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The Trump administration is trying to reduce the number of Palestinian refugees, here’s why it won’t work

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The Trump administration’s decision last month to cut $360 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is a purely political decision that has no relevance to the definition of Palestinians as “refugees”, nor to their legal rights. Although highly significant since the U.S. makes the largest single donation to UNRWA of any country, the claim that defunding UNRWA will somehow terminate the Palestinian refugee problem and lead to peace is absurd.

UNRWA has nothing to do with defining or perpetuating “refugee status.” The definition and status of Palestinian refugees is determined by the UN General Assembly, which first defined Palestine refugees for purposes of the establishment of international protection and assistance agencies—the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine (UNCCP) and UNRWA—in December, 1948, on the heels of the massive expulsion of refugees from Palestine. The General Assembly passed Resolution 194 on December 1, 1948, establishing the UNCCP to provide international protection to the over 700,000 Palestinians who were forced to flee, and defining the refugees who were to receive protection by the international community. A year later, the UN established UNRWA to provide international assistance to the refugees, as defined for purposes of UNGA Res. 194, until the right of return and related rights that were incorporated in that Resolution were implemented. The General Assembly has reaffirmed Resolution 194 every year since then by overwhelming majority, established the scope of UNRWA’s mandate towards them since 1949, and repeatedly commended and expanded UNRWA’s services. If UNRWA’s funding were terminated tomorrow, that would have a massive negative effect on the lives of Palestinian refugees, but would do nothing to change their legal status under international law.  

It is important to note that the legal definition of Palestinian refugee relates to the status of Palestinians as former nationals of Palestine, a nationality which was recognized in 1924-25 as a matter of the Treaty of Lausanne that terminated World War I and dismantled the Ottoman Empire. The British passed Palestine citizenship legislation that conformed to the Treaty during the British mandate. All Palestinians who had Palestinian nationality/citizenship under treaty and mandate law, and their descendants through today, are defined as Palestinian refugees if they were forced to flee during the conflicts of 1947 onwards, and remain as such until their rights embodied in Res. 194 are realized. In this way, Palestinian refugees’ rights have an even more robust basis than other refugees because their rights are recognized both in general international law as well as in the body of law confirmed in decades of UN resolutions specifically passed for their protection. Today, Palestinians who would be defined by this Palestinian nationality law number approximately 11 million persons. Only 5 million of them are defined as “needy” for purposes of UNRWA humanitarian services, but it is the 11 million that are entitled to the right of return, property restitution and compensation guaranteed by the General Assembly in its resolutions.

A second misconception is that UNRWA is responsible for extending refugee status to multiple generations of Palestinians. The fact that subsequent generations of Palestinians since the first refugees expelled by Zionist militias and the Israeli army in the 1947-49 conflict remain defined as refugees is also entirely a matter of international law. This, too, is a matter for the international community to decide by consensus at the UN, and is outside the power of any single country, let alone UNRWA, to change. (See, for example, UNGA Res. 2252 which recognizes Palestinians displaced by the 1967 conflict as “Palestinian refugees”). Moreover, that Palestinians can legally be multi-generational refugees is perfectly consistent with refugee law in general, which recognizes that subsequent generations of refugees remain refugees until a durable solution is found for their plight.

The United States can’t will away 11 million people by stopping funds, though it can bring misery to many of them. The consequences of the U.S. cuts are devastating and far-reaching unless UNRWA can find other states to fill the gap. UNRWA has already stated that its schools can only operate on current funds through September, which will affect half a million Palestinian children currently studying in UNRWA schools. UNRWA has had to cut staff in services other than the most essential—around 500 staff have already been let go—which has life-threatening consequences, particularly in Gaza, where unemployment is at 44 percent. Funding cuts affect health care delivery, infant mortality, and food subsistence for the most needy.

It would seem obvious that as more and more Palestinians lose these services and cannot meet their basic survival needs, they will turn to violence. Radicalism is generated by desperation as an inevitable consequence of the short-sighted decision by the U.S. to cut UNRWA funding. It’s also important to note that the decision to reduce UNRWA funds has nothing to do with an inability to pay—contrast the $360 million that the U.S. sends to UNRWA each year with the $3.2 billion that the U.S. provides yearly to Israel. It’s evident which recipient is the most deserving, and that the decision is nothing but pure politics played out on the backs of desperately needy Palestinian refugees. Making 5 million people more desperate, denying them funds for medicine and education, only foments anger and greater incentive to armed struggle. This is hardly a recipe for peace and changes nothing to affect the rights and interests of Palestinian refugees.

Susan Akram

Susan Akram is clinical professor at Boston University Law School, where she directs the International Human Rights clinic and teaches international human rights, comparative refugee law and immigration law. She is a past Fulbright Senior Scholar in Palestine, and has taught at Al-Quds University/Palestine School of Law in East Jerusalem, the American University in Cairo, and regularly teaches at the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre in the UK.

