Archive for the ‘being argumentative’ Category

In an article today in The Nation, Noam Chomsky is critical of the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions) campaign against Israeli occupation, arguing that it needs to be based on a more realistic appraisal of both current conditions and the differences between the Israeli and South African case (on which BDS is partially modelled).

He also argues that BDS’s insistence on the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is harmful to its cause:

The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by “(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful—not only in “punishing” Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it.

However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.

You’ll find the full article here.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The Institute of National Security Studies has published a paper on the Palestinian refugee issue by Kobi Michael, the former deputy director and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs. In it he argues that, with permanent status issues impossible to resolve at the present time, there should be an increased focus on improving the humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian territories:

A paradigm shift in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse, which will enable a more developed foundation for advanced negotiations toward a future agreement, is now necessary. Specifically, the discourse must shift from national rights to human rights, focusing on the humanitarian rights of the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian Authority. Israel, with the backing of the United States and the international community, should launch a process built on the humanitarian drive to bring relief to the refugee population in the PA and transfer this obligation to the Palestinian  government, which would receive aid from Israel and the international community for the effort. 

His argument for doing so (from the point-of-view of Israeli interests) lies predominately in weakening Palestinian refugee claims of a right of return,  as well as improving the socio-economic context for future negotiations:

There is no question that a “Jenin Estates” or “Bethlehem Heights” project would become an economic and social engine in the PA’s economic, social, and infrastructure development. With appropriate, careful, and close input from the international community, it would also aid in developing the political infrastructure of the future Palestinian state. No less importantly, a move of this type would signal to Israel that there is a Palestinian willingness to soften, if not rescind, the demand for the right of return, without the Palestinian leadership having to declare at this point in time that it is willing to consider recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such willingness could surface in due course, once a project of this type advances significantly. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will gain additional territories in a manner that signals Israeli willingness for real territorial compromise in due course and improves PA territorial contiguity, as well as economic and political recovery.

For those same reason, Palestinians are likely to find in his proposals a recipe for undermining the inherent rights of the refugees, and reject it as completely unacceptable.

However, what may be most interesting about the INSS paper is not its precise recommendations, but rather what it says about Israeli policy capacity and knowledge on this issue—or rather the lack thereof. Regardless of one’s political or ideological position, this weakness ought to be a concern for everyone, for it undermines the prospects for future successful negotiations. Concern about shortcomings in Israeli knowledge of the issue refugee have often been raised to me in the past by US, European, Jordanian, and Palestinian officials. Such concerns have also been raised by former Israeli officials, including those intimately involved in negotiations and negotiation preparations. It was a point on which the overwhelming majority of the Israeli participants agreed at the Chatham House workshop on Israeli perspectives on the Palestinian refugee issue. Indeed, one Israeli government official once told me that, when tasked with preparing a background paper on refugees, they had found so little knowledge and understanding within government ministries that they were forced to depend in part on a Google search to find important information.

In particular, a close reading of Michael’s paper reveals a umber of very basic weaknesses.

  • He seems to be assuming that all refugees live in refugee camps. In fact, most don’t: only 29% of Palestinian refugees live in camps. In the West Bank and Gaza the numbers are 24% and 42% respectively.
  • He assumes that refugees are receiving exclusively UNRWA services. In fact, outside the camps, the PA is already the primary service provider to refugees.
  • He seems to be assuming that Palestinian refugees are substantially worse off than other Palestinians. However, this is generally not true. Certainly, conditions in the camps tend to be worse off than those outside the camp (although most are not “squalid”). This is not because refugees are some how trapped there in a cycle of poverty, though, but rather because the camps act as a sort of reserve of low-income housing, with individuals and families (especially in the West Bank) often moving out as their conditions improve. As Jon Hanssen-Bauer and Laurie Blome Jacobsen have noted in the link above, “studies of [refugee] living conditions show that their livelihoods have stabilized after three generations and their basic living conditions resemble those of the host country populations.” Moreover, “These camp refugees have lower incomes and poorer health and education levels than those outside the camps. However, camp refugees have better access to basic health and education services due to UNRWA’s presence. The latter point directly leads to the conclusion that the camp populations do not face homogeneously poor living conditions, nor do they constitute the main poverty problem in the host countries.”

He repeated claims that the PA somehow “exploits [the refugees] misery,” but provides no evidence that they actually do this—because, of course, there is none. Indeed, the President of the PA is himself a refugee, while the most disadvantaged population in the West Bank is not refugees, but rather rural villages in the north and south.

