Recent reports quoting Palestinian officials indicate that US peace envoys seek to eliminate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. UNRWA is a UN refugee agency exclusively responsible for Palestinian “refugees” worldwide. A few months after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in order to “take it off the negotiation table,” it seems that US peace envoys led by Jared Kushner are moving toward taking another core issue off the negotiation table: Palestinian refugees.
This time US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law is right: ending Palestinian refugee status will take a seemingly insurmountable issue off the negotiation table, allow for better treatment of the Palestinian refugees and promote the creation and stability of a future Palestinian state.
There are two refugee agencies in the United Nations. The first, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), established in 1950, is responsible for all the refugees in the world, which are estimated at 70 million. The second, UNRWA, established in 1949, is dedicated exclusively to supporting Palestinian refugees, which are estimated at seven million. UNRWA provides, among other things, “education, health care, relief and social services” to residents of Palestinian refugee camps spread across the Middle East. An additional responsibility of UNRWA is to keep track of the number of Palestinian refugees as well as their whereabouts.
The case of the Palestinian refugees is the only case in modern history where the status of refugee is automatically inherited, regardless of whether the Palestinians are still living in refugee camps or were granted national citizenship by another country.
Therefore, while the number of post-WWII refugees plummeted from 60 million to less than five million by 2018, the number of Palestinian refugees grew tenfold, from 700,000 in the 1950s to more than seven million in 2018.
While the great majority of the non-Palestinian refugees from the post-WWII period died from natural causes, were granted citizenship or both, Palestinian refugees transferred the refugee status to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who as of now, are poised to pass it on as well.
With no foreseeable ending to the automatically inherited refugee status, the number of Palestinian refugees will continue to rise, and is expected to exceed 10 million by 2030. As the issue of Palestinian refugees constitutes a main reason that past negotiations failed, forcing it off the negotiation table could possibly contribute to the success of future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. More importantly, it will benefit all parties involved.
Israel, for security reasons, cannot allow the “return” of seven million Palestinian refugees into the Palestinian Territories, nor into a future Palestinian state. Under no circumstances will Israel welcome a hostile and at times belligerent people into strategic areas that determine the overall security of the country and its society. In addition, in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel had to absorb approximately 700,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from Arab countries. These refugees were granted citizenship immediately upon their arrival and today they are an integral part of the Israeli society.
The Jewish refugees and their descendants, as well as large parts of Israeli society, are not likely to support any Israeli government, much less an international organization, which recognizes the suffering of the Palestinian refugees while ignoring theirs.
Surprisingly enough, the Palestinian leadership would secretly prefer for Kushner’s efforts to succeed, but they cannot express this, as they will lose the little legitimacy they still have. The emotional connection between the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians living in refugee camps across the Middle East has long been dissolved.
The precarious response of the Palestinian leadership when Syrian President Bashar Assad besieged, starved and butchered the residents of the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk reveals how little the Palestinian leadership cares for other Palestinians in the Middle East. Practically speaking, the Palestinian leadership knows that a newborn state with a population of four million people cannot possibly absorb seven million others from all across the Middle East. Forcing the topic off the negotiation table will finally allow the Palestinian negotiating team to abandon that demand and focus on more practical matters.
Palestinian refugees have long been neglected, abused and discriminated against by Arab countries. Other than Jordan, no other country in the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, has granted citizenship to the Palestinian refugees in their territories. In Lebanon, Palestinians are still denied access to major social and occupational institutions and are prohibited from working as doctors, lawyers or engineers. In Syria, Palestinians are attacked by both Shi’ite and Sunni militias, with no one to protect them. In Egypt, Palestinians suffer from travel restrictions and they are denied basic government services.
The source of the discrimination against Palestinians living in Arab countries is the misconception that they are living there only temporarily and will soon move to Israel or Palestine. Ending the refugee status will force the host countries to recognize that these residents living in their territories are not going anywhere and should be treated as if they were equal citizens.
The biggest misconception about a negotiable solution for the issue of the Palestinian refugees is that the solution would involve either compensation or a return of the refugees to Israel or a future Palestine. In fact, the real options are either to agree upon compensation or keep futilely negotiating a Palestinian state for another 50 years. Under no circumstances will Israel allow the flow of millions of Palestinian refugees to a future Palestine, much less to Israel, and under no circumstances will the Palestinian negotiating teams waive the right of the refugees to return (even though they secretly despise the idea).
Since the Israelis and Palestinians have already agreed on the other two core issues that come up in every negotiation – security arrangements and borders – ending Palestinian refugee status will dramatically increase the likelihood of successful negotiations in the future. As all parties will benefit from ending Palestinian refugee status, it seems that this time, the son-in-law got it right, and Kushner’s initiative should be taken seriously.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department of King’s College London and the program manager of the Argov Fellows program in leadership and diplomacy at IDC Herzliya.