Palestinian identity is founded in on three parts. One is that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy. Another is that Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees, made so at the hands of Israel. The third part is that the world, specifically the United Nations and Western countries, must support these refugees until they can return to a future Palestine and to homes in what is now Israel.
Since 1950 the vehicle for Palestinian refugees to be supported has been the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. Costing almost $1 billion per year, with funding provided by the U.S. and European states, UNRWA is an open-ended, educational, social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But in what sense are any of these individuals refugees?
Publicly, UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict."
In reality UNRWA has continually expanded the definition to include "the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA's operations, and (c) in need."
The best estimates are that perhaps 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-49. By UNRWA's accounting, however, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number reaches into the millions.
This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades. The result of this 60-year-long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to end its operations. Western taxpayers are expected to shell out indefinitely or at least until the U.N. General Assembly declares the problem resolved.
This state of affairs has provided Palestinians with a basic level of health, education and welfare at the cost of reintegration into local Arab societies. The development of Palestinian civil society and democratic institutions has been retarded by financial dependence on the international community and this has in turn fostered Palestinian intransigence toward Israel. For the United States and other countries that have paid out tens of billions, this situation is unacceptable.
In 2009, U.S. Reps. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Steve Rothman, D-N.J., introduced provisions for UNRWA Accountability into appropriations bills. They called for transparency and responsibility from UNRWA and sought to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United States don't fund acts of terrorism in any way, thereby bringing the funding of Palestinians into compliance with the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
The bill went further and underscored the need to evaluate the textbooks used in Palestinian UNRWA schools to ascertain there was no "inflammatory and inaccurate information about the United States and the State of Israel, anti-Semitic teaching, as well as the glorification of terrorists." The amendment died in committee.
In the three years since Kirk and company proposed their amendment the situation has become more complicated. Direct U.S. funding of UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority has increased but the latter has gone ahead with an ill-advised push for a unilateral declaration of independence in the United Nations and its various organs.
While part of the Palestinian Authority has worked toward building governmental institutions, the leadership under Mahmoud Abbas has boycotted talks with Israel while demanding that funding for itself and for UNRWA be ensured.
It is long past time that limits are set on the never-ending expansion of Palestinian refugees. A new proposal from Kirk therefore sets out a more precise series of definitions for American aid to UNRWA, to be specified in the Memorandum of Understanding with the organization.
The draft amendment states that "a Palestinian refugee is defined as a person whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, who currently does not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who is not a citizen of any other state."
Refugee status would therefore no longer be heritable, at least if UNRWA were to continue to receive U.S. funding. The amendment would also require the secretary of State to report to Congress about the notoriously slippery numbers of refugees and what measures the U.S. government is taking to ensure these limits are abided by.
Even more specific provisions could be introduced. Historical evidence has shown that UNRWA continually expanded its refugee rolls in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan with unknown numbers of non-Palestinians, to avoid confrontation and as a means of regional development. UNRWA could be therefore required to demand evidence that demonstrated an individual was resident in Palestine from 1946-48 and that they were personally displaced as a result of the hostilities.
UNRWA could also be required to independently verify that recipients of aid aren't currently citizens of other states. UNRWA could also be directed to begin planning the handover of its operations to the Palestinian Authority as well as to other Arab governments. And a truly daring innovation would be to leave the executive branch no wiggle room to evade congressional mandates with a presidential waiver.
The global financial crisis has had few silver linings but demanding financial accountability and setting limits on refugee status from UNRWA and the Palestinians are long-overdue changes that will improve the Palestinians' ability to become self-reliant. It may also improve the chances for peace with Israel.
Alexander Joffe is a historian and writer in New York. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum.