How Trump can expose biggest lie in Middle East: Palestinian ‘refugee’ myth
The Trump administration may be on its way out, but it can still advance American interests between now and January. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where White House policies have arguably been the most effective. With minimal effort, Trump can address the undying fiction of Palestinian “refugees.”
The 1948 war for Israel’s independence, a war in which Arab states tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state, produced two sets of refugees of roughly equal sizes. Arab nations expelled their Jewish citizens, who took refuge in newly established Israel. Arabs who fled the Jewish state, however, weren’t resettled. Instead, Arab states insisted they live in UN-run refugee camps. The message: Arabs would soon return militarily to finish a job left undone.
Now, 70 years after the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, was established, the Palestinian narrative of a people waiting to return to their homes inside Israel persists. UNRWA claims to serve no fewer than 5 million “refugees,” even though most of those individuals are descendants of the original refugees.
Even more frustrating is the fact that those descendants either already live inside Palestinian-controlled territories or maintain citizenship in other countries. In other words, the Palestinian refugee problem is much, much smaller than UNRWA claims it to be.
In 2012, Congress required the State Department to report on the number of people receiving welfare from UNRWA who were alive in 1948 — essentially, an estimate of how many actual refugees remained from the Israeli War of Independence. The Obama administration took several years to fulfill the congressional mandate, and, when it finally did, sent a classified report to the appropriations committees on Capitol Hill.
After nearly four years in office, the Trump administration never declassified that report. The decision to keep the report secret is all the more puzzling since former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley cited the agency’s inaccurate refugee count as one of the reasons the Trump administration stopped sending it taxpayer contributions in 2018.
The outgoing Team Trump should issue an updated, unclassified report that provides a current estimate of the number of people receiving UNRWA assistance today who were personally displaced in 1948, aren’t residing within the borders of the Palestinian Authority and aren’t citizens or permanent residents of another country, such as Jordan.
This number should be easy to estimate by simply requesting figures from Israeli, Palestinian, UN, Jordanian and other Mideast officials. The public release of these figures could spark an international debate over UNRWA’s mandate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should also announce an official US policy change that for purposes of future US funding and planning, Palestinian refugees are narrowly defined as people who were personally displaced from then-Palestine between 1948 and 1949 and aren’t currently citizens or permanent residents of the Palestinian Authority or any country.
Such a move would challenge the notion that UNRWA is a refugee agency and demonstrate how it instead has kept people in poverty. Unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has a mandate to resettle refugees, UNRWA has encouraged multiple generations of helpless people to remain erroneously identified as refugees.
The policy change would thus upend the mythology of a Palestinian “right of return” — making it clear that Israel determines who becomes Israeli citizens, not a UN agency. With all of this established, destitute Palestinians living in the West Bank might finally be encouraged to lead economically productive lives within a future Palestinian state.
The United States should not be alone in this effort. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are among the agency’s top contributors. As they look to a future of peaceful coexistence with Israel, they can influence UNRWA’s mandate and remove a significant historical hindrance to the peace process. American allies in Europe may also quietly seek to reduce UNRWA’s unending financial burden. They, too, may be persuaded to join a reform coalition.
UNRWA has done enough damage. It’s time for reform.
Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official, is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research.
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