Since its inception, as many have pointed out, the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) has considered “refugees” not just Arabs who fled Israel during its War of Independence but also their descendants, thus deviating from the standard definition of the term used by the UN itself and international law more generally. UNRWA, which tends exclusively to Palestinian refugees while those of all other nationalities are the responsibility of the UN High Commissioner’s Office of Refugees (UNHCR), also insists on keeping its charges in a permanent state of refugeedom, often in “camps,” rather than integrating them into the countries where they have settled as is normal international practice. And these, writes Efraim Karsh, are only some of the special liberties taken when determining who is a Palestinian refugee:
The notion of refugees and displaced persons has been invariably equated with unprovoked victimhood. . . . Members of aggressing parties, including innocent civilians victimized as a result of their [own] governments’ aggression, have been viewed as culprits, undeserving of humanitarian international support.
Thus, for example, not only did the constitution of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) [the precursor to the UNHCR] deny refugee status to the millions of “persons of ethnic German origins” driven from their homes in the wake of World War II—thereby forcing West (and East) Germany to resettle them in their territories at their own expense—but it also singled out persons who had “voluntarily assisted the enemy forces since the outbreak of the [war] in their operations against the United Nations.” Moreover, it stipulated that Germany and Japan should pay, “to the extent practicable,” for repatriating the millions of people displaced as a result of their wartime aggression. . . .
In contrast, the Palestinians and the Arab states have never been penalized for their “war of extermination and momentous massacre,” to use the words of Arab League secretary-general Abdul Rahman Azzam, against the nascent state of Israel. . . . This unprovoked war of aggression should have ipso facto precluded the Palestinians from refugee status, should have obliged them to compensate their Jewish and Israeli victims, and should have made their rehabilitation incumbent upon their own leaders and the Arab regimes as with post-World War II Germany and collaborating parties. However, it did not. In addition, their designation as refugees also failed to satisfy the internationally accepted definition of this status in several other key respects. . . .
[Furthermore], 280,000 escapees in the West Bank, alongside 88,000 who had fled to Transjordan (east of the Jordan River)—i.e., a total of 368,000, more than 60 percent of those who had fled their homes during the war—became Jordanian citizens even before the area’s official annexation to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. This, on its own, should have disqualified them for refugee status, as both the IRO constitution and the 1951 convention [on refugees] unequivocally deny this status and its attendant benefits to any refugee who “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.” . . . Even less deserving of refugee status are the Palestinians who moved from the West Bank of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan to its eastern bank during the June 1967 war.