Israel, UNRWA, and refugee status

Posted: January 7, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Israel, UNRWA

I’ve noticed an interesting paradox of late in discussions of UNRWA’s alleged role in perpetuating Palestinian refugee status. It is common—as in Michael Bernstam’s latest agitprop in the National Post—to blame UNRWA for an “open-ended definition of refugees [that] applies for generations to come,” thereby artificially perpetuating the problem. Yet attacks like these fail to recognize that the Israeli government itself has officially advanced definitions of “Palestinian refugee” that are arguably more generous than those offered by UNRWA.

First, it needs to be recognized that UNRWA does not provide a legal or political definition of “refugee” at all (as the Agency often points out to those who bother to ask). Rather, it only has a set of criteria that determine eligibility for refugee services. That definition, moreover, only effectively applies in UNRWA’s area of operations, and to those who bothered to register. If you are a Palestinian outside of the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, 1951 Refugee Convention rules apply instead.

By contrast, the official Israeli position during permanent status talks in 2000-01 on eligibility for refugee status (specifically in terms of eligibility for refugee compensation) was that it applied to “Every Palestinian refugee-household that became a refugee in 1948 or its direct descendants”—in other words, considerably more than the 4.7 million currently registered with the Agency. In official negotiations at Taba in January 2001, the Israeli side further agreed that “UNRWA registration shall be considered as prima facie proof of refugee status.” These are not my summaries of the Israeli position, please note: these are verbatim quotes from the Israeli draft Framework Agreement on Permanent Status (2000-01) and the joint Israeli-Palestinian mechanisms paper (2001) respectively (both of which can be found here).

So far as I am aware, at no point has the Israeli government ever officially proposed that, for example, most refugees in Jordan be excluded from refugee compensation on the grounds that they are not “refugees” at all but rather descendants of refugees and Jordanian citizens. I can only imagine the Jordanian reaction were they to suggest it—which, in turn, is why they haven’t.

Similarly, while the current Israeli government opposes refugee return to Israel, it does not do so on the grounds that second and subsequent generation refugees are not proper refugees. Rather, it does so on the grounds that it wants no substantial non-Jewish migration to the Jewish state, and therefore also opposes even the return of 1948-generation refugees who were born within the territory of what is now Israel.

The issues of refugee status, of artificiality, and who is a “real refugee” are all red herrings. It might well have been the case that had there been no UNRWA in the 1950s and 1960s that the boundaries of refugee identity would have been a little more blurred. Today, however, it hardly matters: the experience of forced displacement is embedded in the Palestinian national consciousness in a way that will not easily be changed, and certainly won’t be altered in coming decades by the degree of funding that donors provide to a UN agency.

  1. Nadim Shehadi says:

    UNRWA registration may be indicative of those who registered as refugees but is probably too restrictive as a definition of claimants. Take Lebanon as an example, anything between 129 and 140,000 people were in Lebanon having registered with the red cross as coming from Palestine by 1949. In Israel, the number of Arabs that had remained at the same period was 156,000. If the assumption of comparable population growth figures is not unrealistic. If the number of Arabs in Israel is now ten times this figure, i.e around 1.5 million, then the number of people who came from Palestine to Lebanon would now be at least 1.3 million whereas the number registered with UNRWA now is barely 430,000. The difference are either people who did not register or those who obtained Lebanese nationality. Those who lefft the country presumable maintain their registration, or at least UNRWA maintains it.

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