In what can be described as both a landmark bill for Middle East peace and a provocation that could stir the wrath of the whole Arab world, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has proposed legislation that could strip millions of Palestinians of their refugee status.
Kirk's bill, which is being marked-up today, would amend the 2013 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to change the status of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees. More than 4.9 million Palestinians currently claim refugee status, despite the fact that they were never personally displaced by the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.
If left intact, Kirk's proposal would require the U.S. government to confirm how many Palestinians currently served by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency are actually refugees.
Kirk does not want to deprive Palestinians who live in poverty of essential services. Rather, he's trying to take on one of the thorniest issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the "right of return." The dominant Palestinian narrative is that all of the refugees of the Israeli-Palestinian wars have a right to go back, and that this right is not negotiable. The issue has repeatedly stymied negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
UNRWA's critics charge that it is largely to blame for the deadlock. The agency broadened the definition of refugees to include descendants, and as a result, the Palestinian refugee population has ballooned seven-fold -- from 750,000 to 5 million -- since the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At this rate, as one study projects, the number will reach 14.7 million in 2050.
Nevertheless, over the last six decades, American taxpayers have showered UNRWA with aid amounting to $4.4 billion. Last year, U.S. assistance to UNRWA stood at $249.4 million.
Interestingly, despite congressional Republicans' calls to cut spending, the proponents of the bill do not seek to sever aid to the descendants of Palestinian refugees. They want UNRWA to continue delivering services to the needy, but for the United States to refer to them simply as Palestinians living below the poverty line.
On Capitol Hill, a coalition is still forming. In the House, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) supports Kirk's proposal, but has yet to introduce language of his own.
No matter who signs on, and despite backing from various pro-Israel groups, the road ahead will not be without obstacles. The refugee issue is central to the Palestinian narrative of dispossession, and UNRWA and pro-Palestinian groups will certainly raise a challenge.