Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Palestinians From Syria: The Worst Treatment of All

by Elliott Abrams
November 19, 2013


There are over 500,000 Palestinian “refugees” in Syria, as counted by the UN agency handling Palestinian “refugees,” the UN Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA. The quotation marks are especially apt in this case, for the great majority of the “refugees” were born in Syria and have lived there all their lives. Only under UNRWA’s definitions of “refugee” (Palestinians who left what is now Israel in 1948, and all of their descendants until the end of time) would they qualify.

According to UNRWA:

Palestine refugees in Syria have been severely affected by the armed conflict in the country, with virtually all their residential areas experiencing armed engagements or the use of heavy weapons. The number of Palestine refugees in need of assistance in Syria is rapidly approaching the total population of 529,000 registered refugees. Over half have already been displaced from their homes.

How are neighboring Arab countries reacting? Here is what UNRWA says about Jordan:

The Government of Jordan announced a policy of non-entry to Palestinians fleeing the Syria conflict in early 2013. This  stemmed the flow of Palestine refugees from Syria towards Jordan and compounded the extreme vulnerability of Palestinians seeking safety in Syria, as well as that of those who managed to enter Jordan.


Then there’s Lebanon:

“The Lebanese have made it clear they don’t want to see more than a certain number of people coming here,” a high-ranking aid official told [the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] on condition of anonymity….Officially both Jordan and Lebanon are keeping their borders open for all refugees from Syria. But unlike Syrians, who can freely enter Lebanon for up to six months, Palestinians receive only a one-week residency permit. Once that expires, they must pay 50,000 LBP (US$33) each month to renew it.

How about Egypt? Here is a Reuters story dated today:

After escaping shelling in Damascus and terrifying bloodshed at sea, 14 month-old Palestinian twin girls are now among hundreds of people living in limbo in grimy Egyptian police stations, with no end in sight to their plight. Of the 2 million people who fled Syria’s civil war, none may have it worse than Palestinians, who have known no other home than Syria but do not have Syrian citizenship and have therefore been denied even the basic rights secured for other refugees. The United Nations says the Egyptian government has refused it permission to register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them to settle. As a result, hundreds of Palestinians civilians have ended up detained in police stations, with no place else to go….

If the family were Syrian citizens, once detained they would most likely have been permitted to leave Egypt for refugee camps in other countries in the region, says Human Rights Watch….The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians have never set foot in the Palestinian territories and have considered Syria their only home. But Egypt refuses to allow the United Nations refugee agency to treat them like other refugees from Syria. “It is the view of the government of Egypt that Palestinians fall outside of UNHCR’s mandate,” said Teddy Leposky, a UNHCR spokesman in Cairo. “UNHCR has therefore not been able to provide assistance or advocate effectively on behalf of Palestinian refugees in Egypt.”

In one sense this is an old story: Arab states using the Palestinian issue against Israel often treat Palestinians badly. Jordan is the only country that has given them full citizenship rights.

But there is another story here: the way UNRWA’s special treatment of Palestinians has backfired. It is not just a whim that the government of Egypt does not allow UNHCR to treat Palestinians the way it treats all other refugees, for in fact Palestinians are the only refugees over whom UNHCR has never had jurisdiction. When those fleeing Syria attend UNHCR or UNRWA schools, or receive medical attention at UNHCR or UNRWA clinics, that division is perpetuated and deepened. Once upon a time Palestinians thought this special status was a great boon. For Palestinians fleeing Syria it’s hard to see it that way today. UNRWA can now add to its achievement of perpetuating “Palestinian refugee” status the achievement of separating Palestinians from all other Syrian refugees. And now we can use the word refugee without quotation marks, for we are speaking of people born and raised in Syria and now driven from their homes there. This is just another piece of evidence that UNRWA has outlived its usefulness and is doing more harm than good for Palestinians.


