Israelis joyously and thankfully marked 68 years of renewed independence, massive economic advancement and attainment on all fronts this past Thursday. The Palestinian Arabs call the same process “catastrophe“.

Much of the economic fuel for both of the two Palestinian Arab statelets – the one ruled by the PLO and Mahmoud Abbas from Ramallah; the other by Hamas in Gaza – comes not from industrial growth, not from economic progress, not from anything self-generated by them in the past 68 years. It comes, tragically, from a two-edged sword: massive gifts via foreign aid and cradle-to-grave support from a UN-created refugee agency, UNRWA.

Many billions of dollars/euros are represented by that last sentence – more money is spent on this particular cluster of self-proclaimed, humiliation-averse refugees per capita than on any other refugee group in history – by far.

Among the numerous aspects of UNRWA’s odd and highly problematic existence that make it exceptional and peculiar is that it serves only the people called the Palestinian Arabs.

Many otherwise well-informed people fail to notice that every other refugee on earth has to turn to a different UN agency, UNHCR, operating according to a completely different set of rules and principles. Only the people who say they are the Palestinian Arabs are served by UNRWA. (Why this is so, and what it means in practice, is part of an astonishing narrative that needs a separate post.)

Comprehending this is often the first step to putting a meaningful framework around the lethal fury that propels much of the Arab world, and those who advocate for a Palestinian Arab outlook on life, today and for the past seven decades. And long before it as well. Occupation has almost nothing to do with it.

Today, as the friends of the Palestinian Arabs prepare to mark their Nakba, there is a (truly) simple question worth asking: How do they decide whom to call a Palestinian Arab refugee?

The best place we know for the answer is the UNRWA‘s own website:

UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees. It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees, defined as “persons 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.” The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration.
UNRWA services are available to all those living in its areas of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

You might want to read that a second time. The UNRWA definition, which for practical purposes is what everyone means today when they refer to “Palestinian refugees“, is –

  • Someone who lived in the area of the British Mandate for Palestine during a window of time that (a) lasted for less than two years during a period of massive Arab immigrationinto the towns, cities and regions being built up by the Jews, and (b) ended nearly seventy years ago
  • And anyone who today can point to an ancestor who fits into that window – for ever and ever into the future, down through the coming generations of new “refugees”.

It’s unique, inexplicable and self-defeating on so many levels.

There is much else that is catastrophically wrong with how Palestinian refugee-ism is defined. For instance, does anyone at UNRWA record when a “refugee” dies and his or her meal ticket ought to expire? The figure of 5 million beneficiaries of UNRWA services is suspect, unchecked, misleading and essentially meaningless. And can we really speak of 5 million refugees when two million of them have full citizenship in other Arab countries [source], and an unknown but large number are citizens of Europe, Canada, Chile, the US and other non-Arab countries?

As news coverage focuses today on the Palestinian day of catastrophe, spend a moment pondering how large that catastrophe truly is, how little chance there is of it being reversed by the Arabs (among the resource-richest states on earth), how small is the incentive for them to stop this endless cash-fest, how often all of this is used to justify acts of savagery and bigotry, and – finally – who, in reality, brought them into the morass in which they find themselves today.

UNRWA’s notorious spokesperson Chris Gunness is personally invited to offer some answers.
[This opinion piece is cross-posted on the This Ongoing War blog, edited by Frimet and Arnold Roth in memory of their murdered daughter Malki.]