The first clause of the UN High Commission for Refugees Convention for the Status of Refugees defines a refugee thus:
A person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country or to return there for fear of persecution.
That convention also explicitly excludes the Palestinians from being considered as falling under the jurisdiction of the Convention because they fall under the care and responsibility of UNWRA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) which was founded in December, 1949. Here is UNWRA’s definition of a refugee under their mandate:
Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. UNRWA’s definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million in 2002, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.
The two things that jump out immediately are:
1. That UNHCR requires that a country from which a refugee comes be their country of nationality or habitual residence, while UNWRA minimizes the standard to people who had been resident in Palestine – a territory, not a country, under a British Mandatory government mandated by the international community to provide a homeland to the Jewish nation on their historic land – for merely two years prior to the War of 1948.
2. That UNHCR does not provide refugee status to the descendants of refugees, while UNWRA does.
Note that UNWRA is unique in that it is the only organization of its kind in the world. Virtually all other refugees who are not Palestinian fall under UNHCR’s authority. The latter half of the 20th Century has seen over 100 million refugees. Most have been resettled. Needless to say, the Palestinian have not.
Now, it’s not as if UNWRA isn’t aware of the bad rap. In fact, they have a full webpage dedicated to countering bad raps. They had to write this stuff after the Wiesenthal Center submitted a complaint against UNWRA. Here’s some of their lovely spinning:
UNRWA and the UNHCR are both UN agencies mandated by the international community to do specific jobs for refugee populations. UNRWA deals specifically with Palestine refugees and their unique political situation. One reason for the distinction is that in the main the UNHCR is mandated to offer refugees three options, namely local integration and resettlement in third countries or return to their home country â€“ options which must be accepted voluntarily by refugees under UNHCR’s care. These are not feasible for Palestine refugees as the first two options are unacceptable to the refugees and their host countries and the third is rejected by Israel. Given this context, the international community, through the General Assembly of the United Nations, requires UNRWA to continue to provide humanitarian assistance pending a political solution.
In other words, we do good and somehow the Palestinians are different, so leave us alone. The UN and even Israel have bought into this and have allowed UNWRA to run rampant. Every once in a while, some Israeli official will criticize UNWRA publicly, but the organization typically uses the media to fight back and has not slowed their work by any measure.
I mention all this because on May 26, Evelyn Gordon wrote an interesting opinion piece for the J Post, called “Why not say yes to the ‘right of return’.” Her thesis is that Israel has allowed this international chicanery of enabling the Palestinians to fall under different refugee rules than any other group, to affect it in very negative ways. Essentially, Gordon suggests, the Palestinians have gained both traction and substance in their ongoing debate and demands from the Israelis. It has become commonplace and natural for them to demand a “right of return.” In fact, if one reads their dream peace scenarios, the Palestinians always list UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which does call for a right of return of refugees.
194 is interesting because it does provide a clause that allows for compensation to replace return. However, the choice is apparently that of the refugee. We have seen this clause appear both in the Geneva Accords that Beilin hammered out with the Palestinians, and in the Saudi-sponsored peace plan that the Arab League recently resubmitted. Also interesting is that as a General Assembly bill, 194 has no weight in international law, as do Security Council resolutions (such as UNSCR 242)
For Israel, accepting 194 today, is anathema. They did accept it in 1948, but the Arabs rejected it at that time. Now the Arabs see its advantages. The advantages are threefold: it provides leverage in negotiation; it makes Israel look intransingent with respect to achieving a “just” peace; it might actually enable “return” and destruction of a Jewish state by democratic means. The reason, of course, is that if you count 4.2 million “refugees” just in the Territories, not including millions more in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, then “return” is actually a demographic timebomb set to destroy a Jewish majority in the Jewish state.
Gordon posits that by permitting the Palestinians, in conjunction with the UN under the auspices of UNWRA, to count their descendants as refugees – in direct contrast to EVERY other refugee group in the world who function under the auspices of UNHCR – the Israelis are losing the propaganda and the negotiating wars to the Palestinians. The Palestinians now have leverage, pure and simple.
However, there are only about 200,000 Palestinians who fall under UNHCR refugee guidelines. Obviously, this is a much friendlier number to Israel, and has the added advantage that it falls in line with the UN’s own codes about refugees. So if Israel were to change the rules in some way: demand the closure of UNWRA; or negotiate that only UNHCR standards apply to Palestinian refugees, then everything would change. Suddenly Israel could actually accept the so-called “right of return” without losing points in negotiations, and in fact probably gaining points in public opinion and debates.
It’s a simple but effective suggestion. Sure, accept the “right of return,” but only if UNHCR rules apply to the Palestinians.
Oh, did I mention that UNWRA sucks donkey balls?