Post a Comment 19 Comments

  • Posted by ah

    Agreed, UNRWA has outlived its usefulness. So let’s allow all of them to return to their historic family lands in Israel proper and Palestine, and we won’t have to have such ridiculous debates about whether they are “refugees” or refugees.

  • Posted by Rosanne Smithe

    Problem being ah, is that the vast majority of “refugees” have never set foot in Israel, Judea or Samaria. They were born in their host countries, and they too are victims of the world’s longest running welfare scam.

  • Posted by Andrew

    I wonder whether the Syrian Palestinians will somehow be able to find acceptance, membership and citizenship in whatever political entities emerge from the Syrian civil war.

    If Syria splits into two or three parts, is there some place there where the Syrian Palestinian “refugees” can be citizens? Or would they simply wind up second class members of the newly emerged states?

    It seems like there is an opportunity for them to carve out a permanent home for themselves now.

  • Posted by diana

    The highest 20 donors to UNRWA: 1)USA 33%, EU 22%, Sweeden 6%, UK 6%, etc.etc
    The only Arab contributor is the Islamic Development Bank w 1%.

    WHY Mr. Abrams? What’s the answer? You were in the gov.

    I resent very much that my taxpayers money goes to UNRWA. Besides maintaining a useless bureaucracy and educating little Arab children to hate Israel, what else do they do?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    Fair question. There is great opposition from Arab governments to changing this, and given the size of the so-called refugee population it would be a difficult transition to UNHCR. As so often happens, the really important is driven out by the immediate and we always postpone addressing this issue.

  • Posted by diana

    The Arab gov. are blaming the big satan and the small satan for almost anything.
    Why should the Arabs, who have so much money themselves, have anything to say about whom we give aid?
    Are we paying blackmail money so they will not hit us with more terrorism, as the Saudis do?
    Shouldn’t we start reducing the aid, because our deficits are so large that we can’t afford more foreign aid?
    What kind of game is being played here?

  • Posted by diana

    And now the released Palestinian prisoners that killed innocent people are given a monthly life pension + “severance” pay from money that comes where from?

    My taxpayers money…………..?

  • Posted by ah

    First, Rosanne Smithe, I totally agree with you. Many of these Palestinians have never set foot in Israel or Palestine. You however are leaving out the most important fact of that statement – because their families were driven from/fled from the historical homes there.

    Secondly, Diana. I believe you need to do a little less generalizing and a little more reading. You don’t seem to have an issue with your tax dollars going to the Israeli military, but you do take issue with your money going to education, housing, food and general care for refugees or “refugees”.

    Now the reason this is the case, becomes more obvious as your posts get more ridiculous It seems you have never met an Arab, or at least never met an Arab who you did not think was a terrorist. “Big Satan/Little Satan” is an Iranian-coined term, completely different than “Arab Gov”.

    Finally, the crux of the matter is that yes, there are millions of Palestinian refugees across these countries, some born in Palestine, some the descendants of those born in Palestine. Regardless, the land they call home is occupied territory, so instead of arguing about “refugees” or refugees, we should be discussing how to get them home to an independent Palestine living side by side with an Israeli state.

  • Posted by Cyrus

    First, ah, it is wrong of you to suggest that Palestinians were driven out of their home from the creation of the state of Israel as mandated by the UN, in fact Israelis urged the Palestinian population to stay put where they were, it was the arabs who urged the Palestinians to leave, promising the Palestinians that all of the state of Israel mandated by the UN will be their as the arab world will crushed and destroy the newly created state of Israel and will drive the Jews into the sea.

    Secondly, there has never been a Palestinian state that exist prior to the UN mandated creation of the modern state of Israel.
    Do not pretend that you are suffering from amnesia that it was the arabs and Palestinians that declared war against the state of Israel and it was Israel who kicked the asses of these warmongering people, so you see, by rights of conquest, Israel has a right to its historical claimed to the state of Israel.

    As for your claimed that Palestinians need a state of their own to live side by side with Israel, you’re either naïve to say politely or you’re to delusional, why do you think hamas overthrew the Palestinian authorities in Gaza, so they could live in peace with the Israelis?

