WASHINGTON — The US Senate approved language Thursday night that could shrink the number of Palestinian refugees recognized by the United States from 5 million to about 30,000.

An amendment to a bill, proposed by Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, asks the State Department to distinguish between Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and those refugees who are their descendants.

Nearly everyone agrees that around 650,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes between June 1946 and May 1948. But when it comes to counting the number of Palestinian refugees alive today, the math gets fuzzy.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency – the main body tasked with providing assistance to Palestinian refugees – there are more than 5 million refugees at present. However, the number of Palestinians alive who were personally displaced during Israel’s War of Independence is estimated to be around 30,000.

This enormous disparity is explained by UNRWA decisions in 1965 and 1982 that extended the definition of “refugees” to include the children and grandchildren of displaced Palestinians. Today, UNRWA’s annual budget stands at approximately $600 million, of which $250 million is contributed by the United States. Overall, America has contributed $4.4 billion to the UN agency since its establishment in 1949.

US Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced an amendment to redefine how the US defines Palestinian refugees (photo credit: Courtesy Sen. Mark Kirk's office)

If the US Senate Appropriations Committee has its way, this may significantly change. On Thursday, the committee approved language that would distinguish between Palestinian refugees alive in 1948 and their descendants. The Kirk amendment to the foreign operations appropriations bill  requires the US State Department to report within a year how many people receive aid from UNRWA who were themselves displaced and how many of them are descendants of those people. The former number, estimated at around 30,000, would be used as the basis for formulating US policy on Palestinian refugee issues.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies cites a study that projects nearly 15 million Palestinian refugees by the year 2050 if UNRWA does not reform its method of accounting. Nevertheless, Schanzer predicts a lot of resistance to the Senate provision.

A new housing project in Rafah, funded by UNRWA (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

A new housing project in Rafah, funded by UNRWA (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

“In recent years, politicians and policy wonks, including one former UNRWA administrator, have called for UNRWA reform. The agency hasn’t merely demurred; it has girded for battle,” he says. “UNRWA set up shop in Washington with two Hill-savvy professionals, despite the fact that its operations are entirely based in the Middle East, anticipating the need for what looks like a full-scale lobby effort to defend its mission. The agency even toyed with changing its name last year in an attempt to burnish its image in the West.”

The US State Department, which pledged an additional $10 million in UNRWA funding earlier this year, is also making noises opposing the measure. But Schanzer says “such grumblings will likely pale in comparison to the expected outcry in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries.”

Proposing real changes to UNRWA could even prompt violence

“The refugee narrative is a sacred one in Palestinian political culture. Palestinian leaders will not simply table it because Congress passes new legislation. Rather, it’s a fair bet they will mobilize. When UNRWA merely mulled a name change in July 2011, Palestinians organized protests and sit-ins.  Proposing real changes to UNRWA could even prompt violence,” he says.

In Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Lara Friedman of the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now criticizes Kirk for trying to “unilaterally” resolve the refugee issue “outside of negotiations.” She believes the issue should be solved in bilateral permanent status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and adds that, even if made into law, the Kirk amendment wouldn’t work.

Palestinians who consider themselves refugees don’t do so simply because UNRWA, or anyone else, gives them permission to do so

“Palestinians who consider themselves refugees don’t do so simply because UNRWA, or anyone else, gives them permission to do so,” she says. “They do so because this is their personal experience and their personal narrative.  Forcing the UN to redefine millions of them to no longer officially qualify as refugees won’t change that self-definition, and it won’t make the issue easier to solve in the future.  In truth it will just make it harder, since the new, Kirk-approved terms of reference will be totally disconnected from the actual issues at the heart of the conflict.”

Kirk’s office explains, however, that the legislation does not call for a total cutoff to needy Palestinian descendants receiving aid from UNRWA.

Instead, it changes the way the US views them – as people living below the poverty line rather than as refugees.They say the amendment will improve the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as it could yield a Palestinian “right of return” without resulting in demographic suicide for Israel.