Fakery and farce: Daniel Pipes on UNRWA and the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: June 3, 2012 by Rex Brynen in 1948, being argumentative, UNRWA
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Following both Australia’s announcement of a major contribution to UNRWA and the recent dispute over the Agency’s refugee figures in the US Congress, Daniel Pipes has once again entered the fray with an op ed in The Australian that declares “Fake refugees farce must end.”

The fetid, dark heart of the Arab war on Israel, I have long argued, lies not in disputes over Jerusalem, checkpoints, or “settlements”. Rather, it concerns the so-called Palestine refugees.

So-called, because of the nearly five million official refugees served by the UN’s Palestinian refugee relief agency UNRWA, only about 1 per cent are real refugees who fit the agency’s definition of “people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict”.

The other 99 per cent are descendants of those refugees, or what I call fake refugees.

Worse: those alive in 1948 are dying off and in about 50 years not a single real refugee will remain alive, whereas their fake refugee descendants will number about 20 million.

In this context, the Australian government’s recent decision to allocate an additional $90 million over five years perpetuates and exacerbates this problem.

This matters because the refugee status has harmful effects. It blights the lives of these millions of non-refugees by disenfranchising them while imposing an ugly, unrealistic, irredentist dream on them.

Even worse, the refugee status preserves them as a permanent dagger aimed at Israel’s heart, threatening the Jewish state and disrupting the Middle East.

Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, in short, requires ending the absurd and damaging farce of proliferating fake Palestine refugees and permanently settling them. 1948 happened: it’s time to get real….

Leaving aside Pipes’ revealing mock quotes around “settlements” (which United Nations Security Council, International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice have all unambiguously declared to be contrary to international law), his arguments about refugees are wrong on almost all counts.

First, as noted many times here in the past, stateless descendants of refugees are usually considered “real” refugees, in what is termed derivative status. As UNHCR’s handbook on Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate  notes, “Individuals who obtain derivative refugee status enjoy the same rights and entitlements as other recognized refugees, and should retain this status notwithstanding the subsequent dissolution of the family through separation, divorce, death, or the fact that a child reaches the age of majority.” Moreover, UNHCR also generally recognizes the descendants of original Palestinian refugees as refugees—as evidenced, for example, in its assistance to Palestinians fleeing Iraq. No one seems to question the status of Afghan refugees who returned to that country after 2001, although more than half of these were second or third generation refugees.

Note that I do accept that Palestinian refugees with citizenships (and hence international protection) would generally not otherwise meet the criteria of the 1951 refugee convention. The only “anomaly” in UNRWA’s rolls, therefore, are most of those registered in Jordan. Refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories would undoubtedly continue to be considered refugees even if UNRWA disappeared tomorrow. (This issue, in turn, is separate again from reparation claims, and only partially linked to right-of-return claims.)

Second, the evidence is quite clear that the refugee issue is a core issue for Palestinians, quite independent of UNRWA or even refugee status. Indeed, as noted before, even Palestinian citizens of Israel who have never been recognized as refugees and have never received Agency services strongly support refugee rights. The notion that diminishing UNRWA would make the refugee issue go away is rather like arguing that storming Masada would end Jewish attachment to Israel.

Third, refugee status doesn’t “disenfranchise” anyone. Anyone who thinks that Lebanon denies Palestinian citizenship and hence voting rights simply because they’re registered with UNRWA clearly knows nothing about Lebanese politics.

Fourth, it isn’t clear how Palestinian refugee status imperils the Jewish state. Daniel Pipes knows full well that Israel will never accept more than a limited number of Palestinian refugees. Indeed, in a peace deal which also sees it withdraw from occupied East Jerusalem it will likely have fewer Palestinians within its declared borders than it does now. No major member of the international community expects Israel to accept large number of refugees. Although the Jordanians won’t say it, they don’t either. Nor has Palestinian negotiating strategy since 1993 ever been predicated on the achievement of massive, demography-changing refugee return to Israel (although Palestinian negotiators have typically envisaged numbers much larger than anything the Israeli side would accept). With regard to refugee property claims, these are a function of losses in 1948—not the current number of UNRWA-registered refugees.

Fifth, one wonders if anyone in the UNRWA-as-root-of-all-evil campaign has ever thought through the political implications of pushing this. If the challenge to UNRWA ever becomes a serious one, it shouldn’t be terribly hard for the Palestinians and the Arab countries to counter it by obtaining overwhelming support for a United Nations General Assembly resolution on the rights and status of Palestinian refugees. Such a resolution—call it Ibn UNGAR 194—would thereby strengthen the political and legal basis for Palestinian refugee claims far more than the existence of UNRWA ever did.

To the extent there is fakery and farce in all this, it is in falsely claiming that UNRWA—rather than the forced displacement and de facto ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948—is the root of the contemporary refugee issue. Pipes’ rhetorical excess on the issue only serves to distract from the weakness of his underlying analysis.

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