The author’s understanding of the political dynamics of the refugee issue is equally weak. Any move to transfer responsibility for UNRWA service provision to the PA would undoubtedly be seen as an Israeli-international conspiracy to erode refugee claims (indeed, the very reason Michael proposes it). Refugees would also be worried about the erosion of service delivery standards. It would therefore spark a massive backlash in the West Bank and Gaza, to the point of imperiling the political stability of the PA. It certainly would be a massive political gift to Hamas.

Finally, the analysis shows a pretty stunning lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the task he is proposing:

New Palestinian cities can be established in Area C, which, with Israel’s agreement, would be transferred to PA responsibility, and Palestinian refugees can be rehabilitated there. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which over the years has evolved from a mechanism to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem to a participant in perpetuating their refugee status, would change its mission and become the international community’s representative for promoting this drive. UN aid and additional aid effort would be used for this purpose. Commercial and employment areas would be built next to the Palestinian cities, with the involvement of Israeli, Jordanian, and international developers, so that refugee rehabilitation would not be limited to housing solutions, but would include a comprehensive employment, education, and welfare package.

Rehousing and building new cities doesn’t come cheap: the cost of this would be in many of billions of dollars, at a time when there’s barely enough aid to keep the PA running, and certainly not enough aid money available to address the needs of refugees fleeing Syria. Indeed, virtually all serious studies of the refugee issue have recommended against wholesale “decamping” of refugee camps, even in the aftermath of a full peace agreement. Instead, while some new residential areas might be constructed, for the most part housing issues would be addressed through the dedensification and upgrading of existing refugee camps (which would, in the aftermath of an agreement, cease to be “refugee camps” and instead become normal urban areas—which, in many ways, is what they already are).

Finally, I think commentators who favour rehousing and the transfer of services to the PA overestimate the impact this would have on the strength of Palestinian political claims on the refugee issue. Certainly the polling evidence suggests that living in a refugee camps, receiving UNRWA services, or even refugee status has very little effect on Palestinian perceptions of refugee rights or the political importance they assign to the issue. That being said, Michael’s piece is more focussed on the signal it would send Israel, which is a somewhat different issue.

Just to reiterate: while I disagree with the political thrust of the INSS paper, my criticisms here have nothing to do with political differences. Rather, my comments have to do with the lack of basic understanding of this issue, and the extent to which it leads to poor policy analysis. That this sort of paper can—some 68 years after the birth of the refugee issue and after 22 years of the “peace process”—be written by a former official responsible for Palestinian issues and posted on the website of a major Israeli think-tank is really pretty shocking.


At his Council of Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams warns that recent comments by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas signal a continuing Palestinian intransigence on the “right of return” that will wreck current US mediation efforts:

So Abbas’s maneuver here, as we approach the Kerry deadline in April, makes a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible. The terms he has just set forth will never be met. Rather than preparing for peace, he is not only making it impossible for himself to sign a deal, but also setting out terms that will make it impossible for his successors  to sign a deal.

In particular he cites recent comments made by Abbas to Fateh activists:

The Right of Return is a personal right. If you are a refugee, your son is a refugee as well. Perhaps you will decide to relinquish this right while your son decides not to, or vice versa. Your son is free to do so. When we say that this is a personal choice, it means that he can decide for himself.

This, he suggests, makes agreement impossible:

By making the “right of return” a personal right for each Palestinian, Abbas is saying the PLO has no right to negotiate over it and no right to sign an agreement that defeats or even limits that “right.” If that’s really the PLO position, there will never be an agreement.

What is interesting about Abram’s piece is the extent to which it misunderstands refugee rights (and, for that matter, all other internationally-recognized rights) altogether.

Put simply, such rights are always individual rights. On this point there is broad consensus among both refugee and international law experts. They cannot be eliminated or withdrawn by states on behalf of their citizens, for if they could do so it would undermine the whole purpose of rights in the first place. In other words, all that Abbas is stating here is almost universally recognized principle of international law. Palestinian negotiators can no more give away Palestinian refugees’ right of return that Israeli negotiators could give away the rights of Israelis (or diaspora Jews) to life, liberty and security of person.

Rather than Abbas’ statement being a position of intransigence, it is probably better seen as an effort to remove the pressure on Palestinian negotiators to obtain explicit recognition of such a right in a permanent status agreement. Implicitly his comments suggest that such recognition is irrelevant, since it exists independently of whatever treaty text Israel and the Palestinians might agree. Of course, this runs counter to Israeli’s oft-expressed interest that any  agreement be an end of all claims against Israel by the Palestinians. However, there is broad agreement here too among experts that while an agreement can substantially narrow the scope and weight of such claims, it cannot prevent all individuals making such claims. After all, why would a Palestinian citizen of the US (for example) somehow be bound by what Palestinian leaders in Ramallah agree to? I doubt very much that Abrams would favour a future Palestinian state be given this sort of extra-territorial power over Americans.

