by Barry Rubin, Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Spyer
1st part of 6
Bibliography and footnotes in part 6
On the surface, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) seems a humanitarian group helping Palestinian refugees. In reality, it actually helps destroy the chance of Arab-Israeli peace, promotes terrorism, and holds Palestainians back from rebuilding their lives.
Unique in history, UNRWA's job is to keep Palestinian refugees in suspended animation –– and at low living standards –– until they achieve the goal set for them by the PLO and Hamas:
UNRWA schools become hotbeds of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Semitic indoctrination, recruiting offices for terrorist groups. UNRWA's services are dominated by radicals who staff and subsidize radical groups while potentially intimidating anyone from voicing a different line. UNWRA facilities are used to store and transport weapons, actually serving as military bases.
In this process, UNRWA has broken all the rules that are supposed to govern humanitarian enterprises. Consequently, UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee relief operations. They seek to resettle refugees; UNRWA is dedicated to blocking resettlement. They help refugees to live normal lives so that they can move on with their existence; UNRWA's role is to ensure their lives remain abnormal so they are filled with anger and a thirst for revenge that inspires violence and can only be quenched by a victorious return. They try to create stable conditions for refugees; UNRWA's mission is to enable radical political activity and indoctrination by armed groups which ensures a continual state of near chaos.
The time has come, especially given the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, which also signals a Hamas takeover of the UNRWA facilities there, to reevaluate the role of UNRWA. If it is indeed very much a part of the problem –– a barrier to resolving the refugees' status and returning them to normal lives; a barrier to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; and a source of violence –– it should be dissolved and replaced by something better.
Three basic steps are required to do this. They would improve the refugees' lives and strengthen moderate Palestinian forces.
First, UNRWA should be dissolved.
Second, all services it provides should be transferred to other agencies within the UN, notably the UNHCR, which has a long and productive experience in this area.
Third, responsibility for normal social services should be turned over to the Palestinian Authority. Most UNRWA staff should be transferred to it. Donors should use the maximum amount of oversight to ensure this be done effectively.
People often wonder why violence and instability persists and why the Arab-Israeli conflict is so seemingly impossible to resolve. One important part of the answer is that UNRWA perpetuates the problem. All those seeking real progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians need to take a close look at this unacceptable situation. All those with responsibility for the management of these issues need to work for a change of course.
What could be more appealing as an agency to help refugees? The image summoned up is one of suffering people bereft of homeland, traumatized, insecure, and badly in need of help receive humanitarian assistance given altruistically to ease their plight. Who could object to such an enterprise, when presented in those terms?
And indeed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has done some good work of this nature, at least in the narrowest possible definition of immediate relief, over the long decades of its existence.
But the problem is that UNRWA is much more than that. It has become an agency whose bottom line could be called anti-humanitarian, most of all for those who it purportedly serves. There are two basic issues here.
First, UNRWA has become a vehicle for perpetuating the conflict and thus in delaying the successful resettlement of Palestinian refugees. In this sense, it has worked to keep them in a permanent suspended animation, in which their plight becomes a weapon in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Second, UNRWA has become, at least indirectly, a revolutionary tool used by radical and terrorist forces for obtaining resources, providing bases, and ensuring recruits. This was true for all the groups in the PLO, though most importantly Fatah, and it now applies for Hamas and other radical Islamist groups as well.
In this process, UNRWA has broken all the rules that are supposed to govern humanitarian enterprises. Often, this has been due to intimidation though at times also to the politically committed positions of its officials, and especially employees, who agree with the two principles outlined above.
Consequently, UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee relief operations. They seek to resettle refugees; UNRWA is dedicated to blocking resettlement. They help refugees to live normal lives so that they can move on with their existence; UNRWA's role is to ensure their lives remain abnormal so they are filled with anger and a thirst for revenge that inspires violence and can only be quenched by a victorious return. They try to create stable conditions for refugees; UNRWA's mission is to enable radical political activity and indoctrination by armed groups which ensures a continual state of near chaos. It is in effect nothing more than an internationally subsidized recruitment base for terrorist groups or, to put it in the most generous way, is a hostage of the terrorists.
The time has come, especially given the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, which also signals a Hamas takeover of the UNRWA facilities there, to reevaluate the role of UNRWA. If it is indeed very much a part of the problem –– a barrier to resolving the refugees' status and returning them to normal lives; a barrier to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; and a source of violence –– it should have no future existence. The well-intentioned Western finance and UN sponsorship should come to an end, with alternative means being found for providing necessary functions.