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11 Responses

  1. bcg on September 24, 2018, 1:17 pm

    “The fact that subsequent generations of Palestinians since the first refugees expelled by Zionist militias and the Israeli army in the 1947-49 conflict remain defined as refugees is also entirely a matter of international law. ”

    That’s right. But what’s happening now is an attempt to deligitimize the whole notion of “refugee” – the Hasbara Daily News is running editorials exclaiming “what, can you be a refugee three generations later? Get a job!”

    Let me toss out the suggestion that we need to start talking about this differently: the Palestinians have lost their rightful INHERITANCE. If Jews can somehow view Israel as their rightful inheritance based on some fuzzy ancient history, some Palestinian whose grandfather was kicked out of Lydda has even more reason to say that he/she has had their inheritance stolen.

    • eljay on September 24, 2018, 1:37 pm

      bcg: … the Hasbara Daily News is running editorials exclaiming “what, can you be a refugee three generations later? … ” ||

      Meanwhile, those same Jewish supremacist (Zionist) hypocrites will insist that they are “exiles” 2,000+ years later and have a greater entitlement to geographic Palestine than do the non-Jews living in and up to n-generations removed from it.

      • Maghlawatan on September 24, 2018, 3:44 pm

        That always cracks me up. The other one is that Jews PRAYED for Jerusalem while Palestinians only LIVED there.

      • Misterioso on September 25, 2018, 10:15 am

        @ eljay and Maghlawatan


        For the record:
        Jewish missionaries converted many pagan peoples to their faith in the Middle East (including Palestine), Africa, Asia and Europe, especially during the two centuries preceding Christianity. Also, the Zionist claim that descendants of those Jews expelled from Palestine by the Romans have lived apart throughout the world for nearly two millennia and not intermingled with people outside of their religion is utterly absurd. To quote Polish born David Ben-Gurion (real name, David Gruen): “‘race’ does not unite Jewry since the ancient people dissipated after so much dispersion.” (Philippe de Saint Robert, Le Jeu de la France en Mediteranee ,1970, p.182)

        Recent in depth DNA analysis has proven conclusively that including their ancestors, Palestinians have lived continuously between the River and the Sea for about 15,000 years. ** (see below.)

        The Jebusite/Canaanites were ancestors of today’s Palestinians and it was they who founded Jerusalem around 3000 BCE. Originally known as Jebus, the first recorded reference to it as “Rushalimum” or “Urussalim,” site of the sacred Foundation Rock, appears in Egyptian Execration Texts of the nineteenth century BCE, nearly 800 years before it is alleged King David was born. Its name “seems to have incorporated the name of the Syrian god Shalem [the Canaanite God of Dusk], who was identified with the setting sun or the evening star…and] can probably be translated as ‘Shalem has founded’.” (Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996, pp.6-7)

        It is estimated that the Hebrews did not invade until circa 1184 BCE and their resulting United Kingdom of Israel, which never controlled the coast from Jaffa to Gaza, lasted only about 75-80 years, less than a blip in the history of Canaan and Palestine.

        Thus far, no credible archaeological evidence, or more importantly, writings of contemporaneous civilizations, have been found that prove Solomon or David actually existed. (Nor has any evidence been discovered to confirm that a Jewish exodus from Egypt ever occurred. )

        To quote the late renowned Jewish Israeli writer/columnist, Uri Avnery: “[David and Solomon’s] existence is disproved, inter alia, by their total absence from the voluminous correspondence of Egyptian rulers and spies in the Land of Canaan.” (“A Curious National Home,” by Uri Avnery, May 13/17 –

        ** Front. Genet., 21 June 2017 | EXCERPT: “The Origins of Ashkenaz, Ashkenazic Jews, and Yiddish”
        “Recent genetic samples from bones found in Palestine dating to the Epipaleolithic (20000-10500 BCE) showed remarkable resemblance to modern day Palestinians.”

        “The non-Levantine origin of AJs [Ashkenazi Jews] is further supported by an ancient DNA analysis of six Natufians and a Levantine Neolithic (Lazaridis et al., 2016), some of the most likely Judaean progenitors (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002; Frendo, 2004). In a principle component analysis (PCA), the ancient Levantines clustered predominantly with modern-day Palestinians and Bedouins and marginally overlapped with Arabian Jews, whereas AJs clustered away from Levantine individuals and adjacent to Neolithic Anatolians and Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans.”

        “Overall, the combined results are in a strong agreement with the predictions of the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis (Table 1) and rule out an ancient Levantine origin for AJs, which is predominant among modern-day Levantine populations (e.g., Bedouins and Palestinians). This is not surprising since Jews differed in cultural practices and norms (Sand, 2011) and tended to adopt local customs (Falk, 2006). Very little Palestinian Jewish culture survived outside of Palestine (Sand, 2009). For example, the folklore and folkways of the Jews in northern Europe is distinctly pre-Christian German (Patai, 1983) and Slavic in origin, which disappeared among the latter (Wexler, 1993, 2012).”

  2. Emet on September 25, 2018, 12:47 am

    The UN General Assembly is capable of voting that the world is flat, especially if Israel is accused of causing this. Votes in the GA are not binding.