That the “right” might still exist even after an agreement does not mean, however, that significant number of Palestinians would thereby gain access to residence in Israel. I’ve argued before that the “right of return” is a much more ambiguous and contingent right in international law than many Palestinians believe it to be. It is doubtful that it applies to refugees with citizenship, and it certainly fades slowly over succeeding generations. It is also not at all clear that it applies to original homes (in Israel) rather than homeland or “country”—both of much might be reasonably understood to refer to the future Palestinian state. Finally, no Israeli court is ever going top force an Israeli government to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, and no other court would have jurisdiction. While Israeli might accept some symbolic number of refugees (as it proposed in the 2001 Taba negotiations, and again in the 2007-08 Annapolis negotiations), in practice acceptance would likely remain a matter of sovereign discretion (as expressed in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters).

Elsewhere in his blog post, Abrams also expresses concern about Palestinian plans for a referendum on any peace deal that would include the diaspora, worrying that refugees might find the package unacceptable. That is indeed a risk, although the countervailing benefit is that an endorsement would force Hamas to accept a deal too. Abrams is also criticizes Abbas’ position on refugee compensation:

Abbas has every one of those people receiving compensation. Those who move to Palestine get compensation; those who “return” to Israel get compensation; those who move to Canada or stay in Canada get compensation, and so on. So, the young man or woman born in Jordan or Canada and having full citizenship there, and staying there, gets compensation. It’s a nice fantasy for a politician to describe—every Palestinian takes part in this bonanza—but it is just that: a fantasy. Once again, it has nothing to do with actually making the choices peace will require nor with preparing Palestinians for the real future.

This is slightly odd, since the general position Abbas expresses has been the (pre-Netanyahu) Israeli position on compensation too, as evidenced by the Israeli negotiating position at Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis. Compensation may be very difficult to do, and there may be questions about who pays how much to exactly whom, but in the past decade and a half of negotiations there has never been any serious controversy (yet) over whether it should be part of a deal.

Knowing when to be outraged by a map of the Middle East can always be confusing, as Ann Dismorr (Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon) recently discovered when she attended the official launch of two German-funded projects focused on water supply network improvement and shelter rehabilitation in Rashidieh Camp in southern Lebanon. During her visit, she was presented with an embroidered map by camp residents. Shortly thereafter, Palestinian Media Watch angrily condemned her:

At the official launch of two German-funded UNRWA projects in southern Lebanon, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon, Ann Dismorr, posed with a map that erases the State of Israel and presents all of it as “Palestine.”

The map includes both the Palestinian Authority areas as well as all of Israel. Above the map is the Palestinian flag and the inscription “Arab Palestine.” The text at the bottom of the map also says “Palestine.” The neighboring countries Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are all named on the map as is the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is not mentioned or designated anywhere. Several places and cities, both in Israel and from the Palestinian Authority, are included on the map of “Palestine”: The Negev desert, Be’er Sheva, Rafah (Gaza), Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias and the Dead Sea.

The Times of Israel soon jumped on the bandwagon, a headline declaring “UNRWA erases Israel from the map.” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, even sent a letter of complaint to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


It wasn’t, of course, UNRWA that embroidered the map (although UNRWA senior officials do have many remarkable household skills). Moreover, as an UNRWA press release subsequently pointed out, the map showed pre-1948 Palestine—that is before the establishment of the modern state of Israel:

Statement attributable to UNRWA Spokesperson, Chris Gunness

14 May 2013
East Jerusalem

UNRWA categorically rejects accusations in the media that the Agency is “erasing Israel from the map” because its officials and stakeholders stood next to a map which does not show Israel. The map in question is an embroidery depicting a pre-1948 map and therefore ante-dates the creation of the state of Israel. The allegations are therefore completely false.

The organization that originated the accusation has made similar allegations in the past about UNRWA’s neutrality and was forced to retract after the agency showed them to be false.

I again request that any media organization making similar accusations check with us first before they go public with reports that have consistently been shown to be false.

This isn’t the first time that a UN agency has run into map problems—as previously reported on the PRRN blog, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was criticized last year by some Palestinians for correctly labelling Israel as Israel on a map of the region. In 2011, UNRWA was accused of using Israel-denying globes in its refugee schools in Egypt (the fact that UNRWA has no schools in Egypt being, apparently, beside the point.)

MapOfIsrael1Meanwhile, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism website continues to include tourist maps that erase most of UN observer state Palestine from the map altogether. As you can see from the map at right, there’s no hint of a Green Line around the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).


UPDATE (28/5/2013):

Wait, there’s more! Prosor’s letter to the UN Secretary-General leaks to the Jerusalem Post, and UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responds.


h/t Scott Brynen for the West Wing video

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.