This paper seeks to open that debate and explain the vital need for it.
CHAPTER ONE: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
In 1948, as the result of the hostilities surrounding the implementation of the UN partition plan, approximately 650,000 Palestinian Arabs left their homes and fled into neighboring countries. According to historical studies, there were three distinct phases of the exodus.
The first began after the November, 1947 ratification of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan. At that point some 30,000 people, mostly from more affluent urban families in
The second phase occurred in March 1948, when tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the
The third and most dramatic phase began in May following
Refugees from the northern regions of the country (
On December 8, 1949, the United Nations General Assembly (GA) passed Resolution 302, establishing an agency dedicated to "direct relief and works programs" for the Palestinian Arab refugees. As such, UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [for Palestine Refugees in the
The nations of the Arab bloc were greatly influential in the drafting of resolution 302, but passage was possible only because of the support of non-Arab members of the UN. With the vote on this resolution, a precedent was set regarding accommodation to Arab state wishes in the matter of the refugees, an accommodation that has persisted and, over the last half century, taken on a life of its own.
UN General Assembly Resolution 194 gave UNRWA the mission of taking over immediate relief and more long-term work projects designed to make the refugee communities self-sufficient, pending a political settlement of the conflict.
The problem of definition
When UNRWA first began counting refugees in 1948, it did so in a way without precedent seeking to maximize the number of those defined as refugees. Any displaced Arab who had been in the country at least two years prior to the 1948 war was considered a refugee. No less controversially, UNRWA considers every descendant of the original refugees to be a refugee, a number that has become at least four times the original number.
This was a politically motivated definition to imply that Palestinians would remain refugees forever or until the day that they returned in a triumph to a Palestinian Arab state that included the territory where
In 1948, the UN inexplicably set a cutoff date for refugee status at two years' residency in western
That definition is all the more questionable given the permeable nature of western
Fred Gottheil of the
"the result was the creation of a perverse set of incentives among refugees that discouraged many from pursuing viable options to their long-term refugee status. It also encouraged many non-refugees in the region to attempt to register for refugee status or at least to take advantage of the entitlements UNRWA offered. Finally, UNRWA's half-century tenure as a caretaker agency helped create a relatively large and influential bureaucracy that, as stakeholders in the provision of entitlements, pursued self-serving agendas that tended to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee condition rather than its resolution."
Gottheil as an economist uses the concept of moral hazard as it refers to "an effect of economic institutions arranged so that individuals have an incentive to maximize consumption at a social cost to others because they do not bear the full cost of their consumption." In short, the system encouraged refugees to remain that way forever rather than to shed that status. As such UNRWA fits this rubric because of how it works in tandem with Palestinian society, which would also provide pressures to ensure those so defined remained permanently as disadvantaged refugees. Moreover, refugee status was based solely on the applicant's word. Even UNRWA admitted its figures were inflated in a 1998 Report of the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the
"UNRWA registration figures are based on information voluntarily supplied by refugees primarily for the purpose of obtaining access to Agency services and hence cannot be considered statistically valid demographic data; the number of registered refugees in the Agency's area of operations is almost certainly less than the population recorded."
Inflating figures was expedient for host countries as well, as a means of transferring social burdens onto international shoulders. Refugees remain on UNRWA rosters without any means test or other criteria used by welfare agencies elsewhere around the world for every other refugee situation.
Again, refugee relief is intended elsewhere as a temporary measure designed for an emergency situation. The goal is to get the refugees resettled, enjoying the highest possible living standards, jobs, and housing. UNRWA's job, however, is one of maintenance, to freeze its wards into refugee status until the clock could be turned back politically to wipe out the "catastrophe" of
This is reinforced by the fact that, structurally speaking, the Commissioner of UNRWA works in an exceedingly political stage while receiving little if any guidance from the Advisory Commission or the General Assembly. As Edward Buehrig writes,
"paradoxically, because of the highly political context in which UNRWA operates, the Commissioner General receives little guidance from either the Advisory Commission or the General Assembly. This leaves to him and aides the major burden of political determination."
This freedom is what enables the Commissioner the ultimate autonomy to push whatever political agenda he/she desires or, perhaps more accurately, to accede to the non-UN pressures of Arab states or radical Palestinian groups.
Such a system does not operate for the material benefit of the refugees themselves. On the contrary, their well-being is subordinated to political considerations, the most basic of which is that they continue to suffer so as to fuel and justify the waging of the conflict as well as the stance that the only acceptable solution is to eliminate
Barry Rubin, Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Spyer
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