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The US Senate Appropriations Committee has approved an important amendment to a bill. Proposed by Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, the amendment would change the definition of “Palestinian refugee” such that the number of people now given that status would shrink from about five million to about thirty thousand.
The U.S. currently contributes annually about $250 million of the approximately $600 million budget of UNRWA, the UN agency that provides housing, education, and welfare to Palestinian “refugees.” The U.S. has funneled a total of $4.4 billion to UNRWA since it was founded in 1948.
Under the Kirk amendment, the funding to those no longer considered refugees would not necessarily end; they could be defined as poverty cases. But only the thirty thousand, instead of five million, would still be designated as refugees.
What explains the vast differential in numbers? Before and during Israel’s 1948-49 War for Independence, about 650,000 Palestinian Arabs (many of them very recent immigrants from other Arab countries) left the territories that became Israel. About thirty thousand of them are still alive today.
But in 1965 and 1982, UNRWA made decisions—unique in history, never applied to any other refugee population in the world—to define children and grandchildren, too, of displaced Palestinians as “refugees.” Hence the swelled numbers of today, with “refugees” kept in “camps” in Syria,Lebanon, Jordan, and even the Palestinian Authority. Jonathan Schanzer notes that, according to a study, if this situation persists their number will reach fifteen million by 2050.
Why define so many people as “refugees,” and why keep them in “camps” indefinitely? The answer, as Shoshana Bryen notes, was given in an interview to Lebanon’s Daily Star by the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah.
Abdullah told the Daily Star “unequivocally” that even if a Palestinian state were to be established in the West Bank and Gaza—that is, the much-vaunted “two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”—the Palestinian refugees “would not become citizens” of it. The reason is that “The state is the 1967 borders, but the refugees are not only from the 1967 borders. The refugees are from all over Palestine.”
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