WASHINGTON – Palestinian advocates are warning that a new US Senate amendment
dictating a reporting requirement on the issue of Palestinian refugees could set
back efforts to reach a peace deal.
The amendment to a bill, recently
approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, mandates that the secretary of
state must report how many of the Palestinians serviced by the United Nations
Relief and Works Agency fled or left homes in Israel during the War of
Independence and how many are only their descendants.
dangerous. It can have a very bad reaction on the ground,” said Ghaith Al-
Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas now with the American Task Force on Palestine. “It will just make
any US ability to push for a responsible solution suspect in the eyes of the
Palestinians and refugees in particular.”
Before committee passage, the
amendment was weakened slightly from the original proposal by Republican Senator
Mark Kirk of Illinois – which would have also mandated a count of how many of
each category of Palestinians lived in the West Bank and Gaza as well as were
citizens of another country – after objections from the Obama
“This proposed amendment would be viewed around the world
as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the status of this
sensitive issue for decades,” wrote Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides in a
letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee urging it to reject the
“Final-status issues can and must only be resolved by the
Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations,” he said, arguing that the
amendment would hurt efforts to build confidence and encourage talks between the
Backers of the legislation, however, say the measure would
do the opposite.
One GOP Senate aide said that puncturing the “UNRWA
myth” of millions of refugees – as opposed to a much smaller number that were
personally displaced between 1946 and 1948 – would help resolve what has been a
major stumbling block in previous rounds of negotiations.
“In the end you
will find a very manageable problem with practical solutions,” he said. “This is
a dramatic stop in what has been maybe the thorniest and most difficult
challenge to Middle East peace.”
But the New America Foundation’s Leila
Hilal, who has served as a legal adviser on refugees to the Palestinian
negotiating team, charged that the amendment was merely an attempt “to put
pressure and preempt political negotiations” at a time when the Israeli and
American governments had both warned the Palestinians against taking unilateral
“Congress is engaging in a way and a place that it doesn’t
belong,” she said.
But the Republican aide said that Congress was not
only allowed but obligated to track where taxpayer money is spent, and this
amendment was also an effort to “provide oversight” to the millions of dollars
in funding the US provides UNRWA.
Jonathan Schanzer, who researches the
Palestinians for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, estimated that the
number of living refugees who were displaced during the War of Independence was
about 30,000 people, in contrast to the several million counted by UNRWA and
cited in Nides’s letter.
“UNRWA provides essential services for
approximately 5 million refugees,” Nides wrote, detailing some of the health,
education and social services the UN agency provides.
Schanzer said it
was significant that Nides spelled out a number of refugees that clearly also
“I guarantee the Palestinians will look at this
letter and see it as US policy,” he said.
A State Department official,
however, said that this language is the standard figure used in all public
conversations the US has on the issue.
“Our position has always been that
the descendants of refugees have always had refugee status,” in keeping with the
UN designation for Palestinian refugees, which recognizes the descendants as
refugees, he said. “Yes, these are in the second generation or third generation
but are still considered refugees.”
Since the UN is the arbiter on who is
serviced by UNRWA and legislation passed by Congress wouldn’t change that,
Schanzer noted that it wouldn’t have any affect on the UN’s
“What it does is set the stage for UN reform,” he
Presently, however, the bill hasn’t even become American law, as
the measure hasn’t be approved by the House of Representatives let alone signed
by President Barack Obama.
It remains a large question whether the
legislation will be passed, as it is an amendment to an appropriations bill
whose fate hinges on politics at a time of extreme gridlock in Congress and a
But Schanzer said its passage by the Senate
Appropriations Committee at least has a symbolic impact.
Palestinians have had an extended position on the right of return for years. No
one’s questioned it,” he said.
“This shifts the center of gravity on the
debate.”Palestinians say US Senate refugee amendment may further delay peace deal