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This discussion of Palestinian refugee status cuts through the controversy surrounding the topic with honesty and compassion. (The comments afterward, taken from the LRB blog website, offer additional insight.)

by Sara Roy, The London Review of Books blog

The recent decision by the Trump administration to drastically cut its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has left the Palestinian refugees in a more precarious position than ever. A conference was recently held in Rome to raise money to allow UNRWA to continue its vital work providing education, health and other social services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Given a projected budget deficit of nearly $500 million in 2018, UNRWA’s funding prospects look dim.

I have examined elsewhere the importance of UNRWA’s work and what might happen should its services be reduced or terminated. Here I would like briefly to address a criticism often leveled at UNRWA, that it somehow perpetuates the Palestinian refugee crisis by continuing to register as refugees descendants of the people who in 1948 were forced out of or fled what is now Israel. As Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, put it in January:

I suggest that withholding funds is not the right tactic. Better would be to focus on the ‘Palestine refugee’ status. Denying this to all but those who meet the US government’s normal definition of a refugee (in this case, being at least 69 years old, stateless, and living outside the West Bank or Gaza), diminishes the irredentist dagger at Israel’s throat by over 99 percent … I propose that the president adjust US policy to … send aid to Palestinians while making it contingent upon the overwhelmingly majority of recipients formally acknowledging that they are not now and have never been refugees.

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The issue of the Palestinian refugees has plagued Israel since its establishment and was a key obstacle during the Oslo negotiations more than twenty years ago. The refugees do represent a threat to Israel, though not the ‘irredentist dagger’ that Pipes claims. Rather, the refugees stand as a living and constant reminder of the historic injustice done to Palestinians when the Jewish state was founded. Denying refugee status to future generations of Palestinians is simply a way to erase the refugee issue and, with it, the rights to which refugees are legally and morally entitled. [emphasis added]

By what right do others – be they Israeli, American or European – determine the status of Palestinian refugees, or how an entire national group should identify itself, especially in a world in which Palestinians’ political and legal status remains largely unresolved? Would we cede our own right of self-identification to others on our behalf?

My mother and father survived Auschwitz and I grew up as a child of survivors, with the Holocaust a defining feature of my life. My children, too, are informed and shaped by their family history and the realities that inhabit that history – realities of racism, fascism, ethnocentricity and nationalism. My parents are no longer alive; yet my identity as a child of survivors remains a vital part of who I am. Would anyone claim that my children and I have no right to identify ourselves as the descendants of Holocaust survivors because those survivors have died? This would be unacceptable – in fact, unthinkable – morally, ethically and emotionally.

Does anyone have a right to dictate to me my status in this regard? Without equating the losses of 1948 with the Holocaust, I would ask why Pipes and others consider it acceptable to deny Palestinians the right to self-identify as refugees because their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have died. This is not only a matter of politics; it is a matter of principle and basic human decency, especially in the absence of a resolution to their actual plight as refugees.

The struggle over the refugee question also speaks deafeningly to the abject failure of the international community to resolve the problem in a manner that is fair to all people, and it will remain alive until a viable answer is found. Waving a wand and pronouncing ‘you are no longer refugees’ cannot eradicate the moral, legal and practical problems of Palestinian refugees.

To believe that it can belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the lived realities of millions of disenfranchised people – and the depth of their commitment to seeing justice done. UNRWA does not perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem. The failure of Israel and the international community to acknowledge and address the issue is what perpetuates it. The refugees and all that they stand for must also be understood as a refusal on the part of Palestinians to be silenced now and in the future.


FRED: They are refugees because the Arab world forced them to be refugees. Nowhere in the world are the descendants of refugees born outside a country of origin considered to be refugees themselves or even claim to be refugees

JEFF CRISP: This assertion is entirely false. It is routine practice in many parts of the world for the descendants of refugees born outside their parents’ country of origin to be considered refugees themselves. Palestinians do not receive any kind of special treatment in this respect.

Dr Jeff Crisp
Former Head of Policy Development and Evaluation
UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency)

HABSFAN: Why are the Palestinians and only the Palestinians perpetual refugees? Clue … they are the pawns used to delegitimize Israel.