    So much for Arab brotherhood. Countries like Lebanon could have given them full citizenship a long time ago and by now many would have intermarried. But no, the Lebanese will have none of that. What, my daughter will marry an Arab from Palestine? Over my dead body. That’s right, racists through and through.

    • Misterioso on September 25, 2018, 10:23 am


      “So much for Arab brotherhood. Countries like Lebanon could have given them full citizenship a long time ago and by now many would have intermarried. But no, the Lebanese will have none of that. What, my daughter will marry an Arab from Palestine? Over my dead body. That’s right, racists through and through.”

      Bull crap!!

      Zionism is the root cause of the dispossession and expulsion (by means of military might, several massacres, mass rape and intimidation) of about one million, 250 thousand indigenous essentially defenseless Palestinian Arabs from their ancient homeland between late 1947 and the summer of 1967. Their current status as bona fide refugees, including descendants, with the right of return is in accordance with international law as laid out in Res. 194, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, binding on all UN members. Indeed, as a precondition for UN admittance, Israel agreed to comply with Resolution 194. It is also the duty of Palestinians on behalf of humanity to insist on their right of return and/or financial compensation per Res. 194. In a just world, Israel, the ethnic cleanser, would provide the financial compensation.

      The ugly basic truth that led to the current mess is that before and after WWII, European Jewish refugees were forced by Zionist leaders to go to Palestine.

      David Ben-Gurion revealed his true feelings regarding the plight of German Jews: “If I knew it was possible to save all the [Jewish] children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second…” He attempted to explain his twisted reasoning by adding that he would make such a choice “…because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.” Ben-Gurion also expressed his fear that “‘the human conscience’ might bring various countries to open their doors to Jewish refugees from Germany. He saw this as a threat and warned: ‘Zionism is in danger!'” (Tom Segev, The Seventh Million, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994, p. 28.)

      On 27 November 1942, the Yishuv newspaper Davar published an article that referred to the extermination of European Jews as “‘punishment from heaven’ for not having come to Palestine.” (Tom Segev, p. 98). As Ben-Gurion so callously put it on 8 December 1942, during a Mapai meeting: “‘They did not want to listen to us’ ….in their deaths they had sabotaged the Zionist dream.’” (David Ben-Gurion at a gathering of Mapai workers, 8 Dec. 1942; quoted by Tom Segev)

      That saving Jews from the Nazis was not the priority of American Zionists was clearly shown during the war. When President Roosevelt became aware of the dire circumstances of European Jews (who were thought at the time to be about 80% of the total number of refugees), he sent his close friend Morris Ernst (a key member of the Democratic party and leader of the New York Jewish community) to London during the middle of the war to see if England and the Commonwealth would join the United States and other countries in taking in a half million Jewish refugees through a generous worldwide policy of political asylum once Hitler was defeated. (Roosevelt felt he could sell the plan to the American Congress if Britain agreed.) Ernst returned home jubilant and advised the President that Britain agreed to “match the United States up to 150,000.” Roosevelt replied:”150,000 to England – 150,000 to match that in the United States – pick up 200,000 or 300,000 elsewhere, and we can start with half a million of these oppressed people.” One week later, however, the President informed Ernst that the program had to be abandoned because “…the dominant vocal Jewish leadership of America won’t stand for it…the Zionist movement knows it can raise vast sums for Palestine by saying to donors, `There is no other place this poor Jew can go.'”

      Ernst refused to believe Roosevelt and went about seeking the support of American Jews for the plan. Their response shocked him: “I was thrown out of parlours of friends of mine who very frankly said, `Morris, this is treason. You are undermining the Zionist movement’. [I found] a deep genuine, often fanatically emotional vested interest in putting over the [movement in men] who are little concerned about human blood if it is not their own.” (Dr. Alfred Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection, pp.35-36 and Morris Ernst, So Far So Good, Harper & Brothers: New York, 1948, pp. 172-177)

    • Talkback on September 25, 2018, 1:59 pm

      Emet: “What, my daughter will marry an Arab from Palestine? Over my dead body. That’s right, racists through and through.”

      We know that you would never allow your daughter to do that. That’s right, racists through and through. But why shouldn’t an Arab form Palestine marry and Arab from Lebanon? How much did they brainwash you? Be honest, maybe we can work out an exist strategy for you to leave your meshugga cult.

      • Maghlawatan on September 25, 2018, 2:24 pm

        A lot of younger Sephardi Jews in Israel are Arabs from Palestine as you can tell from their music and how they take their coffee.

      • Talkback on September 26, 2018, 5:01 am

        Well, maybe Emet is racist enough to imply that a real Jew can’t be an Arab.

    • RoHa on September 25, 2018, 7:39 pm

      Israel could have given them full citizenship a long time ago. And should have.

  3. Ossinev on September 25, 2018, 10:56 am

    “Countries like Lebanon could have given them full citizenship a long time ago and by now many would have intermarried”

    Seems like a reasonable interim proposal to me providing of course they retained their “right of return” to their native land you know like all those actual and potential Jewish Aliyanista citizens of various countries worldwide many of whom have “intermarried”. I think you have cracked it Emet. Way to go ! Phone Likud`s main office asap. They will be over the moon.

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