I’ve been travelling much of the last week and a half, and so haven’t had any chance yet to comment yet on recent developments in the US Congress regarding who is, and is not, a Palestinian refugee.

The hijinks started when Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) proposed an amendment to the FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill. This would have called upon the US State Department to report on the numbers of Palestinian refugees who had actually been displaced in 1948, as opposed to their descendants, as well as their citizenship status:

Not later than one year after the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing the number of people currently receiving United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) services 1) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict (“such persons”); 2) who are children of such persons; 3) who are grandchildren of such persons; 4) who are descendants of such persons and not otherwise counted by criteria (2) and (3); 5) who are residents of the West Bank or Gaza; 6) who do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and are citizens of other countries; and 7) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who were personally displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, who currently do not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who are not currently citizens of any other state.

The proposed amendment received enthusiastic media support from right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post (see here, here, and here) as well as by Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It was opposed by the US State Department. In a letter to the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides warned that the proposed legislation would ” be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.”

The status of Palestinian refugees is one of the most sensitive final status issues confronting Palestinians and Israelis. It strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies. Indeed the refugee issue is not confined to the Palestinian territories; it also directly and significantly the politics and stability of allies, such as Jordan and Lebanon, which host large Palestinian refugee populations.

This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.  United States policy has been consistent for decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations – final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.  The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees…

This proposed amendment poses serious risk of damaging a range of key United States interests in the region.  It pushed the refugee issue to the fore at a particularly sensitive time.  Forcing the United States to take a position on a permanent status issue would hurt our efforts to promote Middle East peace, prevent the Palestinians from returning to their pursuit of statehood via the United Nations, damage our ability to mediate between the parties, and risk a very negative and potentially destabilizing impact on key allies, particularly Jordan, who host Palestinian refugee populations

In the end, modified language was proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT):

The Committee directs the Secretary of State to submit a report to the Committee not later than one year after enactment of this act, indicating –
(a)    the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received UNRWA services –
(1)   whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and
(2)   who are descendants of persons described in subparagraph (1);
(b)   the extent to which the provision of such services to such persons furthers the security interests of the United States and of other United States allies in the Middle East; and
(c)    the methodology and challenges in preparing each report.

Detailed analysis of the legislative maneuvering has been provided by American Friends for Peace Now, in their excellent weekly legislative round-up.

The original Kirk amendment was clearly motivated by the view that UNRWA artificially prolongs the refugee issue. While it did not call for any limitation on funds to UNRWA, it seemed designed as part of a strategy to weaken both US support for the continuation of UNRWA services and registration practices over the longer term, as well as limiting the refugee issue to the elderly generation of 1948 refugees.

The Leahy version is less of a challenge to the status quo, in that it only addresses the generational issue (on which UNRWA and UNHCR practices are similar) and not the citizenship issue (where they largely differ).

Subsequently, the US State Department clarified to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy magazine that it regards the children of refugees to be refugees, and not just in the Palestinian context:

In a new statement given to The Cable Thursday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. government does, in fact, agree with UNRWA that descendants of refugees are also refugees.

“Both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) generally recognize descendants of refugees as refugees,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. “For purposes of their operations, the U.S. government supports this guiding principle. This approach is not unique to the Palestinian context.”

Ventrell pointed out that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also recognizes descendants of refugees as refugees in several cases, including but not limited to the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal, the Afghan population in Pakistan, and the Somali population seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

UNHCR by default only considers the minor children of refugees to have refugee status but often makes exceptions to include latter generations.

Rogin then spun this into the sensationalistic headline “Did the State Department just create 5  million Palestinian refugees?,” raising the spectre of an ever-expanding Palestinian refugee population.

Interestingly, both legislative amendments talk about those using UNRWA services, not those registered with UNRWA. The former number is, in practice, a smaller one since many refugees may not use UNRWA services.

This episode raises three main questions:

First, what is the relationship between UNRWA and Palestinian refugee claims? While the Agency undoubtedly plays some role in refugee identity, it would require a pretty shallow understanding of the refugee issue to believe that refugee claims or Palestinian attitudes to the refugee are somehow a product of UNRWA registration status. Indeed, as noted before at this blog, the public opinion survey data shows that receiving UNRWA services has little impact on Palestinian attitudes to the refugee issue.

