UNRWA's time to defend itself has unquestionably arrived. The Kirk amendment would require the secretary of state to report to Congress on how many Palestinians serviced by UNRWA are true refugees from wars past -- those who could prove that they were personally displaced. That number is believed to be closer to 30,000 people. This new tally would then become the focus of America's assistance to UNRWA for refugee issues.
Despite congressional Republicans' current fervor to rein in America's out-of-control debt, the bill's proponents do not call for a full cutoff to the descendants. Rather, they seek to ensure that UNRWA services keep flowing to those who are needy. The United States would simply not view them as refugees -- just people living in the West Bank or Gaza and below the poverty line.
But funding for the future would not be guaranteed. As Kirk's office explains, Congress will soon need to consider tough questions, like whether U.S. taxpayers should be footing the bill for welfare programs in the West Bank and Gaza, or whether such services should be provided by the Palestinian Authority.
The fact that this language has made it to mark-up is nothing short of remarkable. The Israelis have historically avoided locking horns with UNRWA at all costs. In fact, they have quietly lobbied against UNRWA reform in the past. As one Israeli official confided, the Israel Defense Forces don't want to risk being saddled with providing services to the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza should UNRWA unravel. Indeed, one of the Israelis' primary purposes in signing the Oslo Accords and supporting the creation of the Palestinian Authority was to ensure that they were no longer saddled with the responsibility of providing services to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
But today, with the peace process moribund, if not dead, the Israelis believe that UNRWA reform could serve as a defibrillator of sorts. By tackling one of the toughest challenges of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without the bedlam that typically accompanies bilateral negotiations, there would theoretically be one less sticking point when the stars align again for diplomacy. Under the leadership of Knesset member Einat Wilf, this idea now has the backing of the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Washington, a coalition is still forming. Rep. Howard Berman (D- CA), the
ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, broadly backs this idea
but has yet to introduce language on the House side. However, bipartisanship
may not be enough: The State Department, which pledged an additional $10 million in
UNRWA in March, is expected to put up a fight. The legislation would
undoubtedly anger some of Washington's Arab allies, and Foggy Bottom tries to
avoid that at all costs.
But such grumblings will likely pale in comparison to the expected outcry in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries. The refugee narrative is a sacred one in Palestinian political culture. Palestinian leaders will not simply table it because Congress passes new legislation. Rather, it's a fair bet they will mobilize. When UNRWA merely mulled a name change in July 2011, Palestinians organized protests and sit-ins. Proposing real changes to UNRWA could even prompt violence.
In short, the Kirk legislation would strip Palestinian the descendants of their political symbolism. It would be a landmark for this generations-old conflict, but whether it paves the way for peace or conflict remains to be seen. There are few more potent symbols of the Palestinian cause. Don't expect Palestinians to give it up easily.