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How the Israel Lobby's Favorite Senator Is Trying to Erase Palestinian Refugees

Critics of Senator Mark Kirk's drive to redefine who a Palestinian refugee is say the move is part of a strategy to take refugee rights for Palestinians off the negotiating table.

Mark Kirk, R-Illinois


Palestinians in the occupied territories, the diaspora and in refugee camps protested earlier this month on the 64th anniversary of the Nakba, commemorating the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians by nascent Israeli forces in the late 1940s. Palestinians were sending a message to the world that the right to return to their homes would not be forgotten, and that millions of refugees are awaiting a solution.

One senator from Illinois, though, wants to write off those millions and change who is classified as a Palestinian refugee. Mark Kirk, a hawkish Republican whose political career has been boosted by right-wing Israel advocates, is leading a drive to fundamentally redefine who a Palestinian refugee is in the eyes of the United States.

Critics see the move as just one step in a larger strategy to take the issue of refugee rights for Palestinians off the negotiating table, and to cut funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that assists Palestinians. One senior Senate aide who helped craft the amendment told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “this will have major implications for future negotiations over final status issues with regard to refugees.”

In a statement, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said that “while UNRWA is following the debate in DC very closely, [the agency] does not comment in public about the internal workings of the legislatures of member states.”

Israel strongly opposes Palestinians’ right to return to their homes or their descendants’ homes, which they fled during the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war and were never allowed to return to. Israel opposes the right to return because of their policy of maintaining a Jewish demographic majority. International law, though, strongly supports the rights of refugees to return to homes they were displaced from.

On Thursday May 24, a Senate committee passed an amendment by unanimous voice vote that would require the State Department to differentiate between Palestinian refugees who were displaced first-hand and those born after to families who were refugees.

The senator behind the amendment was Kirk, who is close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has received over a million dollars from Israel oriented political action committees during his political career. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) expressed concern at the bill and modified the amendment, but it still contains the State Department reporting requirement that Kirk was pushing. Kirk celebrated the passing of the amendment in a May 25 press release: "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."

An earlier version of the bill pushed by Kirk would have made it US policy to classify as a refugee only those Palestinians personally displaced by Israeli forces. In practice, this would mean erasing the refugee status of almost all registered Palestinian refugees, cutting down the number to about 30,000.

"This amendment turns reality on its head," said Randa Farah, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario and an expert on Palestinian refugees and UNRWA. "The reality is that the number of Jewish settlers in Palestine turned it into a state of a Jewish majority, by displacing the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants."

It’s unclear how far the amendment will go in the legislative process. The State Department has come out strongly against Kirk’s idea to redefine Palestinian refugees. Their position, as Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy reports, is that “final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. 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.” Rogin also reports that the State Department puts the number of Palestinian refugees at 5 million--the amount registered with UNRWA--and that US policy is in line with UNRWA’s practice of granting refugee status to descendants.

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