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Whose Middle East Policy Is It, Anyway?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

If we set up an organization to provide health care, over time more people should get well. If we set up an organization to assist the poor, over time more people should earn a living. If we set up an organization to re-settle refugees, over time, more displaced persons should find permanent homes, acquire citizenship and cease being refugees.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was set up in the late 1940s after Palestinian Arab forces, backed by the armies of five Arab nations, rejected a U.N. partition plan – what we now call a two-state solution -- and launched a war to destroy the fledgling State of Israel. Initially, UNWRA’s mission was to “reintegrate” Palestinian Arabs displaced during the fighting into the normal life of the Middle East.

That mission changed about 1960. In a paper soon to be published in Middle East Quarterly, Steven J. Rosen, Washington director of the Middle East Forum, documents how UNRWA, for the past half century, has sought not to diminish the Palestinian refugee problem but to enlarge it -- even as Israel re-settled hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab and Muslim lands.

I first wrote about this a few weeks ago, noting Senator Mark Kirk’s plan to cut not a dollar of American support for UNRWA but simply to stimulate an honest discussion based on reliable data. He’s now done that: Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee, on a unanimous and bipartisan basis, approved legislation requiring the State Department to tell Congress how many of the five million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from UNRWA were among the approximately 750,000 individuals displaced during the war against Israel, and how many are their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A statement from Kirk’s office explained that, “With U.S. taxpayers providing more than $4 billion to UNRWA since 1950, the watershed reporting requirement 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.”

Kirk’s legislation was strenuously opposed not just by UNRWA but also by the State Department. When it passed anyway, State communicated its displeasure in both a letter to senators on the committee and a statement to Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin. By doing so, State dramatically shifted US policy. Back in 1965, the U.S. government objected to UNRWA’s decision to award refugee status to the descendants of refugees. Now, State is saying it supports that and, what’s more, sees no reason for Congress even to have access to basic information about those receiving American aid.

Rogin pointed out that the State Department’s views “appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status,” which specifically prohibits extending refugee status to grandchildren. In other words, a Palestinian could not seek admission to the U.S. as a refugee on the grounds that his grandfather was a refugee.

There is a larger issue here: As Rosen explained to Rogin, by calling all five million UNRWA aid recipients “refugees,” State is suggesting that this entire population has a “right of return” not to the Palestinian territories, the West Bank and Gaza, but to Israel.

One State Department official complained that the “Kirk amendment, based on commentary surrounding it, is meant to set a stage for the U.S. to intervene now with the determination that 2nd and 3rd generation descendants have no claims and in fact aren't even Palestinians.”

But Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all “intervened” with “determinations” that a two-state solution can succeed only if most displaced Palestinians become citizens of a Palestinian state rather than the Jewish state; only if, as President Clinton phrased it at Camp David in 2000, there is “no specific right of return to Israel itself.” These and other American leaders understood that for Israel to grant citizenship to millions of anti-Israeli Palestinians would mean national suicide. American policy, by tradition, has not been to suggest that allies kill themselves.

As for the “commentary” surrounding Kirk’s measure, I’m not aware of any – certainly not mine or that of my colleague, Jonathan Schanzer in Foreign Policy magazine, or that of Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post – that questions who is a Palestinian.

But there are 1.8 million Palestinians who hold Jordanian citizenship and yet are counted as refugees despite the fact that under international law – specifically the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 1C, The "Cessation" Clause) -- a person stops being a “refugee” once he “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.”

Would anyone suggest that a Pakistani citizen, the descendant of a Muslim who left India following the post-World War II partition of the sub-continent into two states, should be classified as a refugee?

It should be obvious that UNRWA’s beneficiaries are being used as cannon fodder. They have been told by their own leaders that they will be denied Palestinian citizenship even in a future Palestinian state. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, stated last year. “But … they are not automatically citizens. … [E]ven Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”

Why not? Because statelessness makes them more lethal weapons of war. Ambassador Abdullah explained: “When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game.”

That the State Department would provide support for such rejectionism -- disregarding the policy of three administrations while failing even to comprehend how this undermines any possible “peace process” -- is breathtaking. In the days ahead, it will be instructive to see whether President Obama insists that the State Department follow his policies – or whether he permits Foggy Bottom to overrule him.

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