Second, who is really a refugee? It is true that UNRWA uses a somewhat different definition of “refugee” than does UNHCR. Then again, UNRWA’s definition relates solely to service eligibility, and is in no way a political-legal definition for negotiations purposes. On the other hand, as the State Department notes, Palestinians are far from the only multi-generational refugees. In 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR rules were applied to Palestinians, the results would probably be the following:

  1. Stateless (non-citizen) refugees of all generations in Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere would continue to be considered refugees.
  2. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are also stateless until such time as Israel allows creation of a Palestinian state, would either be considered refugees (if the Green Line is an international border) or displaced persons (otherwise). In other words, their status wouldn’t change either, until a peace agreement establishes a state of Palestine.
  3. Palestinian refugees in Jordan who hold Jordanian citizenship—that is to say, the vast majority—would lose refugee status, since they clearly enjoy the protection of a state.

In other words, applying UNHCR rules to the Palestinians would drop the number of refugees from the current 4.8 million to approximately 2.8 million. Almost all of this reduction in numbers would occur within Jordan, and would likely be politically destabilizing in view of post-Arab Spring tensions in that country (although legitimate questions could be raised about why the UN continues to provide substantial services to tax-paying Jordanian citizens). Certainly efforts to radically transform the way UNRWA deliver services would be viewed by both Palestinians and Arab host countries as a hostile move by the US government, as Nides warned.

Finally—and most important of all—none of this would actually change the claims made against Israel, nor would it significantly change the dynamics of future peace negotiations on the refugee issue. The forced displacement  of Palestinians in 1948 was a formative experience in modern Palestinian nationalism. It is as central to Palestinian identity as is Jewish attachment to Israel. Regardless of whether UNRWA counts five million refugees or five, Palestinians will likely continue to press for recognition of Israeli responsibility, some form of refugee return (however symbolic), and compensation for the properties seized by Israel.

On the sidelines of the recent Conference on Displacement and Reconciliation at Saint Paul University, a colleague and I (we’ll call her only “Roula X”) had a spirited discussion regarding the relationship between Palestinian negotiating strategy and the right of return. It raised a number of important issues, so I thought I would throw it open for broader discussion on the PRRN blog.

First, let’s start with a (admittedly-imperfect) characterization of positions regarding the refugee issue. In general,  a rough continuum of seven such positions can be discerned:

  1. Palestinian refugees were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and an absolute right of return, and that right is achievable. Minimal acceptable agreement: full right of return to 1948 areas.
  2. Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and an absolute right of return. That right is not achievable now, but might be achievable later, and hence needs to be preserved. Minimal acceptable agreement: full right of return to 1948 areas, or transitional agreement that preserves the ability to continue to advance claims.
  3. Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and a right of return, but that right is unlikely to be fully achievable. In order to gain partial rights, and in order to gain leverage in negotiations, there should be no public compromise on the issue now, even if it must be compromised later. Minimal acceptable agreement: Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility and symbolic recognition right of return, coupled with modalities that sharply limit actual return.
  4. Palestinians were forcibly displaced, have legitimate grievances and a full or partial rights of return, but those rights are unlikely to be fully achievable. Demanding an unachievable right is misleading the refugees and/or counterproductive as a negotiating position. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility and/or refugee grievances, coupled with limited/symbolic return.
  5. Palestinians were forcibly displaced, and have legitimate grievances. They also have rights of return but they are somewhat ambiguous and have weakened over time. Moreover, their rights are unlikely to be fully achievable. Demanding an unachievable right is misleading the refugees and/or counterproductive as a negotiating position. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility and/or refugee grievances, coupled with limited/symbolic return.
  6. Some Palestinians were forcibly displaced, and have many legitimate grievances, but little or no right of return to Israel proper. They may or do have rights to repatriate to a Palestinian state. Minimal acceptable agreement: acknowledgement of refugee suffering, coupled with limited/symbolic return. End of Palestinian claims.
  7. Palestinians were not forcibly displaced, have few or no legitimate grievances, and no rights of return to Israel, or possibly  anywhere in historical Palestine. Minimal acceptable agreement: no acknowledgement or return. End of Palestinian claims.

Palestinian public and elite opinion generally runs the gamut from positions #1 to #3, although a few have advocated #4. While the PLO’s public rhetorical position tends to be #1, in practice its negotiating positing (at Camp David in 2000, at Taba in 2001, and in the Annapolis round in 2007-08) has generally been that of #3.

The position of most Arab countries has been similar to the PLO negotiating position in public (#1) and private (#3). The position of the international community has ranged somewhere between #4 and #6. The US has never really articulated its own position on the issue, but if it did so I suspect it would be fairly close to #6. The Europeans tend to be all over the place, varying across countries and even officials. Many would privately articulate position #5.

The Israeli public and elite position runs from #6 to #7 (although there are a few individuals, academics, and NGOs who take a slightly different position). The Israel government adopted position #6 at Taba and the Annapolis round. The Netanyahu government takes position #7.

