The Trump Administration has dismissed UNRWA’s definition of who is a Palestinian refugee, but has no plans to come up with an alternative definition that would determine how many people fit the criterion.
The administration “is not planning to provide a numerical calculation or definition of a ‘legitimate Palestinian refugee,” a State Department official said.
“While the US believes the UNRWA model is not appropriate or sustainable, we will not elaborate further at this time,” the official added.
She doused water on speculative media reports that the US was about to tackle one of the hot-button issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: determining who is a Palestinian refugee and whether they have a right of return.
“Additionally, our position [is] that the ‘right of return’ [being] an issue for final status negotiations is unchanged at this time, but we continue to study and evaluate alternatives for an equitable resolution of all refugee issues,” the official added.
From the start of the Oslo process in 1993 under former US president Bill Clinton through the end of the Obama Administration in 2016, the United States has never publicly defined Palestinian refugee status. Its working presumption, however, was that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state.
Past US administrations informally held that an influx of millions of Palestinians into sovereign Israel would undermine the feasibility of two states for two peoples.
The US decision to withhold some $300 million earmarked this year for UNRWA, as well as statements the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has made, have sparked speculation that the US might attempt to redefine Palestinian refugee status as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a move that would also have a de facto implication on the right of return as a negotiating issue.
In remarks at a conservative think tank on Tuesday, Haley said that Palestinian claims to a “right of return” for the descendants of refugees from 1948 to lands in modern-day Israel had to be looked at.
“I absolutely think we have to look at the right of return,” she said.
The ambassador also clarified that the Trump Administration didn’t want to eliminate UNRWA, but rather was pressing for its reform. Should the effort fail, she suggested that the administration would soon cut its funding to UNRWA entirely, echoing reports that a decision had already been made.
“UNRWA can stay there, and we will be a donor if it reforms what it does,” she told the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If it goes and makes sure that they’re not doing those teachings in textbooks – if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account – we will look back at partnering them.”
On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet said it had no intention of succumbing to US threats.
“We insist that the Palestinian refugees’ right to return is one of the fundamental Palestinian rights that must be implemented in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution No. 194 within the internationally recognized two-state solution.”
The Cabinet said that only the United Nations could determine who was a Palestinian refugee. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness concurred that the US could halt its own funding to UNRWA, but could not change its mandate or its refugee definition.
“Only the UNGA can change our mandate. Included in that mandate is the definition of a Palestine refugee. A single member state cannot do that unilaterally,” Gunness said.
The UN General Assembly first approved a mandate for UNRWA under resolution 302 in 1949, a year after its creation in 1948. It did not initially speak of servicing descendants, but according to a UN explanatory document, the definition was changed in the 1950s, 1965 and 1982.
UNRWA’s mandate is renewed every few years. In addition, an annual UNGA resolution upholds UNRWA’s work as well as its definition of a Palestinian refugee that includes the descendants of those original refugees from 70 years ago.
UNRWA’s sternest critics, who want the agency disbanded, have argued that the issue of Palestinian refugees should be handled by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
According to International law expert Yuval Shany, UNRWA predates the 1950 creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that sets out a global definition of what is a refugee, which does not include descendants.
According to the UNHCR website: “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.”
The convention, however, does not apply to individuals who are already recognized as refugees by another agency, such as the Palestinians, said Shany, who is affiliated with both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Democracy Institute.
A UN explanatory document on the issue noted that while the formal refugee definition does not include descendants, the UNHCR does apply that principle in prolonged conflicts.
“Under international law, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found,” the UN said.
“In fact, the majority of the world’s refugees live in protracted refugee situations. UNHCR also registers descending generational refugees including those from Afghanistan, Angola, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo/DRC, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Tibet and Western Sahara,” the UN document stated.
Shany noted that the issue of descendants was not the only thing that broadened the number of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA recognizes many Palestinians in Jordan as refugees, even though they hold Jordanian citizenship. There is also the question of whether Palestinians living under Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank could be considered refugees.
Still, he said, “It is hard to say that the UNRWA definition violates international law.”
The UN said Palestinians can be registered as refugees even if they hold other citizenship, such as in Jordan, where the government insists that UNRWA services that population.
“All refugees exist due to a lack of a political solution, not because of the existence of UN agencies (established with the support of the United States) or the provision of humanitarian assistance.
“If UNRWA closed tomorrow, Palestine refugees would continue to be refugees in the absence of a just and lasting political solution, and there would still be millions of Palestine refugees in the Middle East,” the UN stated.