Through U.S. diplomatic sanctions and dramatic cuts of financial aid to Palestine, Palestinians are being punished because the Palestinian Authority (PA) broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S.—in response to the illegal U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its objections to Trump’s peace prospects for the region, referred to as the “deal of the century.” This retaliatory fury has not spared Palestinian refugees or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the agency that has served them for seventy years.
In fact, cutting U.S. support for the Agency ($125 million USD) is no more than a side effect of the retaliation against the PA, UNRWA, and Palestinian refugees, the intended targets of a campaign aiming to stop calling 5.5 million Palestinians “refugees” and annihilating the entities that support them. The goal is political: helping Israel resolve—in the most dramatic, simplistic way—one of the most intractable issues in its dealings with the Palestinians: the right to return.
Given the gravity of such assault, no effort has been spared to find a legal justification for these measures. The arguments that U.S. pundits have put forward in this respect, citing the mantra of international refugee law and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) practice, leave no doubt.
But the U.S.’ attempt to redefine Palestinian refugees has little to do with the definition of “refugee” under the 1951 Refugee Convention: a person seeking international protection out of “well-founded fear of persecution” in his/her own country. This is because Palestinian refugees predate the Convention, and by 1949 had already been afforded de facto asylum from host states and a special regime by the United Nations (UN). This consisted of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), tasked to resolve the refugee question, mainly through return and/or compensation as part of peace-making in Palestine; and UNRWA, to provide assistance and relief to the refugees. As no political solution could be achieved, by 1952 the UNCCP was progressively side-lined and became de facto defunct by the early 1960s. Since then, the UNRWA has been the principal entity Palestinian refugees countries can turn to for protection and assistance in host countries.
Yet, according to the U.S.’ own interpretation of international refugee law, not all Palestinian refugees are legitimate. As such, they are not entitled to refugee rights and prerogatives, such as the right to return, unless they belong to the group of persons who were originally displaced in 1948. Second- or third-generation descendants are not refugees. Instead they should become nationals of the country in which they reside. The problem, according to the U.S.’ own interpretation of international refugee law, is with the way UNRWA defines, counts, and registers Palestinian refugees, which is flawed and perpetuates, instead of resolving, the Palestinian refugee crisis.
Such an interpretation brushes aside history and sidesteps the purpose of international law altogether.
UNRWA defines ‘Palestine refugees’ as those who resided in Palestine from 1946-48 and lost both their home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 war. Based on this definition, endorsed by the UN General Assembly, UNRWA has registered and provided services to generations of Palestinian refugees, numbering 5.5 million today.
The attempts to legally define who Palestinian refugees are for the purpose of return and compensation under UNGA Res. 194 died with the UNCCP. Meanwhile, it was the U.S., first and foremost, who pressed the UNRWA to operationally define the refugees so as to carry out censuses to remove “ineligibles” from the initial ration rolls that the agency had received from early relief organizations. Indeed, UNRWA’s definition was intended to reduce the initial number of refugees eligible for assistance, namely from 946,000 to 725,000, rather than inflating it. Eventually UNRWA was unable to carry out censuses owing to opposition by the host countries
As far as the UNHCR’s approach is concerned, contrary to U.S. assertions, UNRWA’s registration of descendants, responding to the need to protect family unity, is in line with UNHCR procedures. UNHCR does register, count, and protect descendants of refugees in protracted refugee situations. That includes roughly two-thirds of the whole refugee population worldwide primarily from Afghanistan, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, DRC, Angola, and Bhutan.
However, unlike UNHCR, UNRWA only registers refugees though the male line and does not count those who were displaced for the first time by the 1967 hostilities as part of its Registered Refugee population. Should UNRWA correct this, the numbers of Palestinian refugees would increase, an outcome the U.S. is working against.
In fact, what the U.S. is interested in is ensuring that there are not more than a handful of Palestinian refugees who could claim rights to the lands Israel took in 1948. In pursuing this goal, the U.S. is making up alibis, side-lining the UN, bypassing its rules and procedures, and quashing fundamental rights. Delegitimizing UNRWA and Palestinian refugees is just a step of this process.
Trump’s era is a saddening time for the UN, international law, and justice—the very principles multilateralism is premised upon. Yet, not all is lost. Multilateralism is not a passive entity or just a word void of meaning. It is an active system made of a plurality of backgrounds, visions, and voices that together are meant to uphold universal values, over and above the logic of power dynamics that dominate bilateral relations. The international community can and should respond firmly to the destabilizing course pursued by the current U.S. administration. It could reverse the tide by helping the UNRWA to not collapse in the short term, preserving the welfare of the millions it serves, and then, by aiding Palestinian refugees in solving their question in a just and durable way. After decades of broken promises, neglected norms, and agreements ignored, the fate of Palestinian refugees is the ultimate battleground over which we can restore our faith in the international community.