Posted by on May 25, 2012 in Blog

The Palestinian refugee problem remains one of the key issues of the Arab Israeli conflict, though it is often the one that receives the least attention in policy circles. The more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, descendants of Palestinians forcibly expelled from their homeland in 1948, have for the most part lived in a legal limbo in many of their host countries. They are often denied citizenship rights and basic economic opportunities, and forced to the margins of society in refugee camps, forming a sort of  permanent underclass. Many policymakers have tried to amicably solve the issue of Palestinians’ “right of return,” but none have so far proposed an outcome acceptable to all sides.

Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has a new idea to solve the refugee problem: make them disappear.

Kirk has added a section to the Senate Foreign Appropriations bill calling for the State Department to determine “the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received services…whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.” In other words, Kirk aims to identify (and ostensibly to limit refugee status to) only those individuals who directly fled the Nakba in 1948, and not their millions of descendants.

The bill would not necessarily limit UNRWA aid to the 20,000 or so remaining original refugees, but it does seek to shut down the debate on the “right of return” by taking away the “refugee” classification of the Palestinian diaspora. As with many other Congressional initiatives on Israel, this one is similarly blind to realities on the ground.

Declassifying Palestinian refugees does nothing to change their self-identification; a child who has grown up in a Palestinian refugee camp, who has been denied citizenship rights and employment opportunities  will not stop identifying as a Palestinian refugee because Congress says so. For millions of people, the only hope for a life free of poverty and dependence is an eventual return to their ancestral homeland, a concept which the United States clearly supports in principle.

Kirk’s amendment also unnecessarily attacks UNRWA, an agency that for all its shortcomings has been essential in providing services, education, and opportunities to Palestinian refugees, precisely the tools to counter violent radicalization in marginalized communities.

The Arab Israeli conflict needs a just and lasting solution, but these thoughtless shortcuts accomplish very little, but can often carry disastrous consequences.

comments powered by Disqus