'UNRWA reform' effort will harm Middle East peace effort

As usual, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is taking the lead in lobbying various Senate offices to support an amendment to the 2013 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill introduced by Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois that would require the U.S. government to confirm the number of Palestinians who receive assistance from UNRWA. The purpose of proposing this amendment, according to Kirk’s spokesperson, is merely to require “basic transparency with regard to who receives U.S. taxpayer assistance.” Absent from this anodyne explanation is that an earlier version of the amendment sought to change how UNRWA defines who is a refugee. But the real goal of the amendment is clear: It is an attempt to redefine the number of Palestinian refugees receiving aid from UNRWA with a view to limiting its budget, which is heavily dependent on U.S. aid. The rub is in the word actual Palestinian refugees, the supposition being that not all of the 5 million refugees registered with UNRWA are really “refugees.”
 

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UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict. Palestine Refugees, and descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are eligible to register for UNRWA services.”  This definition is recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and it is the organization’s standard practice for all refugees around the world.
 
Senator Kirk and AIPAC, however, want to propose a new definition of a Palestinian refugee. Their definition would have one crucial distinction: it would not apply to descendants or to adopted children. It would only apply to those who were directly displaced by war. According to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, instead of providing relief for 5 million registered refugees, UNRWA would be left with as few as 30,000.
 
For Senator Kirk and pro-Israel bloggers, UNRWA is an irritant because in their eyes it is a constant reminder of the injustice that Israel caused when it displaced millions of Palestinians from their homes during the Nakba (the catastrophe or destruction of Palestine) in 1948. Indeed, Schanzer claims that UNRWA “exists to perpetuate the refugee problem, not solve it.”  According to this logic, UNRWA is a problem because, by providing relief for millions of refugees, it keeps their hopes alive of a return to their homeland.
 
The Kirk amendment was opposed by Chairman of the Senate Foreign Ops Subcommittee Patrick Leahy and the U.S. State Department. The amendment was modified and the final approved version includes language that requires UNRWA to report on descendants receiving services from the agency.
 
In spite of the attention by Congress and AIPAC, the right of return has nothing to do with UNRWA. Rather it is grounded in paragraph 11 of U.N. General Assembly resolution 194 (III) and the report of the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Mediator, who was assassinated by Israeli terrorists during the 1948 Palestine War, as well as in UN General Assembly resolution 2252 with regard to the refugees who fled the June 1967 war.
 
Pro-Israel supporters have focused on the amount of money UNRWA has received from the U.S. since 1950. While decrying the $4.4 billion in aid the agency has received over 60 years, they conveniently ignore the over $3 billion Israel — a highly developed, technologically advanced, and industrialized economy — receives from U.S. taxpayers annually, in the form of military aid and various other economic benefits and perks. Although Israel’s supporters denounce an American subsidized “welfare society” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, they are mum about how Washington subsidizes Israel’s prolonged military occupation and continued expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
 
So what is the real story behind the Kirk amendment?  Senator Kirk’s efforts have the full backing of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The belief is that “UNRWA reform” — a euphemism for dismantling the agency — will serve as a “defibrillator” to the peace process. As he has done before, Netanyahu’s efforts and those of his Congressional enablers are not to revive the peace process but to euthanize it.
 
Ultimately, identifying as a Palestinian refugee or dreaming of returning to Palestine is a personal choice for each Palestinian to make.  The right of return will certainly not disappear with a UN agency or be affected by the amount of money that UNRWA receives from the U.S. Government.  It is upheld in international law. Indeed, the only demonstrable impact of these actions by Israel and its supporters in the U.S. Congress will be to further diminish American credibility and any chance at achieving peace.
             
Kattan is program director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.