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Time to Reform UNRWA

Time to Reform UNRWA

The strangely toxic case of the Palestinian refugees' UN caretakers.


UN reformers are scrambling to account for the mismanagement, poor performance and increasing irrelevancy documented in reports released this month. Proposals touted thus far take baby steps forward but still fail to address perhaps the UN's most egregious fault: Placing petty politics before its humanitarian goals. And nowhere is this more visible than in the case of UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated solely to caring for Palestinian Arab refugees.

It's not exactly common knowledge that Palestinian refugees -- singularly among all refugee groups -- enjoy the support of their very own UN agency: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, aka UNRWA. All other refugee groups get assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is the UN agency responsible for coordinating assistance to refugees worldwide. Since 1951, UNHCR has worked within the regulations of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to find long-term, "durable" solutions to refugee crises. Through a combination of legal protection and emergency relief, to date, UNHCR has successfully helped more than 25 million people restart their lives.

For the Palestinian refugees, however, no durable solution has been found in the 50-plus years since their problems began. Originally numbering between 500,000 and 750,000 persons, Palestinian refugees now number more than 4 million, the majority of whom live in or near one of 59 camps in five countries. Their plight's implications extend far: The Palestinian refugee problem stands squarely in the way of achieving peace in the Middle East. Understanding the unique phenomenon of Palestinian refugees, however, requires first understanding just how anomalous the institution designed to assist them is.

UNRWA was established by General Assembly Resolution 302 in December 1949. From the outset, the agency had an extraordinary degree of autonomy, largely due to pressure from the UN's Arab bloc. It was thus free to set its own definitions and guidelines --which were markedly different from those of UNHCR. For example, UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." By contrast, the UNHCR definition -- recognized as the international norm -- describes a refugee as someone who "is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution."

By emphasizing "country of nationality or habitual residence," UNHCR clearly intends to exclude the transients embraced by UNRWA's definition -- people who had only recently arrived in Palestine from neighboring Arab countries in search of work. Moreover, while UNHCR seeks to prevent expansion of its definition in ways that would encourage its improper use for political ends, UNRWA has done just the opposite: Not only has it declined to remove the status of refugee from people who no longer fit the original description -- such as the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians granted full citizenship by Jordan -- but it indefinitely confers refugee status on refugees' descendants.

By expanding its already problematic refugee definition, UNRWA guarantees that the problem will remain ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening. For some Arab leaders, this may be precisely the aim.

By expanding its already problematic refugee definition, UNRWA guarantees that the problem will remain ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening. For some Arab leaders, this may be precisely the aim: So long as the Palestinian refugee problem is visible and acute, Israel remains a convenient scapegoat on which the region's political, social, and economic ills can be blamed.

The agencies' diverging policies further reflect the difference in definitions. Indeed, by refusing to consider any resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue other than that demanded by the Arab world -- the "right of return" to Israel, as envisaged in non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution 194 -- UNRWA has effectively denied Palestinian refugees an end to their unwanted status, the very goal that UNHCR takes as its raison d'etre with regard to the refugees that fall within its mandate.

In light of the political unfeasibility of a return to Israel (with the exception of the Arab countries, it is widely accepted among the international community that an influx of over four million Palestinian refugees into Israel is neither a realistic nor an acceptable goal), it is remarkable that Palestinian Arab refugees have never been offered a means of resettlement. While it's true that most of Israel's neighboring Arab countries (with the notable exception of Jordan) have continually denied citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants -- many of whom have been born and raised in these countries, UNRWA itself has never promoted resettlement among refugees, nor has it attempted to pressure Arab countries into complying with their responsibilities toward these refugees.

Instead, UNRWA has followed a policy of insisting on resettlement within Israel and reinforced refugees' collective attachments to their places of origin. A flagrant example of this policy is the manner in which UNRWA has thwarted offers to Palestinian refugees of permanent housing outside refugee camps. In 1985, for example, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units near Nablus -- without demanding that they relinquish the "right of return." Yet the UN intervened, asserting that "measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return."

Of all UNRWA's problems, however, the most serious is links to Palestinian terror. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, for example, UNRWA employees were arrested and convicted by Israeli military courts of throwing firebombs at an Israeli public bus; possession of materials that could be used for explosives; and transferring chemicals to assist in bomb-making. Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold saw shahid (martyr) posters in the homes of UNRWA workers during a visit to Jenin in April 2002. "It was clear," he said in a December 2003 interview, "that UNRWA workers were doubling as Hamas operatives."

The full extent of the terrorist infiltration in UNRWA refugee camps was revealed during Israeli army incursions into refugee camps mounted in the spring of 2002 in response to an unprecedented wave of terror attacks. The UNRWA-run camps were riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, Kassam-2 rocket manufacturing plants, and suicide-bombing cells. This should hardly have come as a surprise: As PA Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib remarked in February 2002, every young man in UNRWA's Balata refugee camp had his own personal weapon, because the local steering committee -- an official UNRWA body -- voted that charitable donations would be used for guns rather than food or other relief.

Whether UNRWA is afraid to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps, or whether it has become so entrenched in the terrorist infrastructure as to be effectively indistinguishable from it, the evidence is clear that an agency mandated to serve a humanitarian purpose has been drafted to further a militant political agenda.

The UN Refugee Convention established international standards with respect to refugees. In its deviation from these, it is clear that UNRWA is not only unhelpful to the Palestinian refugee issue, but is actually detrimental. Those nations interested in finding a genuine, viable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, a sine qua non for peace in the Middle East, should be encouraged to work towards the termination of UNRWA's mandate and the institution of UNHCR policies to the Palestinian refugee issue in its stead.

