This week featured another series of poor economic reports in the U.S., and more charges and countercharges by President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney. One story that barely surfaced in the mainstream media, given the attention to the economy and the campaigns, was about an attempt led by Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk to have the State Department quantify the number of “original Palestinian refugees” who are currently being assisted by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. Kirk’s informational request, submitted as an amendment to a piece of legislation that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, asks the State Department to make a report to Congress within one year estimating “how many people served by this U.N. agency in the last year actually lived in Palestine from 1946-1948 and were displaced by the 1948 conflict.”
The reaction to the Kirk amendment was swift and furious. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other State Department officials, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the PLO, and the Jordanian government all got into the act, decrying the approach, and suggesting that Kirk was really working to cut American funding to UNRWA. The PLO went so far as to threaten “serious repercussions” for America if Kirk’s amendment passed.
In fact, while the U.S. provides about one quarter of the annual UNRWA budget (more than $250 million per year) and has provided support totaling more than $4 billion since the agency was created, nothing in Kirk’s amendment related to funding the organization. However, the likelihood that a report on the number of surviving original refugees, if one were forthcoming, might prove highly embarrassing to UNRWA and the State Department, and could lead to an attempt to cut aid in the future, especially when the budget is very tight.
During the 1948 War of Independence, a significant number of Arabs left the area that became the new State of Israel, which gained recognition by other nations as a new country and was admitted to the U.N. Various estimates put the number who left at between 600,000 and 750,000. The great majority moved but a few miles away to neighboring Arab lands. Many left of their own volition, to avoid a war zone, or were encouraged to do so by the invading Arab armies in 1948 after the British gave up control of Palestine. Some were driven out during the fighting. A somewhat larger number of Jews from Arab countries, variously estimated at 800,000 to 1 million, were forced or pressured to leave Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and other countries. They moved mainly to Israel, and to a lesser extent, to France and other countries. To some extent, the war and its aftermath resulted in a large population exchange.
While the U.N. has a single agency, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to deal with all other refugee populations in the world, UNRWA serves only one refugee population, the Palestinians. There is also another unique factor associated with UNRWA. While other refugee populations always decline in numbers over time as original refugees are resettled or pass away, UNRWA counts the descendants of the original refugees, as well as original refugees themselves, when it tallies the Palestinian refugee population. As a result, UNRWA’s number of listed refugees has climbed steadily since the organization was created by the U.N. in 1949, and now counts approximately 5 million Palestinians as refugees, with about 1.3 million of them living in 59 camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA is the largest agency of the United Nations, employing as many as 30,000 people (most of them as teachers), and more than 99% of them are Palestinian.
When the Kirk proposal surfaced, several newspaper stories estimated that if the State Department disclosed the estimate of original refugees currently served by UNRWA, the number might be around 30,000. In other words, less than 1% of the number designated by UNRWA as refugees are original refugees, and the rest are descendants — children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, as well as some additional refugees from the 1967 war.
More than any other issue, the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is due to the status of refugees. The Palestinians have demanded a complete right of return to Israel for all refugees and their descendants. Hence the demand is for a right of return for the more than 99% of the so-called refugee population (nearly all of the 5 million) — who are not refugees from Israel — to a place where they never lived. This ability to overwhelm Israel with Palestinians, under the guise of their being refugees, has been an issue on which no Palestinian leader has ever shown a willingness to compromise. To give up on the right of return would be seen as acceptance of Israel. Upholding the right of return is the ultimate denial of Israel’s right to exist.
Surely, U.S. presidents and State Department officials are aware of the uniqueness of the Palestinians’ refugee claims, and UNRWA’s treatment of the issue. But just as U.S. policy sometimes seems to deny Jerusalem's existence (certainly within Israel), it has also withheld criticism of UNRWA and the grossly inflated refugee numbers. Instead, U.S. officials simply state that refugees are a final-status issue in peace talks (like Jerusalem). In other words, the U.S. takes no position on the matter.
The Kirk language threatens to reveal that the emperor of State Department diplomacy has no clothes. Vermont Democratic Senator Leahy implied that Kirk’s language was a ploy to help Israel, not the U.S. To use M.J. Rosenberg’s language, Leahy was accusing Kirk of being an “Israel firster,” of not serving America’s interests. Leahy, never a fan of Israel, was a good choice to carry water for the State Department forces who just want to let sleeping dogs lie, and never raise any new issues, that God forbid, might appear to put the U.S. on Israel's side on the refugee issue.
If this administration and the State Department want to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as they always claim they do, then acceding to a grossly fabricated refugee number will not serve that purpose; that only ensures the refugee issue will remain irreconcilable. The UNRWA definition of refugees applied to other refugee populations would lead to absurd numbers: 150 million or more refugees from the India-Pakistan war of the late 1940s, perhaps 10 times the number of original refugees, most of whom are of course no longer alive. The State Department seems to fear transparency when it comes to the real Palestinian refugee number. Thanks to Mark Kirk and other senators, the UNRWA make-believe world of refugees may finally be exposed.