MOZIBUR: This notion of deligitimisation of Israel turns up frequently. The BDS campaign is not attempting to delegitimise Israel but to delegitimise its aparthied regime.

Look at South Africa. It’s still there, it’s still called South Africa, it still has it’s white minority, and they still have considerable political and economic clout. South Africa was not delegitimised – it was the aparthied regime that was delegitimised. This is a substantial and important difference and one should not confuse the two.

BLAKE: Leaving a place doesn’t make someone a refugee. It’s forbidding him or her from returning that does it. The Important to remember Palestinians weren’t allowed to return, that they had their property & land seized by Israel during & after the “war.”

FRED: Where on earth do you have descendants down to the fifth generation “considered” refugees other than in the corridors of UNRWA? There is no legal or historical precedent for such a definition. What is worse, people who attach a “right of return” to these descendants, and forcibly and cynically hold them hostage, namely, their own leaders and fellow Arabs, are ensuring another seventy years of Palestinian misery. It is time for them to wake up, though the drudgery of actually running a country and concerning themselves with the welfare of their people may be a little less exciting to their minds than the dream of a great massacre on the shores of the Mediterranean.

MOZIBUR: Where else? How about the Jewish people themselves? They were dispersed from their homeland by the Roman Empire and retained their identity as a people apart and they were returned under the auspices of the British Empire. It seems to me that they held onto their refugee status unto not the fourth or fifth generation but unto the fiftieth generation.

Further, was not the Balfour Declaration ‘special treatment’ offering a homeland in Palestine to the Jewish people given the persecution that the Jewish people were experiencing in Europe? Given this the support that the UN gives the Palestinians is small potatoes.

The BDS campaign aims to apply political pressure on Israel and not delegitimise it. It does this because of the daily humiliations and persecutions undergone by the Palestinians under the aparthied regime concocted by the Israeli government. Aparthied is about segregation, fragmentation and isolation, it’s about the Bantustanisation of their lands, it’s about a compromised and shackled political authority, it’s about poverty and lack of development, it’s about a lack of a national consciousness, it’s about the lack of a properly effective political and economic representation. 

JEFF CRISP: You have mischaracterized the way in which other refugees (i.e. those under the mandate of UNHCR) are treated and have thus established a false dichotomy. To take the case of Somalis again, there are now some 10,000 third generation refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. As they do not have the option of becoming Kenyan citizens, and as many do not feel that it is safe enough for them to return to Somalia, their children will in turn be registered as refugees. It is therefore demonstrably inaccurate to suggest that “nowhere in the world are the descendants of refugees born outside a country of origin considered to be refugees themselves.”

FRED: The Arabs were offered a sovereign state in Mandatory Palestine alongside the Jewish state and rejected it, choosing war instead. In this war Arabs living in the Jewish state fled or were expelled, as were an equal number of Jews living in Arab countries. The net result was a de facto exchange of populations as in India and Pakistan. It is the Arabs themselves who locked the Palestinians into refugee camps and have kept them there for seventy years instead of integrating them into their societies.

MOZIBUR: Given that the Balfour Declaration offered a National Home to the Jewish People in Israel and not a sovereign state this is not particularly surprising.

What would the reaction in Europe be if Chancellor Merkel offered a sovereign state in half of Saxony for the refugees coming into Europe?

Exactly, it would have provoked outrage.

JEREMY: Jeff Crisp is right that refugee status can be conferred on the descendants of refugees born outside a country of origin. During the long independence struggle against South African rule, the first refugees left Namibia in the 1960s, and were followed by many more. In the run-up to independence in 1990, UNHCR assisted the return of some 42,000 refugees, by no means all of them born in Namibia. In Algeria there are large numbers of refugees from Western Sahara, illegally annexed by Morocco in 1975. UNHCR puts the population of the camps at 90,000, which would include the children and grandchildren of those who fled at the time of annexation. Whether or not they’ve set foot in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi refugees, like the Palestinians, are displaced by a combination of military occupation and settler colonialism.

[To learn more about Palestinian refugees, visit FAQs about Palestinian refugees.]

Kathryn ShihadahComment