As the Trump administration prepares to release its Middle East peace plan, rumors are many, but few of the details have yet come into focus.
Two elements that should be at the center are refugee crises, one real, the other not. There are currently 655,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and another 1.1 million in Lebanon and 3.5 million in Turkey. In addition, there are over 6 million internally displaced persons. This does not begin to count other Middle Eastern refugees, in Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere.
In contrast, the U.N. believes there are over 5 million Palestinians refugees worldwide, while a still classified report from the Obama administration may put the actual number remaining who fled in 1948 at around 30,000.
A report we recently authored laid out Middle Eastern refugee issues in historical and comparative perspective. The permanence and scale of the international response to the 1948 Palestine refugee crisis are unique, even compared with the colossal crises of World War I and World War II. In those cases, which affected tens of millions, the most effective responses were temporary organizations that approached refugee crises broadly and which were quickly shut down after the crisis was ameliorated, however imperfectly.
Even a casual glance at the bottom line shows the disparate allocation of resources to modern refugee populations. The international community has allocated $5.6 billion to Syrian refugees through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while Palestinians receive $1.36 billion through UNRWA, an organization that has spent tens of billions since its creation in 1950. Permanent welfare organizations dedicated to specific refugee populations perpetuate themselves and the problems they purport to address.
The Trump administration has signaled displeasure with this open-ended expenditure and with the Palestinian Authority’s preemptive rejection of peace proposals by freezing some $65 million of the U.S. contribution to UNRWA. Palestinian leaders reacted with typical fury.
But this should be put in perspective: Wages, salaries and employee benefits for UNRWA’s 30,000 employees comprise over $700 million of the total annual expenditure. Whatever else UNRWA does in terms of providing health, education, and welfare services for Palestinians, it is a vast internationally funded jobs program.
Our recommendations have long been for international donors to redirect UNRWA funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in order to let it fulfill its obligations like the state it claims to be. Oversight mechanisms must be dramatically enhanced to limit financial corruption. But a debate should be held about whether the PA should be bypassed altogether in favor of local Palestinian service providers.
But we need to go beyond simply the matter of money. A change of culture is needed on all sides, first and foremost the recognition that there are far more pressing crises in the Middle East and around the world and that the Palestinian issue is an obstacle to providing for real refugees.
For the international community it means realizing, at long last, that Palestinians are not refugees; they are residents and citizens of various countries, including the nascent State of Palestine. Descendants of Palestinians who left what is now Israel 70 years ago may have claims for compensation but there is no “right of return” to their ancestors’ homes. Countries like Lebanon, which have discriminated against Palestinians in housing and employment markets must be forced to accept reality and integrate the populations they have hosted for decades. If they refuse, then their international support should be reexamined.
Equally important is the realization that the path to Middle Eastern peace does not hinge on the Palestinian refugee issue. For decades this was a convenient distraction for Arab states and Muslim ideologues, anxious to deflect from their own failures. It also became a fixation with Western states, convinced they were buying regional stability with massive payoffs to Palestinians and disproportionate political attention to their cause.
But the immensity of contemporary refugee crises, the strident demands of Palestinians to remain at the front of the welfare line, and the collapse of the old line Arab state system, have created a new mindset in the Arab world. The stark disparity of real needs versus Palestinian claims (and threats) should disabuse the West about the putative centrality of the cause. The international community would be well served catching up with these new realities.
But creating and strengthening a Palestinian state cannot be done with UNRWA—or the PA—perpetuating the ideology that Palestinians are refugees, entitled to permanent international support pending a magical return to a mythical status quo that predates the creation of Israel. Changing this is the hardest problem of all. At a minimum it requires Western donors to carefully monitor Palestinian school curriculum for anti-Semitism, demonization of Israel, and incitement. It is heartening that the United Kingdom and other donors have recently announced a study to examine these issues.
The international response to the Palestinian refugee issue holds many lessons, mostly negative, for the international community, particularly for Europe, which is reeling from the political and financial impacts of refugees and migrants. First and foremost is that refugees and migrants should be repatriated if possible and otherwise resettled quickly in surrounding countries with similar cultures with their rights protected.
A second lesson is that relief organizations cannot be focused on a single population, which reduces the incentives for actually solving the problem. In the case of UNRWA this has entailed Palestinians taking over and running the organization; only a few hundred of the more than 30,000 employees are non-Palestinians. For the Syrian crisis this means maintaining the approach taken by UNHCR and providing for all populations equally.
A final lesson is to prevent the development of an entitlement mindset, which affects both recipients and donors alike. Palestinians cannot conceive of not receiving copious and open-ended aid. In turn, most Western donors cannot imagine not contributing to the world’s “longest refugee crisis,” meaning generations of virtue-signaling.
Large numbers of refugees and migrants in Europe are also displaying the same mindset, picking and choosing which countries provide the best benefits and showing little willingness to find employment or to integrate. Unless the means, and the will, can be found to force changes, the new refugee crises may be as long-lived as the Palestinian one.
Asaf Romirowsky is Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Their book on the AFSC in Gaza, ‘Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief,’ was published in 2013.