Amid UNRWA cuts, PA says refugees’ status, right of return are ‘sacred’

Trump administration accused of trying to force Palestinians to abandon hopes with ‘blackmail’ threat to cut funding for UN agency

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

A Palestinian man walks in front of a mural calling for the return of Palestinian refugees (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian man walks in front of a mural calling for the return of Palestinian refugees (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The issue of Palestinian refugees and their “right of return” is sacred and not open to bargaining, the Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah faction announced Thursday.

In a statement, the PA appeared to push back against what it indicated was a US attempt to place the right of Palestinian refugees returning to pre-1967 Israel up for negotiation by redefining who is a Palestinian refugee.

“The blind American bias [in favor of Israel] and the frenzied attack on the right of return will not alter the legal status of this issue, which is a political and national cause created as a result of the Occupation and its crimes over the past 70 years,” the PA Ministry of Information said in a statement.

Israel has consistently rejected allowing all Palestinian refugees to settle in Israel as an existential demographic threat, and most formulas for a peace deal envision only a token number being allowed to return.

Of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when the country was established, a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands are still believed to be alive. But their descendants, considered refugees under the unique designation afforded by the UN to Palestinians, number in the millions.

Israel has for years demanded that the UN change its designation of Palestinian refugees, and that it use the same criteria it applies for other refugee populations worldwide. Humanitarian assistance to other refugee groups is overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which does not extend refugee status to descendants of original refugees, while Palestinians receive aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The US has recently cut funds to UNRWA, and Israeli officials have supported the measure while pushing for the money to be funneled to UNHCR instead.

“Funds for UNRWA should be gradually transferred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with clear criteria for supporting real refugees, rather than fictitious refugees, which is what is happening today under UNRWA,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting last month.

Palestinians collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, January 28, 2018. (SAID KHATIB/AFP)

“UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the problem of the Palestinian refugees,” he added. “It also perpetuates the narrative of the so-called ‘right of return’ with the aim of eliminating the State of Israel, and therefore UNRWA must disappear.”

The PA ministry denounced Netanyahu’s comments as “delusional.”

The ministry also dismissed a recent Hadashot TV report according to which the Trump administration is considering halting all of its financial aid to UNRWA, and declaring that it rejects the UN criteria under which refugee status is extended to millions of descendants of the original refugees.

Referring to Trump as the “ruler of the White House,” the ministry accused the US president of seeking to blackmail the Palestinians.

“This will not dissuade our people from holding on to the sacred right of return and it will not exonerate Israel from the crime of ethnic cleansing it committed in 1948,” the PA statement said.

“Netanyahu’s illusions of foiling the right of return won’t materialize because the international resolutions that created Israel are the same ones that accepted the right of return and compensation [for refugees].”

The PA ministry called for considering February 15 a day of “media solidarity” with Palestinian refugees and UNRWA.

Palestinian women take part in a protest in Gaza City on January 29, 2018, against the US move to freeze funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The comments were echoed by Fatah spokesman Osama Qawassmeh, who described the right of return as “sacred.”

The sons of refugees, he added, are also refugees.

“Neither Trump nor anyone else is entitled to rescind UN resolution 194,” the Fatah spokesman said, referring to the resolution adopted in 1948, which defined principles for reaching a final settlement to the Israeli-Arab conflict and returning Palestinian refugees to their homes.

“We must not be frustrated because the Trump administration and Netanyahu want to break our will,” Qawassmeh said. “They want us to raise the white flag. They want to drag us to the negotiating table where Jerusalem and the issue of the refugees are not present. But Fatah will not accept this.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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