Recently Donald Trump and Nikki Haley made news by threatening to cut off (or at least sharply reduce) funds given to the Palestinians. Trump wasn’t clear about which funds, but Haley referred to US support for UNRWA, the welfare agency which maintains the ever-growing class of “Palestinian refugees.”
It’s important to understand what a Palestinian refugee is, because it is very different from any other kind of refugee.
A refugee is normally someone who fled or was driven from his own country by war, political unrest or natural disaster. Often they do not have a permanent home and are temporarily living in a refugee camp. They have no independent means of sustenance, and are dependent on charity.
The UN has an agency, the UNHCR, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose job it is to help such people survive until they can either return home or make a new life in a new place. For example, today there are millions of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and more. UNHCR feeds refugees and provides temporary housing and medical assistance in the short term, and tries to provide longer range solutions such as resettlement so that people can stop being refugees. In 2016, UNHCR says it has resettled over 189,000 people. This is a drop in the bucket when there are 17.2 million refugees in the world, by UNHCR figures, but it is something.
UNHCR has a budget of $7.7 billion and about 11,000 employees worldwide; it is funded by voluntary contributions, 87 percent of which come from the EU (yes, I was surprised to read this too).
Europe today is in the process of being overrun by people claiming to be refugees. It’s important to distinguish refugees, who have been forced to leave their homes, from migrants, who have chosen to emigrate in order to improve their lives. But that’s not what I am writing about today.
From the point of view of UNHCR, a refugee is a person in a particular condition. Its goal is to reduce the number of people in that condition, by finding permanent jobs and places to live, by helping stateless refugees get asylum in places where they will not be victimized further. Refugee status for UNHCR is a situation, not a defining characteristic of a person. It is something undesirable that one wants to end as soon as possible.
A “Palestinian refugee,” on the other hand, is something else entirely. Palestinian refugee status was granted to anyone who could prove that he had resided in Mandate Palestine for at least two years in 1948 (since June 1, 1946) and was then displaced (voluntarily or not) from his home. And it inheres in the person, not his situation; so even if, for example, a Palestinian refugee gets rich and builds a mansion in Samaria or Jordan, he still keeps his refugee status. Not only that, but it is hereditary – a father passes his refugee status down to his children and his grandchildren. Apparently there is only one way to lose Palestinian refugee status, and that is for a refugee to “return” to “his home” in what is today Israel.
UNHCR does not deal with Palestinian refugees. A special UN agency, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was created in 1949 just for the refugees of 1948. Estimates vary, but there were probably about 600,000 Arabs displaced by the war. Some Arabs who were not actually displaced received refugee status, and a figure of 750,000 Palestinian refugees is quoted by UNRWA. Thanks to the unique hereditary nature of Palestinian refugeehood, there are today about 5 million “Palestinian refugees.” UNRWA spends about US $1.5 billion each year housing, feeding and educating the refugee population, meeting their medical needs, and so on. Palestinian families also receive welfare payments depending on the size of the family. The lion’s share of this comes from the US and the EU, with small amounts from the rest of the world (including the Arab world).
“Palestinian refugees” live in camps in the Gaza Strip (1,300,000), Judea/Samaria (800,000), Lebanon (450,000), Syria (526,000), and Jordan (2,175,000). These “camps” are more like large neighborhoods or small cities than the temporary refugee camp that comes to mind. They are administered by the host governments (including the Palestinian Authority) and provisioned by UNRWA. In Lebanon, restrictions on education and employment reminiscent of apartheid have been placed on residents; in Syria, refugee camps have been attacked by regime forces and residents massacred.
Think about it. There are now four generations of refugees. A migrant who arrived in Mandate Palestine in 1946 to work for the British authorities and then left in 1948 was guaranteed support in perpetuity for himself and all his descendents. But UNRWA’s mandate does not include resettlement, and none of the host countries – not even the Palestinian Authority! – will grant citizenship to “Palestinian refugees.” Once a Palestinian refugee, always a refugee.
UNRWA has about 30,000 employees, some 99% of whom are Palestinians. Its educational system is designed to teach the Palestinian narrative of victimization and revenge. In the Gaza strip, it teaches the Hamas ideology of hatred for Jews as well.
This is not a formula for solving a refugee problem, the way the problem of the millions of refugees of WWII was solved. It is a way to create a continually growing dependent class of stateless, disaffected and furious people. The welfare system encourages large families, while at the same time the refugee camp system makes it impossible for most of the young males to find work. No wonder the camps have proved to be a fertile breeding ground for terrorism!
How did this happen? How is it that the international community tried to solve every refugee problem except this one, which it chose to exacerbate? The simple answer is that the Arab nations wanted it as a weapon against Israel, and the West gave them what they wanted so as not to imperil its supply of oil.
But the times have changed, Arab oil is not what it used to be, the conservative Sunni Arab nations are more worried about Iran than Israel, and simple mathematics have made the maintenance of the refugee population too expensive. At the same time, Mr. Trump has voiced the feeling of many, which is that the Palestinians, with their unique sense of entitlement, know only how to take, and are not willing to make the slightest gesture toward compromise.
If the goal is a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO (in my opinion a terrible idea) then Trump is quite right that continuing to pay them while they refuse to negotiate is stupid. But leaving this aside, maybe there is a bigger opportunity. Is it not time to move to end the “Palestinian refugee problem” for once and for all? Here is how to do it:
First, stop creating new refugees. Children of refugees will no longer inherit their status. At the same time, the host countries will be expected to grant full residency to those who request it (interestingly, this is already the case for the one refugee camp, Shu’afat, that is located in an area under Israeli civil control – its residents have been treated as Arab residents of Jerusalem). The hosts will be required to remove apartheid-like restrictions on the refugees. Welfare and other aid will be phased out, and the funds intended to pay for education and medical care will be transferred to the host countries – under careful control – to begin bringing those services directly to the residents.
Ultimately UNRWA itself will disappear. Those who have inherited refugee status will lose it. The few real refugees – those who actually left in 1948 (a babe in arms then will be 70 this year) – will come under the UNHCR framework.
In order for there to ever be peace between Israel and her neighbors, the Arabs must face reality: that Israel is a legitimate country belonging to a legitimate people, and that the Palestinians are not going to “return” to it, not ever. The charade of the “Palestinian refugee” must end.
Today Trump has an opportunity to tear away another veil of pretense, just as he did for Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,
He should go for it.