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Counting Palestinian Refugees

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For too long, Palestinian claims concerning the number of Arabs displaced from their homes in the course of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence have been accepted with little or no attempt at verification.

Today there are nearly five million official refugees served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, though according to Daniel Pipes, only about one percent fit the definition of “people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The other 99 percent, says Dr. Pipes, are descendants of those refugees, or what he calls “fake” refugees. Yet the so-called right of return is widely portrayed in terms of the five million figure and provides the Palestinians with great leverage in any negotiations. Language proposed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) for insertion in the 2013 foreign appropriations bill would bring a breath of fresh air on the issue by requiring the U.S. government to confirm just how many Palestinians currently served by UNRWA are actually refugees.

As Pipes notes in an article in National Review, the Kirk amendment requires the State Department to inform Congress about the use of the annual $240 million U.S. donation to UNRWA for servicing Palestinian “refugees.” Sen. Kirk has said that Congress has to be told how many Palestinians qualify as “refugees” and how many are merely descendants of those refugees.

It should be noted that by UNRWA’s own count, the number of Palestinians who describe themselves as refugees has climbed from 750,000 in 1950 to five million today. And as one commentator has observed, “the refugee issue has been an immovable obstacle in round after round of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Predictably, the State Department has been less than supportive of the Kirk initiative, with a spokesman confirming that “the U.S. government supports” the principle of recognition of “descendants of refugees as refugees.”

Anyone who can count recognizes the implications of the refugee issue. Even Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had admitted that asking the Jewish state to repatriate five million Palestinians “would mean the end of Israel.”

The Kirk amendment will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But by addressing a significant shibboleth it will diminish important ill-gotten Palestinian leverage, and in that sense represents an important step in the right direction.

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