from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Which Side Is UNRWA On?

September 1, 2014

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The war in Gaza has brought UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian "refugees," back into the news-- mostly because UNRWA schools were used to shoot rockets at Israel.

The failings of UNRWA were examined here ("Ending UNRWA and Advancing Peace")  in December, 2011, although today they seem even worse. The UNRWA employees union is under Hamas control, and it’s clear that the staff is riddled with Hamas "activists." The Israeli commentator and former Knesset member Einat Wilf wrote yesterday that

now, with the fighting over, it is time for Israel to do what it should have done decades ago -- remove the layer of protection and legitimacy it grants to UNRWA. Israel should recognize UNRWA for what it is -- a hostile Palestinian organization that perpetuates the dream of the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel -- and treat it accordingly.

So now there are two compelling reasons to end UNRWA. Its cooperation with Hamas, and the way in which it has been permeated by Hamas, constitute one reason. The second is that UNRWA is engaged in the perpetuation and expansion of the "Palestinian refugee problem" rather than its solution. Here is the explanation I gave in 2011:

Since the end of the Second World War, millions of refugees have left refugee camps, and refugee status, and moved to countries that accepted them–quickly or slowly–as citizens. Post-World War II Europe was an archipelago of displaced persons and refugee camps, housing 850,000 people in 1947–Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Latvians, Greeks, and many more nationalities. By 1952, all but one of the camps had closed. Hundred of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe went to Israel after 1948, and then hundreds of thousands more arrived from Arab lands when they were forced to flee after 1956 and 1967. The children and grandchildren of these refugees, born after their arrival, were never refugees themselves; they were from birth citizens of the new land, as their parents had become immediately upon their own arrival. In this process many nations and agencies have played wonderful roles, not least the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The exception to this refugee story is the Palestinians. In most of the Arab lands to which they fled or travelled after 1948 they were often treated badly, and refused citizenship (with Jordan the major exception) or even the right to work legally. And instead of coming under the protection of UNHCR, they had a special agency of their own, UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. In the decades of its existence, it has not solved or even diminished the Palesinian refugee problem; instead it has presided over a massive increase in its size, for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees are considered to be refugees as well. Once there were 750,000; now there are five million people considered by UNRWA to be “Palestinian refugees.” And UNRWA is now the largest UN agency, with a staff of 30,000. UNHCR cares for the rest of the world with about 7,500 personnel.

Which side is UNRWA on? Its supporters would say "on the side of Palestinian refugees," but instead the agency appears to be on two other sides: its own, always expanding its own empire and responsibilities, and on the side of Hamas.

Any transition to UNHCR would need to be slow and careful, but it should begin. One good way to start is to demand independent studies and planning for such a step (independent because you obviously can’t leave this work to UNRWA itself, nor should all of it be conducted within the UN system). For example, a plan might start in one country (such as Jordan or Lebanon) rather than in Gaza. Or it might start by redefining "refugee" the normal way. The United States should begin, after a set future date, to move funding from UNRWA to UNHCR. If UNRWA or the UN refuse, so be it: let those who insist on retaining UNRWA, its pernicious definition of "refugee," and its ties with Hamas pay the freight.

Such a transition will be extremely difficult and take years. That’s clear--but it’s time to begin. The Gaza war has illuminated once again the ways in which Hamas has been acting as a parasite feeding on this UN agency--to which the United States is the largest donor. Time for a change.

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