US-Israeli strategy to end Palestinian refugee status is illegal

The United States and Israel are doing all they can to put the Palestinian refugee issue to rest with the dismantlement of UNRWA as a first step.

Much attention has been devoted to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since the US announcement that it would stop funding the agency that serves more than 5 million Palestinian refugees.

US funding amounts to one-quarter of the agency’s budget, putting a significant strain on UNRWA’s capacity to provide basic services, especially considering the agency already had financial problems.

The cut is part of US President Donald Trump’s so-called deal of the century, a plan that involves, among other things, ending the Palestinian refugee issue. Although this goal was not officially stated, every step of the US administration regarding Palestinians seems to be pointing in that direction.

Aware that their chances of obtaining a UN resolution to terminate the agency are slim, the US-Israeli strategy has focused on crippling UNRWA financially in parallel with a delegitimating campaign focused on stripping Palestinian refugees of their refugee status.

Among the tactics used by Israel and the United States to dismantle UNRWA has been portraying the agency as an unqualified and politicised entity that is exacerbating the Palestinian refugee issue.

Israel and the United States claim that UNRWA is giving Palestinian refugees exceptional privileges by extending refugee status to new Palestinian generations born in exile, claiming that this is contrary to international law and other refugee cases.

The US government has been trying to challenge this practice. At least two bills are being drafted by the US Congress that would strip most Palestinian refugees of refugee status. Based on the legislation, only refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 war would be considered refugees, meaning the few still alive would be at least 70 years old.

This strategy shows complete disdain for the inalienable rights of Palestinian refugees and refugee law and practice. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees

(UNHCR) upholds: “As a general rule, family members/dependents of a recognised refugee who meet the eligibility criteria for refugee status under UNHCR’s mandate should be recognised as refugees in their own right, even if they have applied for refugee status as part of a family rather than on an individual basis.”

UNRWA’s procedural standards vis-a-vis Palestinian refugees are not exceptional but are in line with the UNHCR’s idea that refugee status is afforded to descendants of refugees. This view is shared by the US State Department, which stated that there is no exceptionality for Palestinian refugees, as many generations of Afghan, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Thai, Tibetan and Somali people have been recognised as refugees.

The United States and Israel have been exerting pressure on Arab host countries to absorb Palestinian refugees and take over the services offered by UNRWA. They expect that, if host countries take over these services, Palestinian refugees will be integrated in their societies, ending their status as refugees.

This logic once again stands at odds with international law. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 resolved that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” Therefore, if they wish to return, refugees cannot be forced to resettle. This resolution is based on one of the primary principles governing refugee law, which prioritises refugee choice.

Either by stripping them of their refugee status or by de facto integrating them in their host countries, the United States and Israel are doing all they can to put the Palestinian refugee issue to rest with the dismantlement of UNRWA as a first step. The end of the agency would jeopardise the implementation of the basic rights of Palestinian refugees and leave them without the humanitarian relief and protection they are entitled to.

This campaign is morally reprehensible and in breach of international law and practice and key UN General Assembly resolutions. Israel and the United States cannot change these norms and practices single-handedly. This is an issue that should be dealt with by the UN General Assembly and other international law institutions, not an individual member state.

The severity of the consequences the dismantling of UNRWA might have makes it a pressing matter for the United Nations and third parties to uphold their obligations under international law, both by providing adequate funding to UNRWA and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees as established in Resolution 194 and others. Otherwise, Israel with the support of the Trump administration will strip Palestinian refugees off their rights and take this issue off the table for final status negotiations.

Maya al-Orzza is a legal researcher based in the West Bank.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.