The amendment does not link the required data with any reduction in U.S. funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – which amounted to $250 million in 2011 – but merely attempts to nail down some figures: How many of the people eligible for UNRWA assistance today were actually displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, and how many are the descendants of those refugees.
However, the PLO has now joined the Obama administration and the government of Jordan in strenuously opposing the requirement.
Zakaria al-Agha, head of the PLO’s refugee affairs department, called the amendment “a conspiracy to liquidate the issue of refugees and UNRWA’s role.” Should the measure be approved, he said, it would have serious repercussions in seeking to undermine the Palestinian “right to return.”
An estimated 750,000 Arabs (Israeli figure: 580,000; Arab figures: 914,000) left their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent war launched by surrounding Arab nations. Today UNRWA counts more than five million “Palestinian refugees” in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
Given that large number, the “right of return” of these Palestinians to areas they or their forebears left is one of the stickiest issues standing in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The total population of Israel is some 7.8 million, of whom about 5.8 million are Jewish.
The controversial amendment is part of the fiscal year 2013 State and foreign operations appropriations bill, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday and now goes the full Senate for its consideration.
Originally introduced by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the amendment was watered down by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee’s State and foreign operations subcommittee, following objections by the State Department.
The reworked version still requires an accounting of the number of Palestinian Arabs displaced in 1948 and the number of their descendants, but drops requests for data specifying how many UNRWA beneficiaries live under Palestinian Authority (P.A.) rule, how many live in neighboring countries, and how many have obtained citizenship of other countries.
Despite those changes, Kirk called it a “watershed reporting requirement [that] will help taxpayers better understand whether UNRWA truly remains a refugee assistance organization or has become a welfare agency for low-income residents of the Levant.”
He noted that U.S. taxpayers have provided more than $4 billion to UNRWA since 1950.
According to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, only about 30,000 of the five million people the UNRWA counts as refugees would fall into the category of those directly displaced as a result of the 1948 conflict.
The Obama administration’s objections to the amendment came in the form of a letter to the Senate committee from Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, who wrote that the measure “would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner reaffirmed those concerns during a press briefing Thursday.
“We obviously support UNRWA and their activities, but we don’t want to see any kind of amendment or legislation that would attempt to determine – predetermine the outcome of what we believe should be settled during these direct negotiations.”
The Palestinian refugee situation is the only one anywhere that has a U.N. agency devoted exclusively to it. Every other refugee in the world falls within the domain of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee covers any Arab who lived in the area that became Israel for just two years before having “lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” The definition was later broadened to include their offspring.
Even if people covered by that definition later acquired the citizenship of another country – as two million in Jordan have – they remain refugees as far as UNRWA is concerned. By contrast, the 951 U.N. Refugee Convention states that refugee status ceases to apply where a person “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.”
During the Senate committee debate over the amendment, Leahy expressed concern that Kirk’s measure would be interpreted as suggesting that Jordan, Lebanon and the P.A. “should take over caring for these people who UNRWA currently cares for, which neither Jordan or Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority are capable of doing.”
In response to queries, the Jordanian Embassy provided a statement Thursday outlining its opposition to the amendment.
It said UNRWA’s functions and finances help Jordan “in shouldering the responsibility of all Palestinian refugees on its territory which is more vital considering the severe economic situation that the country is facing.”
Any attempt to undermine the U.N. agency would harm Mideast efforts, the embassy statement said.
“If efforts to terminate or limit its operation do succeed then the prospects of a two state solution would significantly diminish.”