Yes, they are refugees
The recent decision by the Trump administration to drastically cut its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has left the Palestinian refugees in a more precarious position than ever. A conference was recently held in Rome to raise money to allow UNRWA to continue its vital work providing education, health and other social services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. Given a projected budget deficit of nearly $500 million in 2018, UNRWA’s funding prospects look dim.
I have examined elsewhere the importance of UNRWA’s work and what might happen should its services be reduced or terminated. Here I would like briefly to address a criticism often levelled at UNRWA, that it somehow perpetuates the Palestinian refugee crisis by continuing to register as refugees descendants of the people who in 1948 were forced out of or fled what is now Israel. As Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, put it in January:
I suggest that withholding funds is not the right tactic. Better would be to focus on the ‘Palestine refugee’ status. Denying this to all but those who meet the US government's normal definition of a refugee (in this case, being at least 69 years old, stateless, and living outside the West Bank or Gaza), diminishes the irredentist dagger at Israel's throat by over 99 percent … I propose that the president adjust US policy to … send aid to Palestinians while making it contingent upon the overwhelmingly majority of recipients formally acknowledging that they are not now and have never been refugees.
The issue of the Palestinian refugees has plagued Israel since its establishment and was a key obstacle during the Oslo negotiations more than twenty years ago. The refugees do represent a threat to Israel, though not the ‘irredentist dagger’ that Pipes claims. Rather, the refugees stand as a living and constant reminder of the historic injustice done to Palestinians when the Jewish state was founded. Denying refugee status to future generations of Palestinians is simply a way to erase the refugee issue and, with it, the rights to which refugees are legally and morally entitled.
By what right do others – be they Israeli, American or European – determine the status of Palestinian refugees, or how an entire national group should identify itself, especially in a world in which Palestinians’ political and legal status remains largely unresolved? Would we cede our own right of self-identification to others on our behalf?
My mother and father survived Auschwitz and I grew up as a child of survivors, with the Holocaust a defining feature of my life. My children, too, are informed and shaped by their family history and the realities that inhabit that history – realities of racism, fascism, ethnocentricity and nationalism. My parents are no longer alive; yet my identity as a child of survivors remains a vital part of who I am. Would anyone claim that my children and I have no right to identify ourselves as the descendants of Holocaust survivors because those survivors have died? This would be unacceptable – in fact, unthinkable – morally, ethically and emotionally. Does anyone have a right to dictate to me my status in this regard? Without equating the losses of 1948 with the Holocaust, I would ask why Pipes and others consider it acceptable to deny Palestinians the right to self-identify as refugees because their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have died. This is not only a matter of politics; it is a matter of principle and basic human decency, especially in the absence of a resolution to their actual plight as refugees.
The struggle over the refugee question also speaks deafeningly to the abject failure of the international community to resolve the problem in a manner that is fair to all people, and it will remain alive until a viable answer is found. Waving a wand and pronouncing ‘you are no longer refugees’ cannot eradicate the moral, legal and practical problems of Palestinian refugees. To believe that it can belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the lived realities of millions of disenfranchised people – and the depth of their commitment to seeing justice done. UNRWA does not perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem. The failure of Israel and the international community to acknowledge and address the issue is what perpetuates it. The refugees and all that they stand for must also be understood as a refusal on the part of Palestinians to be silenced now and in the future.