamas,” even after Hamas had murdered or maimed prominent Fatah leaders in a bloody coup, according to former counsel Lindsey.
Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stated:
The PA and now Hamas work the same way as the PLO did under Arafat. They maintain wealth and power for the elite and not for the people. They cannot change the system for fear they’re going to lose money and power. The idea of the “Right of Return” is the core way they subjugate millions of their own people: encouraging them to accept their fate because one day, they will rise up and conquer the State of Israel. The PA depends on UNRWA to inculcate its narrative, and for its system of continuous incitement, through its educational system and political indoctrination, to motivate the people despite their poverty and hopelessness. It is their means for assigning blame on Israel for all the problems they have created on their own.
The US Congress has tried for years to rein in UNRWA, whether by trying to keep terrorists from becoming UNRWA employees, changing UNRWA textbooks, or simply trying to force the agency to provide a proper accounting of its spending. According to Goldberg, who served as deputy chief of staff and senior foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), “These attempts have always failed, because the State Department has a little bureau that protects UNRWA to the hilt and fights back on Congressional attempts to do anything that will actually threaten the aid. That is the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).”
“The American people deserve to see the numbers inside the State Department assessment,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told this writer through a spokesman, “so Congress and the Administration can have a transparent and productive debate about America’s role in the organization.”
According to insiders, the PRM bureau is now losing its battle to keep the numbers secret. On the winning side is a team that reportedly includes Nikki Haley at the UN and the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs.
Donald Trump, as is his wont, threw a wrench into the State Department push-pull in January when he announced that the US would not provide more than an initial payment of $65 million to UNRWA pending a comprehensive reevaluation. Trump’s action brought to light an unfortunate truth that Lindsey pointed out in his Washington Institute for Near East Policy report: that despite being the largest single donor, the US has repeatedly failed to bring UNRWA in line with its own foreign policy objectives.
Progress on peace requires defining the status of Palestinian refugees in line with the definition used by the US and other developed nations: “a person outside of his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.”
“UNRWA adds numbers of descendants to its rolls every day. The academic journal Refugee Survey Quarterly projected that if that definition remains intact, there will be 11 million Palestinian refugees by 2040, and 20 million by 2060. How can the US taxpayer support such an absurdity that runs counter to our national security interests in promoting peace in the region?” asks E.J. Kimball, director of the Israel Victory Project at the Middle East Forum. “Either UNRWA brings its definition in alignment with US law or the US should direct its money elsewhere.”
Emily Benedek has written for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the author of five books.