On May 5th, the US Senate unanimously approved an amendment proposed by Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk that could shrink the number of Palestinian refugees recognized by the State Department from 5 million to 30,000. The amendment asks the State Department to distinguish between those Palestinians who fled during the 1948 War, numbering about 30,000 still alive, and their millions of descendants who still live in refugee camps.
The original language of the amendment was watered down, due to the vehement objections of Senator Leahy. In a letter sent to the State Department, he expressed concern that: “This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue. 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 action would damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan…”
Contrary to Senator Leahy’s assertions, the Palestinian refugee issue as perpetuated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) practically precludes any sort of settlement. About 650,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees in 1948, following a war of annihilation launched by six Arab states against the newly reestablished State of Israel. In his memoirs, Haled al Azm, Syrian Prime Minister during the war, admitted: “Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.” In April of that year, Israel and Jordan signed an armistice agreement, ending hostilities. In December 1949, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 320, giving birth to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), uniquely for Palestinian Arab refugees, unlike the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that deals with all other refugees.
Unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA does not include the resettlement of Palestinian refugees as part of its mandate. Unique among all refugees, Palestinian refugee status is conferred perpetually to the children and grandchildren of the original refugees of 1948. This has created the absurd situation wherein five million people, born in Gaza, Ramallah, Jordan or Lebanon, are considered to be refugees awaiting “repatriation” to Israel proper. The Arab countries intentionally denied absorbing the Palestinian refugees (Jordan is the only country to have granted the Palestinians citizenship), preferring to allow them to languish in refugee camps for 64 years in order to be used as pawns against the state of Israel.
Not even the most left wing Israeli government could countenance accepting five million Arab immigrants into Israel as part of a final status deal. Such a move would be demographic suicide, reducing Jews to a minority within their own country and effectively liquidating the Jewish state. However, the perpetuation of the refugee narrative, promoted by the UNRWA that opposes resettlement, prevents any possible peace agreement. There is not a single Palestinian leader, “moderate” or “extremist”, that is willing to waive the supposed Right of Return. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has consistently refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because that would prevent its flooding with millions of Arabs.
Senator Kirk’s amendment is certainly a step in the right direction. The UNRWA keeps the conflict alive by feeding false hopes that the millions of descendants of those Arabs who fled in 1948 will come to Israel. It defies any intelligence to speak of 60 year-old refugees. The 1948 War came about three years after the end of the Second World War, in which tens of millions of people were displaced. Somehow, all of the refugees from WWII until the present day conflict have been resettled, with the exception of those Palestinians administered to by the UNRWA. As long as the Arabs harbor fantasies of overwhelming the Jewish state demographically, instead of living peacefully alongside it, peace will remain far off.