On July 5, the Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) published an op-ed titled “Expose the Palestinian ‘Refugee’ Scam” by Richard Goldberg and Jonathan Schanzer. Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and Schanzer is Senior Vice President of Research at the organization.
FDD is a self-described non-profit, non-partisan think tank focusing on foreign policy and national security. In 2003, The American Conservative described FDD, which was established in 2001, as a “new aggressive neoconservative think tank.” At the time of its founding by a group of billionaire philanthropists, the think tank, which was then named the Emet: An Educational Initiative, Inc., was dedicated to providing a positive spin to Israel’s brutal crackdown against the Second Palestinian Intifada, which had started in 2000.
In response to September 11, the organization changed name to its current moniker. To this day, it maintains strong links with Israel, including with the Birthright program, and has various prominent neoconservative, pro-Israel donors, like Bill Kristol and Frank Gaffney.
Goldberg and Schanzer’s WSJ op-ed reflects FDD’s continuing pro-Israel line. At the heart of their short article is the claim that the Palestinian refugee problem is a “myth” and “scam.” In what the two FDD officials seem to consider a genius, smoking gun plan to end the refugee crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they suggest that President Donald Trump declassify a U.S. State Department report that supposedly challenges figures provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s (UNRWA) on the number of Palestinian refugees. Established in 1949, UNRWA provides essential services to displaced Palestinians, including education, healthcare, and basic social services. UNWRA’s services extend to all those living in the disputed Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, as well as descendants and adoptees of all Palestinian refugee males in those areas.
According to Goldberg and Schanzer, the descendants of refugees are not refugees themselves. As a result, UNRWA’s figure of 5,340,443 (2017) Palestinian refugees, which includes refugees and refugee descendants living in the territories under UNRWA’s jurisdiction, is based on a “lie.” The two FDD employees claim that the number of Palestinian refugees is, instead, 30,000 – a figure that includes only the remaining Palestinians who were forced out of their homes by Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Goldberg and Schanzer’s article not only promotes a historically and factually inaccurate narrative, toxic and insulting to Palestinians, human rights defenders, and, indeed, to human intelligence itself. It is also legally wrong.
According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1 (A)(2), a refugee is “an individual who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” The multilateral treaty has been ratified by 145 states, including the United States and Israel. Inline with the legal standard articulated by the refugee convention, UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees 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.”
Under international law, the descendants of Palestinian refugees also qualify as refugees. According to the UNHCR Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under Chapter VI, Paragraph 184:
If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.
And as long as these dependents do not obtain citizenship from another country, they maintain their refugee status:
It is obvious, however, that formal refugee status should not be granted to a dependant if this is incompatible with his personal legal status. Thus, a dependant member of a refugee family may be a national of the country of asylum or of another country, and may enjoy that country’s protection. To grant him refugee status in such circumstances would not be called for.
The UNHCR handbook, which was reissued in 2011, is a universal code for the treatment of refugees in conjunction with the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Palestinian refugees and their refugee descendants are also eligible for protection under the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) if they are not covered by UNRWA’s mandate.
Attempting to present their anti-Palestinian argument as good for Palestinians, the authors argue that the refugee label has deprived Palestinians of economic opportunity in the countries where they live. This false choice, between human rights and economic opportunity, masks an even larger problem with Goldberg and Schanzer’s argument. They utterly fail to address the systematic human rights abuses, and other deprivations, unleashed by the Israeli government against Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as those Palestinians, refugee and otherwise, living in the occupied Palestinians Territories.
Then there is the matter of the State Department report referred to in their WSJ op-ed. As Goldberg and Schanzer admit, the document is classified – which means it is highly likely they themselves have not even seen it. To use the contents of a secret report to try and strip millions of Palestinians of their refugee status is cynical to say the least.
In 428 words, Goldberg and Schanzer achieve little other than to underscore their own inhumanity and the racist ideology upon which their own work and that of FDD is based.