A longer version of this essay appears in the fall issue of Azure.

October 30, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Steve Edelman, June 9, 2015 2:32 PM

UNRWA stands for United Nation Rockets Warehouse Authority

Think about Operation Protective Edge and how UNRWA helped Hamas.

(3) Stella, November 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Dear Sir,
I do agree with Arlene Kushner, but it is not just this particular agency alone that is toxic. I think the whole UN is toxic, even though for once it had to take a stand against the toxic statement of the Iranian President. The UNRWA must be changed, but first the attitude of the whole world must be changed. Without a change in the world`s thinking, no one will agree to change UNRWA.
When it comes to Israel, the whole world is poisonous. I am a Roman Catholic. A couple of years ago a fellow Roman Catholic wrote a poisonous article with a libelious heading. He even quoted from the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and promised more to come. I wrote to the editor of the paper condemning it and asked how a prestigious paper could publish such an obscene article, especially as this same paper had published, a couple of days earlier, a heart-rending article by Anne Ranasinghe, the only Jew that has ever lived in Sri Lanka she had married a Sinhalese. She had been a child of thirteen in Germany on the "Night of the Broken Glass" The editor must have taken note because that bigot`s second instalment was not published.
This country routinely roots for the Palestinians against Israel. When Arafat died the papers here wallowed in fulsome praise, and this particular paper said in it`s editorial that other news media had reported seeing Israeli children dancing in the streets when the man died.
Israel will never get justice from the world or in the world. The Christians tried for twothousand years to delegitimize Israel and even tried genocide.When they didn`t quite succeed, they handed over the mandate to the Arabs. That is the reason for the creation of a special unit to deal with the Palestinian, so called refugees.
I love Israel. I know that the future of us all hangs on what happens to Israel. My greatest desire is to find a way to persuade the Pope who is the best known moral voice in the Christian world, to undo the terrible canard started by Gentile converts to Christianity who began calling the Jews " THE ONCE FAVOURED SONS OF GOD " and continued " ARE NOW THE CHRILDREN OF THE DEVIL" What they didn`t seem to realize then, and don`t seem to realize even now, is that they were saying in effect that God had broken His everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants. A covenant He ratified by swearing a solemn oath on His Own Holy Name. In other words 2000 years ago Gentile converts to Christianity said that God lied.
It amazes and grieves me that Christians don`t see the seriousness of this sin and don`t even want to acknowledge that a sin has been committed.
So the promises God made to Israel are up for grabs. The Christians want them and the Muslims want them. If the Christians can be persuaded to rescind this canard too, like the other about "Deicide" it will make a huge difference as then the Christians will take a real stance against muslim fanaticism, because this is the canard that spawned the other. The muslims just took over the Christian hate speech lock, stock and barrel and all their libelious books as well.
I hope and pray that you will use the improved relations with the Catholic church and the Pope to press for the recinding of this canard too. This is the linchpin that holds the whole anti - Semitic world together. When this canard is rescinded UNRWA will be thrown out.
I am 73 years old and my resources are nil, but I pray every day for justice for the Jewish people and for Israel.
God bless you and keep and make His Face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
Stella. Barbut. Negombo, Sri Lanka.

(2) Zerrick Woolfson, October 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Major Omission
Dear Arlene,
What a good article! But why did you neglect to mention the UNWRA chicanery which was/is common knowledge amongst insiders and others but which seems strangely absenrt now whenever the name UNWRA comes up. I refer to the fact that it is mainly staffed by Arabs, most of them "local" and that no one ever died and that there were proliferations of (imaginary) birth certificates, thus swelling the already falsified so-called refugee numbers, making it easier to obtain huge undeserved, donated funds, and huge underseved donated food allotments. Also that there was/is a large trade in "certificates" of "refugeeship". . Also, that the vast majority of them had only moved a very short distance from their former abodes, almost a walk away, and were really NOT refugees at all. (you pointed this out in an oblique way)
I myself, having lived in Israel for 8 years, regularly saw, with my own eyes, sacks of foodstuffs for sale to the public in Arab shops, marked with the UNWRA initials. Whole cities seemed to be awash in UNWRA goods specifically donated for "refugees" but being sold to the public. There obviously was a huge surplus due to the above mentioned chicanery.

(1) Martin J. Pine, October 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Palestinian refugees are mostly not Palestinian or refugees

Reporters in the "Palestinian Refugee" areas in the 60's described daily busloads of people evicted from the casbahs of the confrontational Arab states that were accepted into UN refugee camps without inquiry as to their origin, thanks to the corruption of countries with large Islamic populations. These people were obviously being dumped out for the double purpose of ridding poor but potentially useful people by disfunctional Islamic governments, and accumulating a new army that could destroy Israel after their past failed attempts to do so with their own armies. After the initial partition of Palestine it should be stressed that Muslims residing in Israel were given equal status as citizens, they were urged by Arab sources to flee Israel during each war, and many who did flee out of terror were able to return shortly after things quited down. No Jewish source should refer to these people as Palestinian Refugees. It means that the Jews evicted the Arabs. The existence of a large Israeli Arab population that had the sense to stay and did not hate the Israelis or elect to live under Islam is very obvious proof of this fact. The so-called Palestinian Refugees should be referred to as Pan-Arab Evictees, or something of that sort, which pinpoints the disfunctional nature of the governments confronting Israel.

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