One of the more interesting gradations in this spectrum—and the one that sparked this discussion—was the differences between positions #3 and #4. Both positions regard Palestinian refugees as having been forcibly displaced, in what both would regard as acts of ethnic cleansing. Both believe that the refugees have a range of rights, including rights of return. Both positions, however, do not believe that substantial numbers of refugees will be able to return to 1948 areas in any likely agreement. Rather, an agreement is likely to include some recognition of responsibility, some symbolic return, rights of repatriation to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and reparations/compensation for refugees.

Where they differ, however, is on the issue of at what point the Palestinian side should compromise on their demands on full implementation of the right.

  • Position #3 argues that it would be both morally inappropriate and poor negotiating tactics to concede large-scale refugee return at the outset of the process. Rather, one should start from the maximalist position in order to secure Israeli concessions, and to assure maximal acknowledgement of refugee rights even if they can’t be implemented. After all, anyone who has bargained knows that you start high, and make concessions from there.
  • Position #3 also holds that compromises on the refugee issue will only be palatable to Palestinians in the context of a broader package deal that includes the attainment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Consequently, it would be politically unwise for Palestinian negotiators to publicly signal too much flexibility early in the negotiations, since doing so will only serve to generate refugee dissatisfaction and create opportunities for rival groups to mobilize public opposition to the negotiating process.
  • Finally, Position #3 is also often based on the implicit view that as the victims of a historic wrong, it would be inappropriate for the Palestinians to offer too much compromise too soon. Rather, Palestinian flexibility is something that Israel can encourage by acknowledging its own responsibility for the refugee issue. It is not the Palestinians’ responsibility to play the role of psychotherapist to Israel’s collective denials and repressed memories.
  • Position #4, by contrast, rejects the notion that by starting with a maximalist position on return the Palestinian negotiation position is enhanced. Rather, it is likely to be understood by Israeli negotiators either as a non-credible rhetorical position, and/or as an indication of bad faith. Indeed, to the extent that the right of return is seen as a back-door mechanism for Palestinian conquest of Israel, it might even be seen as casting doubt on the Palestinians’ commitment to a two state solution.
  • Position #4 also argues that Position #3 under estimates the importance of shifting Israeli opinion on the issue as a way of influencing Israeli negotiating behaviour and expanding the scope of the possible within negotiations.
  • While recognizing the enormous sensitivity of the issue, Position #4 argues that the Palestinian leadership is morally bound to be honest with their people as to what can, and cannot, be achieved in negotiations. It suggests that refugees are more realistic than given credit for, and that inevitable compromises on the refugee issue can be honestly framed as part the refugees’ collective contribution to the achievement of Palestinian liberation and self-determination.
  • Finally, Position #4 suggests that while the Palestinians were undoubtedly subject to forced displacement and ethnic cleansing, it remains an unavoidable reality that Israelis are deeply wedded to their own narrative of victimhood. Consequently, leading Israel to acknowledgement of their responsibility for their issue won’t come from waiting for them see the light, but rather by engaging them in a process of mutual compromise whereby their sense of threat is diminished and uncritical attachment to national mythology is lessened.
Anyone who has read my writings or past blog posts know that I tend to somewhere between position #4 and #5, largely for the reasons articulated above. An obvious counter to that position is that I’m simply wrong in my political assessment of what is possible, and that the full return of all refugees is achievable. I, however, see no evidence that this is the case. Moreover, there are probably some complicated moral issues to be found in balancing the historic rights of refugee return against the contemporary rights of Israeli self-determination. Fortunately, those are philosophical issues that Position #4 is largely able to sidestep.
Other views/perspectives/observations? Feel free to post them in the comments section—remembering, as always, to keep them polite and constructive.

The Wall Street Journal has a “defund UNRWA” op ed today, written by long-time UNRWA critics Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, that contains all the usual myths about UNRWA fostering refugee dependence. At some point (when time allows) I’ll go through it properly, but for the moment I’m more struck by the devastating revelations that appear in another article, this time written by Rhonda Spivak in the Winnipeg Jewish Review:

At the J-Street conference in Washington, I met George A. Laudato, who works for US AID [The U.S. Agency for International Development], in the Middle East Bureau. Laudato confirmed that although the US Aid builds schools in UNWRA Palestinian Refugee Camps, US Aid “does not monitor the content” of what is taught in those schools, which he acknowledged “ is a problem.” Laudato told me of a situation that “occurred 3 – 4 years ago” at an UNWRA camp he visited in Egypt.

