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

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.

A diplomatic source with knowledge of the Kirk amendment outlined the key problems with it in an interview. The US has no interest in attacking UNRWA because in allied countries like Jordan, UNRWA is a stabilizing force. Jordan hosts some 2 million Palestinian refugees who are registered with UNRWA, which provides refugees with crucial services in education and health. If US funds to UNRWA were cut, for example, as Kirk tried to do when he was in the House of Representatives, Jordan could be destabilized.

Furthermore, Kirk’s amendment rests on the wrong assumption that Palestinian refugee status is uniquely passed on through generations. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a separate agency that oversees refugee situations outside of Palestine, also gives refugee status to generations of family members who remain displaced. For example, the son of a Cambodian refugee registered with the UNHCR as a result of being displaced is also considered a refugee by the UNHCR. The amendment also does not address the fact that the 1967 war created 500,000 Palestinian refugees, with an additional 175,000 Palestinians registering with UNRWA as a result.

Lara Friedman, an expert on Congressional policy on Israel/Palestine, criticized the bill in a recent post at the Daily Beast blog Open Zion. Kirk wants to “use U.S. law” to redefine “most Palestinian refugees out of existence” outside of a negotiations context. “Of course, it won’t work, even if this somehow makes it into law. Palestinians who consider themselves refugees don’t do so simply because UNRWA, or anyone else, gives them permission to do so,” wrote Friedman.

The big issue here, as Friedman notes, is that Kirk is pushing for a fundamental shift in US policy towards who is a Palestinian refugee. In turn, this shift could help scuttle Palestinian refugee rights in negotiations over resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict. If this amendment were to become US policy, it would boost Israel's attempts to take the right of return off the table.

Backers of the bill have been explicit about their aims. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the neoconservative think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote that the aim of the bill is to “tackle” the “thorny” issue of the right of return. “By tackling one of the toughest challenges of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without the bedlam that typically accompanies bilateral negotiations, there would theoretically be one less sticking point when the stars align again for diplomacy,” wrote Schanzer. “Under the leadership of Knesset member Einat Wilf, this idea now has the backing of the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

According to Americans for Peace Now, Schanzer is reportedly "deeply engaged in this latest anti-UNRWA initiative." The group also reports that AIPAC "was reportedly pleased with the amendment but has issued no public statement."

It’s all in line with the recent attacks on UNRWA by Likud Party member Danny Ayalon. Ayalon created a video in conjunction with the right-wing Israel lobby group Stand With Us which argued that UNRWA was prolonging the refugee conflict and the conflict with the Palestinians. But Farah, the expert on UNRWA and Palestinian refugees recently wrote, it is Israel’s “repressive apparatus” of control over Palestinians that perpetuates the conflict and “increases the dependence of refugees on UNRWA’s meager aid, while at the same time creating even more refugees and internally displaced persons.”

The right of return is not something Palestinians plan on giving up, as the recent Nakba Day protests show. But that won’t stop Kirk from trying to legislate their status as refugees out of existence. Kirk is holding water for the Israeli demand that Palestinian refugees should never be allowed to return to the homes they were forced out of over six decades ago.

"The real question is why aren’t Palestinian refugees allowed to return? The answer of course is because it threatens the odious and racist Zionist concept of a 'Jewish state,'" said Farah. "Generational distance or time does not annul rights to stolen land or confiscated property or return to a homeland from which a people have been forcibly denationalized and rendered de facto stateless." 


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