Increasingly, Jewish settlements in the West Bank are defined by the international community as the biggest obstacle to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. However, Israel is seeking to redefine that consensus by putting another obstacle on the table: how the UN defines Palestinian refugees.
At a meeting of the Harvard Club in New York last week, Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Prosor, told an audience of diplomats and lobbyists that "without talking about this problem, there won't be peace". Former Member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), Einat Wilf, said that the policy was "insane".
Typically, the UN defines only those who flee their countries as "refugees", not their descendants. However, an exception is made for descendants of the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948. Palestinians are dealt with by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), unlike all other refugees who come under the purview of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The distinct definition, whereby Palestinian refugee status is inherited indefinitely and people retain refugee status even if they are granted citizenship by another country, was evolved by UNRWA as it worked with new generations of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and surrounding states.
While this may seem like a technical distinction, it is, of course, simply another way of questioning the right of return, which asserts that Palestinians have a right to the property and land which they were forced to leave upon the creation of Israel. Indeed, Prosor told the Harvard Club audience that the UNRWA definition "reinforces the Palestinian leadership's so-called claim of return for millions of Palestinians". There were around 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948, but they number more than 5 million today. Meanwhile, the worldwide population of refugees has dropped from 100 million to 30 million during the same period. Prosor added: "It doesn't take a Harvard degree at the Harvard Club to realize that enacting this claim would cause Israel's destruction… It perpetuates a situation that takes us back to a one-state solution. Without talking about this problem, there won't be peace."
This is not the first time that the UNRWA definition has been questioned. Last May, Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk tabled an amendment which would have distinguished between those actually displaced in 1948 and their descendants. The amendment was approved by the US Senate Appropriations Committee but did not become law because the larger bill to which it was attached was not passed onto the statute book.
In her address, Wilf explicitly compared settlements with the policy on refugees as two major obstacles to peace. "If your policy on settlements was the same as your policy on [Palestinian refugees], it would look something like this: [You would] tell Israel, 'Go ahead and build settlements, in perpetuity, and we'll contribute a billion dollars a year to the cause' … This is what you're doing with the other major issue. You're essentially telling the Palestinians, 'Go ahead and create new refugees from a war long over. Keep expanding the number in perpetuity. We'll be happy to contribute upward of a billion dollars toward this cause.'"
There is something disingenuous about this analogy. First of all, settlements are in direct contravention of international law. They also have the aim of changing the "facts on the ground" and rendering Palestinian statehood impossible, something that is stated explicitly by settler politicians such as Naftali Bennett who is now in Israel's coalition government. Conversely, the right of return is enshrined in many different bodies and resolutions of international law. The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country". A range of UN resolutions assert the right to return, such as resolution 3236, which "reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return".
Of course, this is a long-standing debate, and there are different interpretations. Those who oppose the right to return argue that these resolutions make no specific point is made about the repatriation of refugees, and that there is no historical precedent for this. Others question the definition of "his country", as Palestine has become Israel and those who fled do not have citizenship.
In short, the call to ditch the UNRWA definition is a new approach to an old problem. There is no question that the right of return has proved a contentious point throughout past peace negotiations, but it remains a fundamental part of the Palestinian psyche. Lara Friedman, director of Americans for Peace Now, summed up the issue well in a piece for the Daily Beast last May, when the US Senate was mulling over the definition change. "Palestinians who consider themselves refugees don't do so simply because UNRWA, or anyone else, gives them permission to do so. They do so because this is their personal experience and their personal narrative. Forcing the UN to redefine millions of them to no longer officially qualify as refugees won't change that self-definition, and it won't make the issue easier to solve in the future."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.