When the Trump administration defunded UNRWA in 2018, a core element of its rhetoric focused on the supposed “illegitimacy” of Palestinians’ refugee status. According to the Trump administration, the majority of Palestinians were not “real” refugees because they had been born in exile. In leaked emails, Jared Kushner called for refugee status to be removed from the vast majority of Palestinians on these grounds, while Mike Pompeo argued that the figure of 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA should be reduced to less than 200,000. Kushner reportedly also pressured the Jordanian government to strip the refugee status of more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees among its population.
While the Trump administration’s anti-Palestinian rhetoric was especially prolific, these attacks on Palestinians’ refugee status were nothing new. The Palestinians’ original displacement and dispossession in 1948 lies at the core of their ongoing struggle for national, political, and human rights. Calling into question the legitimacy of their refugeehood is thus a way to undermine the Palestinian cause altogether. In its most extreme form, this leads to Nakba denial.
Denying the refugee status of generations born in exile is no less consequential. If Palestinian refugeehood did not extend past the 1940s, and today applies to less than 200,000 people, it is far easier to deny the right of return. Accordingly, some Palestinian observers have long suspected deliberate efforts to drag out any negotiations until the first Nakba generation has passed away – essentially an enactment of David Ben Gurion’s infamous statement that “the old will die and the young will forget”.
In recent years, opponents of Palestinian refugee rights have increasingly come to target UNRWA as a proxy. According to this line of attack, UNRWA’s policy of intergenerational refugee recognition “perpetuates the problem” by extending it beyond the original Nakba generation. This rhetoric has a long history - Shimon Peres, who served as both Israeli Prime Minister (1984-86, 1995-96) and President (2007-2014), wrote back in 1970 that UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee bears no resemblance to “who is a refugee in fact”. Recently, Israeli leaders have gone much further. In 2017, Benjamin Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be dismantled completely, arguing that its services “perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem”. Naftali Bennett, who succeeded Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister earlier this year, is similarly opposed to the agency’s work.
In the US, this rhetoric has not disappeared with the end of the Trump presidency. Indeed, while the Biden administration has reinstated US funding for UNRWA, it has done so conditionally, upholding Trump-era defamations about the agency supposedly promoting anti-Israeli sentiment. Last month the US abstained from a UN vote that affirmed the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
As any seasoned follower of Palestinian politics is aware, this line of attack is premised on a series of falsehoods. Both Netanyahu and Bennett ground their criticisms of UNRWA in its supposed distinction from UNHCR, which serves all other recognized refugees worldwide. Differentiation between the UN’s two refugee agencies is a popular line among critics of UNRWA, who claim that the latter is exceptional in two regards:
First, they argue, UNRWA diverges from UNHCR in granting refugee status to generations born outside the country of origin. In fact, UNRWA is entirely typical in this regard. Under the global refugee regime, one’s refugee status is retained until their displacement is fully resolved – meaning that, when it comes to protracted and unresolved displacements, those born in exile are also registered as refugees. As a result, long-term registered refugee populations like Afghans in Pakistan and Iran, Burundians in Tanzania, and Vietnamese in China, all include multiple generations with significant numbers born outside their country of origin – just like the Palestinians. What’s more, UNHCR records that 76% of all refugees worldwide are now in protracted refugee situations. Thus far from being exceptional in the duration or intergenerational nature of their displacement, Palestinian refugees are in fact typical of the global refugee population.
The second claim made by critics of UNRWA is that it fails to pursue resettlement for Palestinian refugees, and thus extends their displacement, in contrast to UNHCR. The reality is less clear-cut. It is true that unlike UNHCR, UNRWA has no mandate to pursue durable solutions. Yet the assumption that such a mandate would automatically lead to permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees is mistaken. In fact, when UNHCR acts on its mandate to seek solutions, it prioritizes not resettlement, but repatriation, describing return as “by far the preferred solution today.” In other words, if UNRWA’s mandate were brought into line with that of UNHCR – as Netanyahu has demanded – it might lead to the very resolution that opponents of Palestinian refugee rights are so keen to avoid: the implementation of the right of return.
This combination of bad faith arguments and misinformation has intensified threats to Palestinian refugee rights over the last decade, with little sign of this changing soon. Meanwhile, the voices of Palestinian refugees are too often silenced – and the structural conditions that caused their original exile continue to uphold their ongoing displacement and dispossession more than 70 years later.