For Trump and Co., Few Palestinians Count as Refugees

Trump’s attorney is among the activists trying to strip Palestinians of their status.

Jay Sekulow attends event at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee on April 29, 2014.
Jay Sekulow attends event at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee on April 29, 2014.

Jay Sekulow wants to know one thing from the U.S. State Department: How many Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes with the creation of Israel in 1948 are still alive today?

Sekulow is a conservative activist who believes millions of Palestinians designated as refugees by the United Nations relief agency UNRWA don’t actually deserve the status—a position that aligns him squarely with the government of Israel.

He also happens to be President Donald Trump’s personal attorney—which means he has spent much of his time over the past 18 months fending off allegations that his client colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.

But in his free time, Sekulow has been pressing the State Department for years to publish a report it drafted in 2015 about the refugees, hoping the number would be seeded somewhere in its pages.

His obsession is largely a personal one—an activist group he runs, the American Center for Law & Justice, has been at it for some time.

But it underscores how the people closest to Trump—including his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner—hold positions on Israel that are well to the right of the American mainstream.

Sekulow, who did not respond to requests for comment, began his fight by filing a freedom of information request for the report. Later he sued the State Department.

Last month, officials released a redacted version of the report but to Sekulow’s great disappointment, the number was apparently obscured by black marker.

“We believe that the redacted portions are crucial to exposing what we and many others consider an effort to conceal UNRWA fraud from the American public,” his organization wrote on its website last month.

It’s full disclosure “will expose the U.N. agency’s fraudulent over-reporting on the number of Palestinian ‘refugees.’”

UNRWA has designated more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East as refugees, including the original exiles and their descendants. The agency provides food and basic services to these Palestinians.

But Sekulow and his organization maintain that only a fraction of them—an estimated tens of thousands of elderly Palestinians who personally fled Israel as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War—genuinely deserve the status. The rest need to be removed from the rolls, integrated in the countries where they currently reside, and disabused of the fantasy that they will ever be granted the right of return to their ancestral homes in Israel.

Their case rests on the belief that the descendants of first-generation refugees cannot qualify for refugee status. Palestinians, they claim, are the only refugees in the world who pass on their refugee status through the generations.

The view is not shared by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the State Department, which maintain that multiple generations of Afghan, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Thai, Tibetan, and Somali people have been recognized as refugees.

But the case for denying most Palestinians refugee status has gained traction with Trump’s inner circle. Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, has dismissed these Palestinians as “so-called refugees.” Kushner, in an internal emails exposed last week by Foreign Policy, has advocated “a sincere effort to disrupt” UNRWA.

Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), have drafted legislation that would strip most Palestinians of their refugee status. In the Senate, James Lankford (R-Okla.) has been shopping a similar draft bill. A Lankford aide said the senator is still engaged in negotiations over the bill’s language with other lawmakers.

Sekulow and other conservatives believe the 2015 State Department report is one of the few documents to contain an only official estimate of the number of Palestine’s original refugees.

The State Department produced the report at the behest of a Republican-controlled Congress but then classified it, fueling suspicions among conservatives that America’s diplomats were hiding something that would prove their case.

Sekulow’s group said on its website that it would be going back to court to force the State Department to release the entire document.

In fact, the declassified sections of the report provide a vigorous defense of UNRWA, asserting that it “serves an important function and is a force for stability in the region.”

The United Nations, meanwhile, upholds the idea that refugee status is afforded to descendants of refugees.

“As a general rule, family members/dependants [sic] of a recognized refugee who meet the eligibility criteria for refugee status under UNHCR’s mandate should be recognized as refugees in their own right, even if they have applied for refugee status as part of a family rather than on an individual basis,” according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’s procedural standards for refugee status determination under the UNHCR mandate.

The effort to quantify the number of original Palestinian refugees began in 2012, when then-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), introduced an amendment, which passed as part of an appropriations bill, requiring the State Department to produce a report determining how many Palestinians who resided in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 were displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, helped draft the legislation as a former aide to Kirk. He said the release of the full report will expose “phony refugees” and help “the American people realize they have forked over billions of dollars under the guise of refugee assistance who are not refugees.”

But Dylan Williams, the senior vice president of government affairs for the liberal advocacy group J Street, countered that it is a “pernicious myth that the Palestinians alone are the only refugees whose status is passed along to their descendants.”

“This was very much a fringe idea that comes from the right wing in both Israel and the United States that is fundamentally opposed to a workable two-state solution,” said Williams.

“These people want to take the refugee status off the table in the same way the president claimed he took Jerusalem off the table by moving the U.S. embassy there.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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