“When I looked at one of the globes in a classroom, I realized that the globe didn’t have Israel on it. All of the globes in the school were the same [missing Israel]. I knew that the American Congress wouldn’t want to be paying for this,” he said

Laudato said he stepped in and insisted that all these globes be replaced with ones that did have Israel on the map. But Laudato emphasized that normally US AID wouldn’t have intervened in something like this. “I did intervene because we have had a relationship in Egypt for over 30 years so I felt I could do something about replacing the maps. But this is not the usual case.”

Shocking and scandalous indeed!

…well, except for the fact that UNRWA does not have, and has never had, any schools or other refugee facilities in Egypt, which lies outside of its area of operations.

According to the USAID website, Laudato “leads the Middle East Bureau as the Administrator’s Special Assistant for the Middle East.” Apparently he’s also the Administrator’s Special Assistant for Getting Really Obvious Well-Known Things Wrong and Then Repeating Them Carelessly to Journalists.

That is, of course, assuming that Spivak got the quote right. In fairness to Laudato, she may not have—reading Spivak’s piece it soon becomes apparent that she needs a good fact-checker, or indeed a fact-checker of any sort. She claims to have seen a mural of female suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras on a UNRWA school, when actually, it isn’t an UNRWA school at all. She also seems to think UNRWA owns or runs the refugee camps, and hence is responsible for everything inside them. It isn’t, of course, as UNRWA makes clear on its website FAQ:

Does UNRWA run the refugee camps?

No. UNRWA does not administer the camps but is responsible for running education, health, and relief and social services programmes, which are located inside and outside camps. The Agency is not responsible for security or law and order in the camps and has no police force or intelligence service. This responsibility has always remained with the relevant host and other authorities.

Had she done any research she would have caught the Laudato blooper too. Sheesh.

The cast of Twilight debates whether: 1) the refugee issue is an artificial creation of the Arabs and the UN, because all those refugees were happy to leave in 1948 and didn't really have their homes seized and/or get shot at if they tried to return, or 2) one day Israel will decide it doesn't want to be a Jewish state, and it will happily allow 4.7+ million refugees to return to their ancestral homes. With werewolves and vampires. And teen romance.

First Andrew Whitley says something very sensible, but probably outside the remit of a serving UNRWA official. Then everyone dumps on UNRWA, including a great many folks who know he is right but would rather that UNRWA didn’t say it, or that it wasn’t said at all prior to any eventual peace deal. Then UNRWA, quite understandably, tries to shield itself from the criticism by disavowing Whitley’s statement. On one side, Whitley is declared an “enemy of the people” for sharing his honest opinion. On the other side, the usual critics of UNRWA—apparently failing to recognize that UNRWA, like any UN agency, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the international community that needs to stay within its formal mandate—jump all over UNRWA for distancing itself. Moreover, as they write all about UNRWA’s latest sins these same critics somehow completely overlook Israel’s primary culpability for the creation of the refugee issue in the first place.

Frankly, Toy Story 3 had far more thoughtful arguments than does much of the reaction of the past few days. Heck, even the cursed Twilight saga does.

Among those who has been weighing in during the current kick-UNRWA moment is Ben Cohen, the Associate Director of Communications for the American Jewish Congress, in an article (“UNRWA Shames Andrew Whitley“) in today’s Huffington Post. Among other things, Cohen even manages to liken UNRWA to the KGB—indicating that perhaps my suggestion a few days ago that Fillipo Grandi is actually Dr. Evil in disguise was closer to the mark than I ever suspected. (Watch out for that pinky finger during staff meetings, UNRWA folks!)

The Huffington Post limits the length of online responses, which means I couldn’t post my thoughts there. Consequently, here they are instead:

Dear Ben:

While I agree that the Whitley episode provides an opportunity for a much needed airing of the political unfeasibility of large-scale Palestinian refugee return to Israel, you could be more careful with your facts.

