Capping the Number of Palestinian Refugees?

According to recent press reports, the Trump administration’s plan for a solution to the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict includes a “cap” on the total number of Palestinian refugees. At the end of 2017, there were approximately 5.4 million Palestine refugees, registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in need of durable solutions to their situation. It is important to note that these refugees comprise only a sub-set, albeit the largest, of the total Palestinian refugee population. Refugees are commonly afforded three basic solutions to their situation, repatriation, local integration and resettlement, all of which depend on the consent of refugees themselves. It seems that the administration’s approach is to try to dissolve the problem by declaring that only 500,000 Palestinians or roughly 10 percent of those registered with UNRWA are bone fide refugees. The administration has yet to reveal the fate of these “remaining refugees”.

This is not the first time that capping has been mentioned as a solution to the Palestinian refugee situation. In the years that followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, plans and proposals for a solution to the refugee issue, notwithstanding directives in General Assembly Resolution 194, included a cap on the number of Palestinians entitled to return to their homes, lands and properties inside the state of Israel. The idea of a cap was introduced largely in acquiescence to Israel’s opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees, not because return was impractical, but rather because of the refugees’ ethnic, religious and national origins. In the summer of 1949, for example, the United States called upon Israel to take back roughly a quarter of the total number of Palestinians uprooted during the first Arab-Israeli war. The US also threatened to withhold the second disbursement of a loan from the Export-Import Bank should Israel fail to comply with its legal obligations. While the number of refugees originating from areas inside Israel continued to increase, due in large part to natural growth in the absence of a solution to their situation, the cap on the number of those who might be allowed to return continued to shrink. In final status talks between Israel and the PLO in 2000-2001, for example, the maximum number of returnees Israeli officials were willing to accept was half of what the US demanded some fifty years earlier.

It is unclear how the Trump administration derived the figure of 500,000 as the total number of Palestinian refugees. Critics of UNRWA’s registration criteria argue that only those Palestinians displaced during the 1948 war are bone fide refugees. As the Agency’s Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl, pointed out in a recent interview in Foreign Policy, citing the example of Afghanistan, among others, the registration of children and descendants is consistent with policy and practice adhered to by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Let me take an example of a country that I that I know well, which is Afghanistan. So imagine we have the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Millions of Afghans flee the country to Iran and mainly Pakistan. And they are supported and assisted of course primarily by UNHCR but also other organizations. We have now, in the case of Afghanistan, families that have been in, say, Peshawar now for a generation. They have been there for 40 years, arguably not quite as long as Palestinian refugees have been refugees, but it’s already a very protracted situation. And, of course, UNHCR considers the children and grandchildren of the original refugee who fled Afghanistan in 1979 as refugees. That is a principle that in no way is different between Palestine refugees and Afghan refugees, or for that matter refugees from Angola, Burma, Burundi, or Sudan or elsewhere. It rests on the notion that family unity, the principle of family unity, is keeping families united and together as one of the key parameters of managing refugee crises.

A heavily redacted 2015 State Department report on protracted refugee situations apparently put the number of first generation Palestinian refugees at 20-30,000 while other estimates suggest the number is more than three times as high.

If the administration’s cap is based on first generation refugees, moreover, it would also mean that over half of the estimated number of Palestinians who became refugees during the war are still living today. If the administration’s cap includes other refugees, the criteria for their inclusion are not readily apparent. One explanation might be a 2003 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research which found that only 10 percent of refugees would likely return to their places of origin inside Israel if given chance to do so. As I noted in a brief analysis at the time, while such polls may provide insight into refugee attitudes towards particular scenarios for resolving their situation, they are less useful in predicting the choices that refugees will ultimately make about their futures given the particular biases and flaws in polling procedures and the complexity of the decision-making process regarding durable solutions that polls are unable to capture. The claim that only a tenth of all Palestinians uprooted during the 1948 war desire to return to their homes, lands and properties located inside Israel nevertheless crops up time and again in the history of the refugee situation.

The introduction of a cap on the total number of Palestinian refugees is unlikely to change how refugees define themselves no more so than it would in any other protracted refugee situation. As with the Trump administration’s policy on Jerusalem, taking issues off the negotiating table, as it has been described, should not be confused with a solution to the issues, whether than be Jerusalem or the situation of millions of Palestinians displaced since the establishment of Israel seventy years ago and its military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip some fifty years ago. As UNRWA’s Commissioner-General observed in the above-mentioned interview: “One cannot simply wish away 5 million people”.

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