    And besides, the Kingdom of Jordan, whose ruler is a minority belonging to the Hashemite tribes ruled over the majority Palestinian population, before and after the creation of Israel, there if the Palestinian truly wants a state of their own, they can overthrow its king and set their own kingdom or a state if they dare.

  • Posted by ah

    Ahhh Cyrus, amazing. You literally just repeated the talking points of Israeli foreign ministers. It’s like AIPAC personally delivered the words to your mouth amazing.

    Point 1: The Palestinians were driven out of their homes, the Israelis actively encouraged this and terrorized as many villages as possible. Read every single Israeli historian from the last 20 years for this indisputable point.

    Point 2: Yes, they did declare war on the new Israeli state – something you would do too if an external intergovernmental body decided one day that more than of your country suddenly belonged to someone else. Secondly, “by rights of conquest, Israel has a right” to the historical land. Wonderful, you are in good company with 1930s and 1940s Germans who believed they had rights to historical German land. I’ll let you guess which era I am referencing.

    Point 3: Your argument is nonsensical. Palestinians live under the occupation of the Israeli government – both Gaza and the West Bank are occupied territories. There is no argument about this.

    Point 4: Another ridiculous Israeli argument, that even the Israeli government no longer makes (although at least you are recognizing the existence of the Palestinian population here). There is no disputing that the Palestinians want a state of their own, on their own land, in Palestine. Do you advocate that occupied Abkhazians, if they truly want a state of their own, should overthrow the Georgian president? No, because this is obviously ridiculous, as is your entire argument.

    Please do yourself a favor and read a history book.

  • Posted by jeb stuart

    1976 the PLO is chased out of Jordan where Arafat attempted to stage a coups and take over the country. The kingdom is keenly aware that the Bedouin people who are the Kings stanchest supporters are a small minority. The presence of a hostile Palestinian presence is seen as the threat it always posed if citizenship had been conferred. The PLO moves its flag in exile to Lebanon where the delicate Confessional /religious that allows minority equality is up turned and the sectarian violence between he major groups Shiite’s composing the largest destroys what was once a beautiful modern city on the Med. For a time the PLO was safe in Tunisia. It moves back because of the threat that Arafat’s influence is being seriously undermines by Hamas and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. This is an interesting focus because the plight of Hamas in Gaza is equally desperate because those Palestinians are committed to overt violence. The problem is the UN seems to be open to being pushed towards support of a one state solution.
    Israel received as many Jewish refugees following what the Arabs called the Disaster of 1948 and the Israel’s the War of Independence. Israel received nearly one million Sephardic Jews over the next decade expelled from Islamic nations that looted their properties destroyed their temples and did so with the assumption sooner or later the Jews would be eliminated or annihilated in a final solution; today that solution is still expressed by the one state end of Palestinian aspirations. Israel accepted its refugees not without chaffing the Arab states have never been so “brotherly” and outstayed the norms of Islamic hospitality and charity. in Syria 2 to 4 times the numbers of Christians and other non-Muslims many of them from Iraq where cruelty and against Christians is a pattern that should deemed crimes against humanity goes unmentioned. A forced return to Israel which the UN and President Obama have subtly attempted to give more legs is no solution. a solution will only be manifest when the practice of Islam gets past its own barbarity stops blaming the stagnancy of ME institutions on foreign imperialism and other beliefs and accepts the possibility Islam itself is part of the problem. By the way two years ago the Islamic nations attempted to have passed in the UNHRC a Resolution to make it a crime to criticize Islam on this globe. President Obama has acted in accord with that resolution as if it had been passed on many occasions, from Benghazi and blaming Islamic terrorism on a Coptic video maker, to Fort Hood and blaming Islamic violence on work place conditions and many other instances, but that is another story but points directly to the over all problem.

