In a Jan. 17th op-ed at the Independent, Ben White tried but failed to refute ‘claims’ by “Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups” that the overwhelming majority (over 99%) of the 5.3 million Palestinians registered as refugees by UNRWA are “fake” refugees.
Here’s the argument by White, an anti-Israel activist who, we should note, opposes the continued existence of a Jewish state within any borders:
Some Israelis…suggest a distinction between the elderly survivors of the Nakba, and their descendants – the latter, so the argument goes, are not “real” refugees.
This just does not stand up to scrutiny. Return is an individual refugee’s right. As, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights put it: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”. A right of return is not contingent on the existence of UNRWA (whose mandate, anyway, comes from the UN General Assembly).
Netanyahu apparently believes that UNRWA funding should be redirected to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which he said has “clear criteria for supporting real refugees”. Unfortunately for the Israeli premier, this “criteria” does not include the passage of time.
In a 2016 document, UNHCR highlighted 32 protracted refugee situations worldwide, a third of whom have lasted for more than 30 years. UNHCR noted that “comprehensive solutions require collective commitment to addressing root causes of displacement”
UNHCR has described the Palestinians as representing “the world’s oldest and largest protracted refugee situation”. The Israeli premier will also be disappointed to learn that for UNHCR, repatriation – i.e. return – is “promoted as the preferred durable solution”.
Absolutely nothing in White’s argument even slightly undermines the argument that descendants of refugees are not real refugees, that Palestinians are the only people in the world given the right to bestow “refugee” status and benefits to their descendants (and their descendants, in perpetuity), and that that there are only 20,000 or so real refugees from 1948 remaining.
The one example he provides from a UNHCR report, noting that some Afghans have been refugees in Pakistan for 30 years, does not contradict the fact that these Afghan refugees can not pass on their refugee status to children who were born in the host country and never lived in their parent’s country of birth.
He’s right that the mere “passage of time” shouldn’t necessarily remove refugee status from a genuine refugee, but dying most certainly should.
Remarkably, not only does UNRWA still legitimise and defend the “right of return” and resist resettlement of Palestinian “refugees”, but consider, as refugees, people of Palestinian descent who are citizens of new states (like Jordan or Lebanon), and even Palestinian citizens of Palestinian ruled territories in the West Bank and Gaza.
As we’ve argued previously, if UNRWA’s definition was applied to the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands between 1945 and 1967, it would make millions of Israeli Jews (who are descendants of those 800,000 refugees) eligible for UNRWA-style refugee status and benefits.
There are good humanitarian-based arguments for maintaining current UNRWA funding until a long-term solution can be found, but there can be no serious argument to maintain the fiction that there are over 5 million actual Palestinian refugees and that these non-refugees of Palestinian descent should be “repatriated” to a place they never once stepped foot.
- The Daily Effects of Palestinian Privilege (UK Media Watch)
- The New York Times Sanitized Profile of UNRWA (CAMERA)
- Unraveling years of BBC statistics on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (BBC Watch)