WASHINGTON — A Republican senator introduced a bill Thursday that would require the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to change its definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee in order to receive future US assistance.
Seeking to pressure the international community to recognize Palestinian refugees under the criteria it uses for other refugee populations, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma proposed legislation that would mandate UNRWA — the UN agency responsible for the Palestinians — identify only those who were displaced between 1947 and 1949 as refugees and not their millions of descendants, many of whom were born in and/or are citizens of other nations.
The status of Palestinian refugees is different from host country to host country. Only Jordan gives most refugees full citizenship rights. Lebanon denies them many basic rights, while Syria gives them most rights other than the right to vote. Refugees in Iraq and Egypt have limited rights.
Refugees recognized by UNRWA receive life-long benefits from the agency.
While saying “American assistance to the Palestinians is an important component of our nation’s engagement in the Middle East,” Lankford added that the US is “currently funding an entity that has ensured that a refugee population of several hundreds of thousands 70 years ago has exploded to more than five million.”
UNRWA claims there are over five million registered Palestinian refugees, when there were roughly 750,000 after the 1948 war, of whom it is estimated tens of thousands are still alive. Unlike every other refugee population, which shrinks every year, the Palestinian one exponentially increases.
“This is not sustainable — for American taxpayers, who are asked to finance the welfare of these individuals, for the Palestinians themselves, or for the Israelis,” Lankford added.
The Oklahoma lawmaker also added that the arrangement fueled the Palestinian demand for a full “right of return.”
The “right of return” is one of the key core issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that the five million people the UN recognizes as refugees have the right to return to their homes in Israel proper. Israel, for its part, rejects this demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.
Israel’s population is almost nine million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions of Palestinians would mean Israel would no longer be a Jewish-majority state.
“UNRWA’s methodology strains regional tensions more each generation as it increases rather than decreases the number of refugees in the region…who, by being registered as a ‘Palestine refugee’ with UNRWA, may be wrongfully implied as having an internationally sanctioned right to return to Israel,” Lankford said in a statement announcing the legislation.
His bill comes one week after the Trump administration announced its decision to cut all funding to UNRWA, with the State Department saying it “will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation” but will look for other ways to assist the Palestinians.
The US supplies nearly 30 percent of the total budget of the UNRWA, which provides health care, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The US donated $355 million to the agency in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. But in January, the White House released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide.
Cutting aid to the agency was intensely controversial. While Israel welcomed the move, liberal Jewish groups in the United States decried it as cruel — and not in Israel’s security interests.
“There is no other organization that can step in overnight and assume all of UNRWA’s responsibilities, and overseeing UNRWA’s death without a backup plan in place is grossly irresponsible,” said the Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy group that supports a two-state solution.