  • While Andrew Whitley was correct in noting that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to ever be able to return to their homes within Israel, you should perhaps make clear that every serious set of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the issue since 2000 has presumed that some (largely symbolic) number of refugees would be able to return. At Taba in January 2001, for example, Israeli negotiators proposed 50,000 over five years (in an ambiguous 15-year formulation that might have stretched the possible number as high as 150,000). I hope you are as concerned as others are that the Netanyahu government might reverse the Israeli position and attempt to bar all refugee return.
  • The notion that “Palestinians, in contrast to other refugee populations, are obliged to transfer refugee status to their descendants” simply isn’t true. Palestinians have to register for UNRWA status, are not obliged to do so, and cannot do so at all if they live outside UNRWA’s areas of operation. Other refugees around the world  can also pass on their refugee status (technically referred to as “derived status”) under certain conditions–for example, many of the Afghan refugees who returned to Afghanistan with Western support after the overthrow of the Taliban were second (or subsequent) generation refugees.
  • Whitley’s candor did not “cost him his job”–he was already scheduled to leave the organization at the end of the year.
  • Far from Whitley’s apology being “His tone is so supine and humble that the reader is bound to wonder if these words are actually Whitley’s, or whether they were authored, in the manner of the KGB, by someone else,” a close reading of it would show that while he regrets (as any good UN official would) the problems caused for the organization by his comments, he nowhere recants the accuracy of what he said.
  • Given the frequency with which Israel itself protests UN officials who make controversial comments, it is a little disingenuous to claim that “Had the “Israel Lobby” secured such a mournful repudiation of the right to independent thought from a critic of Israeli policy, the chorus of “I-told-you-so” would raise the roof.” Andrew Whitley is a UN official, and as such is bound as any public servant to reflect the official line while employed—which, in this case, is determined by United Nations General Assembly resolutions that, for the most part, the US routinely endorses.
  • It is true that, in absolute amounts, Arab states are not among the top 20 donors to the Agency. Nor, for that matter, is Israel, which created the refugee issue in the first place. Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, however, provide a broad range of services to the refugees which do not flow through UNRWA. Given the small size of their respective economies, these far exceed the generosity of any other donor.
  • al-Awda’s attack against Whitley was over the top, and certainly condemned by those who work professionally on the refugee issue (including me). Sami Mshasha merely said that UNRWA “appreciates your concerns and we, at UNRWA, understand the reasons that prompted you to share these concerns with UN officials”, which hardly falls into the category of  “gratefully recognizing the organization’s role in securing Whitley’s apologia.”
  • You comment that successive generations of Palestinians “live in Arab countries with the inferior status of the refugee, barred from non-menial jobs, higher education, the ability to travel and all the other benefits that make a free life worth living.” Of the major host countries, only Lebanon has such restrictions on refugees. Palestinians in Syria enjoy legal equivalency to Syrian citizens in almost all areas, except for voting (which hardly counts for much in Syria anyway). Palestinians in Jordan are full citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be full citizens too, if it weren’t for that inconvenient Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
  • “Without the refugees, there is no “original sin” to pin upon Zionism.” The establishment of Israel forcibly displaced some 80% of the Muslim and Christian population of the nascent Jewish state. Subsequent Israeli policy seized their properties and barred their return on ethno-religious grounds, in what many today would consider an act of ethnic cleansing. Of course, Israel was not the only state to be established on the wreckage of its dispersed and dispossessed indigenous population—the same is true of settler states in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, while those states and populations have increasingly recognized the injustices that accompanied their creation, Israel has been reluctant to do so.

You are quite right to call for a more realistic discussion of the prospects for the right of return. It would be helpful if you would combine this with a corresponding call for recognition of Israel’s primary culpability for creation of the refugee problem in the first place–otherwise it is certainly going to be difficult to convince refugees to forgo any of their internationally-recognized rights in the absence of even a simple “you were wronged.”

UNRWA disavows Whitley comments

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Rex Brynen in being argumentative, peace process, UNRWA

Well, this didn’t take long. UNRWA has today formally disavowed Andrew Witley’s recent comments at the NCUSAR conference on the political feasibility of the right of return:

United Nations Relief and Works Agency Statement

UNRWA distances itself from the statements of its New York Director

UNRWA unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by the Director of its office in New York, Andrew Whitley, at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations in Washington on 22 October 2010. These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the Agency and are the personal views of Mr Whitley.

I understand that the Agency needs to work on an intimate daily basis with 4.7 million refugees, 30,000 Palestinian employees, and host governments, and that pronouncements on politically-sensitive issues (such as the likely constraints on any future refugee return) do not make UNRWA’s daily operations any easier.

Then again, Andrew was (in my own view) absolutely right, and expressed views that are held by most senior officials within UNRWA, the PA, host countries, and the international community. They also reflect, if the polling is to be believed, the expectations of most refugees.

Some of the reaction to my earlier blog post revolved around the ideas that: 1) Palestinians should not be expected to express compromise on the refugee issue until Israel does—that, in other words, maintaining a maximalist position is good negotiating strategy; 2) that refugees should be allowed to cling to the dream, even if it is illusory, 3) that discussing refugee concessions only distracts from the core of the issue, which is Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and 4) it is just all so unfair, given what happened in 1948.

All of those are good points. Regarding #1, however, I don’t think that implying to refugees that a full right of return is achievable actually helps as a negotiating strategy. Regarding #2, by all means anyone can cling to a dream—but in my view its important for researchers (and even policy-makers) to speak the truth as they see it, especially for the benefit of the marginalized. In the case of #3, yes that’s true—the core issue is occupation—but PRRN is all about refugees, which leads us to take the issue in isolation and out of context at times.

And as for #4… yes it is.