The Trump administration is reportedly ending all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and calling for a dramatic change in how Palestinian refugees are counted, effectively reducing the number of Palestinians the United States considers refugees from around 5 million to fewer than 500,000, The Washington Post reported.
What this effectively does is end for most Palestinians the UN-backed “right of return” to land they or their ancestors fled in 1948, when the state of Israel was created, and 1967, when Israel defeated a combined Arab military force in the Six-Day War. (Neither Israel nor the U.S. recognizes the “right of return,” which remains a key sticking point in the peace process.)
Just who counts as a Palestinian refugee is a matter of controversy for the Trump administration and some Israelis. UNRWA counts those Palestinians who were displaced from the region in the 1948 and 1967 wars, as well as their descendants—even if they possess the citizenship of the Arab country to which their ancestors fled—as refugees. This policy has resulted in 5 million Palestinians with refugee status. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, on the other hand, counts the world’s other refugees differently: A refugee’s descendant with the citizenship of another country is not considered a refugee. As Jay Sekulow, the president’s counsel, wrote in Foreign Policy, Palestinians are the only class of refugees in the world accorded that status purely because of their descent, adding: “There is no provision for refugee status based on descent in the 1951 refugee convention or in internationally accepted practices for refugees who are not Palestinian refugees.” Some Israelis point out that the potential return of 5 million refugees to Israel would dramatically alter their country’s demographics. Palestinians want the issue to be resolved as part of a final negotiation with Israel on a two-state solution.