  • Posted by Phil N

    What about Turkey? They are one of the instigators of the Syrian civil war. Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states that have been financing the rebellion should pick up the tab.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    In 1848 my Great Great Grandparents came to America as “refugees” from the Irish Potato Famine . I guess under UNRWA that makes me an Irish citizen … just don’t tell the Irish Government that .

  • Posted by ah

    Yes Dean, because the Irish Potato army attacked your village and ethnically cleansed your people. Grow up.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    ah … you talk much and say little .

  • Posted by ah

    Thank you for your contribution Dean. Please go back to potato farming, as you will clearly never make it as a political commentator.

    Please refer to all previous discussions above if you would actually like to learn something, instead of simply regurgitating irrelevant statements.

  • Posted by Eric

    Ah, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    Point 1: No historian can accurately point to a percentage of how many Arabs were kicked out of their homes by Israel. In fact, for every historian that makes that claim, there are just as many that say the overwhelming majority of Arabs left because of the calls of their leaders or they left on their own due to fear (such is a case of war). You claiming ANY kind of percentage is completely inaccurate. NO historian claims an accurate figure but rather his/her OPINION of what that percentage was.

    Point 2: There is no need for additional wording. It is quite simple actually. You using the words “external intergovernmental body” is just another ploy. LEGALLY speaking Ah, the British retained the rights to the land – militarily, governmentally (yes, that’s not a word but you know what I mean) and civilly. As such, according to international law, they could do what they pleased with the land (and they did).

    Point 3: The Arabs do live under “occupation” according to the UN. The problem with the UN is that it is highly biased against Israel (that’s another story) and no one has the balls to say that it shouldn’t be considered “occupation” since LEGALLY the land is “disputed” (and not “occupied”). If you’d like me to prove that to you in the legal sense (and I’m not talking about the Israeli legal sense, I’m talking about international law), please let me know and I’d be glad to do so.

    Point 4: This was also mentioned in your point 2 but I left it for here since it is more relevant. You claim that “There is no disputing that the Palestinians want a state of their own, on their own land, in Palestine.” It was never their land to begin with. Just because a people lived there does not make them the legal rulers of the land. Again, legal. They never even attempted to create a state prior to the formation of Israel. It even took them about 15 years after Israel was created to finally get some kind of legal recognition as a governmental body. There was NEVER an ARAB state called Palestine. Never. There was NEVER an Arab Palestinian government ruled by the “indigenous population” (or what you refer to as Palestinians).

  • Posted by ah

    Eric –

    Point 1: I never claimed a percentage. All historians who are as objective as possible acknowledge that Israelis drove Palestinians from the land. Did some flee for fear of what the Israelis would do? Absolutely – and the Israelis intended this, as they were at the time butchering civilians in villages and spreading word of this. So yes, different motivations, same aim. Ethnic cleansing.

    Point 2: The “external intergovernmental body” here is the UN, not the UK. The British Mandate gave the UK administrative control until two bodies – Israel and Transjordan could “stand on their own”. According to the law, they could NOT just do as they pleased, they had restrictions.

    Point 3: Again wrong, the UN recognizes the West Bank as Occupied (SC 476/478 others). You are simply using the Israeli government definition of “disputed” rather than “occupied”. Tomato/Tomatoe

    Point 4: You didn’t even address my point which is still valid that “There is no disputing that the Palestinians want a state of their own, on their own land, in Palestine” This is indisputable. As for there never being an Arab state called Palestine, yes, this is true, but this is word play. There was an Ottoman territory by the name of Palestine, and a British mandate over Palestine, and a UN partition plan for Transjordan i.e West and East Bank. And for further context, my point was address Cyrus’ claim that if Palestinians want a state, they can just overthrow the Jordanian King, which is absurd and goes completely against international law and common understandings of nationality and identiy (and in fact, has racist undertones arguing that all Arabs are the same anyway).

    You, unlike Cyrus, at least seem to have an idea of what you are talking about, although we disagree on the historical context and legal interpretations.

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