by Clifford Smith
August 12, 2018
The Trump administration is supposedly considering declassifying a State Department report that tallies up the true number of Palestinian refugees.
If Trump does this, the repercussions could go a long way to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, or UNRWA, classifies refugees unlike any other organization in the world, and in a way that contradicts common sense. Whereas the number of refugees from the original 1948 Arab-Israeli war would likely number in the tens of thousands, the UNRWA also counts people generations removed from the conflict, many of whom are citizens of new countries, in addition to everyone living in their internationally recognized homes of Gaza and the West Bank.
This politically motivated definition raises the number of “refugees” to an estimated 5.3 million. And that number is used by Palestinians to claim a “right of return” to Israel for a number greater than half of Israel’s entire population.
Until today, there has been no official acknowledgment of the true number of refugees. Governments and international organizations around the world instead pay lip service to UNRWA’s fiction that the number of refugees has expanded many times over since the 1948 war.
This will change if the Trump administration releases the classified report.
The origin of the report goes back to 2012, when the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project approached then-Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. with the idea that America should adopt a policy that only recognized as refugees those who would fit its own legal definition of a refugee. Kirk proposed sweeping language to appropriations legislation to that effect, but President Barack Obama’s State Department objected that this would be prejudicial to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides wrote that the provision “would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue.” Largely as a result, Kirk’s original language was not adopted.
But Kirk did manage to get compromise language, requiring the State Department to issue a report on the issue of the true definition, passed as part of the fiscal 2015 appropriations legislation. But then no one heard nothing more about the report for over a year. Kirk assumed the State Department had simply ignored the committee’s direction.
But as it turns out, that wasn’t so. The Middle East Forum learned that the report had, in fact, been written. Committee staffers in the House of Representatives were even informed of its existence. But instead of making it public, the clear intent of the legislation, the State Department classified it. Moreover, it failed to inform Kirk’s office, which had the largest stake in the report, or relevant Senate committee staffers that it had been completed.
Upon learning this, Kirk moved in 2016 to pass another provision forcing the State Department either to produce a nonclassified version of the report, or to inform the Committee why it could not do so. State still chose not to declassify the report.
This year, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., wrote a letter to President Trump signed by 50 other members of Congress, asking that the report be declassified. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, viewed the report, and said in a subsequent interview that “there’s no reason in the world it’s classified.”
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies also called for declassification, as did Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, saying “The American people deserve to see this reported State Department assessment, so Congress and the administration can have a transparent and productive debate about America’s role in the organization.”
In July, the American Center for Law and Justice obtained a version of the report via a Freedom of Information Act request and a subsequent lawsuit. Unfortunately, it was heavily redacted and omits the most crucial information — the true number of refugees. A recent story citing State Department sources pins the total at just 20,000 refugees, nowhere near the 5.3 million that UNRWA claims and the State Department has previously adopted. The public won’t know for sure unless the Trump administration finally releases an unredacted version of the report.
Hopefully, the Trump Administration will release this report. Telling the truth about the number of refugees, rather than the fictional number provided by UNRWA, would be a big step to unraveling expansive “right of return” claims, ending a threat to Israel’s existence.
Cliff Smith is Washington project director for the Middle East Forum.