Wednesday, October 14, 2009

UNRWA at 60: Are There Better Alternatives? Part III


by Nitza Nachmias

3rd part of 3

UNRWA Violates Antiterrorist Laws and Conventions

UNRWA is a United Nations agency, and is expected to adhere to antiterrorism laws and Security Council resolution. But UNRWA facilities, including schools, health clinics and even hospitals, are used as training grounds and safe haven for guerrilla armies and terrorists. The autonomous status of UNRWA has enabled the agency to ignore these conventions with impunity. UNRWA, by its own admission, contravenes US law. UNRWA's former Commissioner-General Peter Hansen admitted in 2004 that he was sure that there are Hamas members on UNRWA's payroll and he did not see that as a crime.[40] The donors, in particular the largest donor, the US, also ignore UNRWA's disregard for international anti-terrorism laws. The US Congress has been continuously approving generous contributions to UNRWA in spite of UNRWA's violation of US laws. Section 301 of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (PL 87-195) as later amended by Congress to says: "No contributions by the United States shall be made to UNRWA except on the condition that UNRWA takes all the possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so called PLO or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism." While the USAID is taking major steps to ensure that US resources, including its aid to the West Bank and Gaza, do not go to Hamas and Hezbollah members, UNRWA does not.

Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute argues that "UNRWA does not have ready access to information on refugees who are receiving military training from guerrillas. As recently as December 2002, USAID 'cleared' several charity commitments to receive funding despite information publicly tying them to Hamas."[41] As early as 2003, a GAO inquiry determined that UNRWA is in violation of US law. "UNRWA's implementation of procedures to address section 301(c) is constrained by several factors. First, it relies on host governments to review local jobs applicants. Also it can't determine if its beneficiaries meet section 301( c) criteria owing to concerns for its staff's safety and its inability to verify beneficiary responses."[42]

Another recent inquiry reached even harsher conclusions. "UNRWA makes no attempt to weed out individuals who support extremist positions… and some staff members undoubtedly support violence to achieve these goals ".[43] UNRWA is using disturbing tactics to permit keeping Hamas and Hezbollah members on its payroll. By denying that these two organizations are "terrorism supporting organizations", as they are identified in US law, UNRWA is able to keep their members on the payroll. Thus, when vetting employees, questions about membership or support of Hamas and Hezbollahare not asked nor is this information recorded.

In contrast to UNRWA's tolerance of Hamas and Hezballah activities, the PA and the Jordanian governments denounce Hamas terrorist activities and systematically carry out counter terrorism operations against them. A transfer of UNRWA's operations to the PA and the host governments, e.g. giving the PA control of UNRWA's schools and health care facilities in Gaza and the West Bank, would help weed out Hamas members and prevent terrorists from using schools and health clinics as shelters. Finally, UNRWA's damaging policies and its violation of section 301 (c) of US law should be taken into account regarding US contributions to UNRWA.


Conclusion: Alternatives to UNRWA

As we have shown, UNRWA's self proclaimed status, as the best available and most preferred provider of aid to the "Palestinian refugees" is wrong and misleading. We have also shown that UNRWA's operations are harmful and damaging to the self-reliance and autonomous governing of the PA. The redundancy of UNRWA was clear at the donor conference that took place in 2007 in Paris. The President of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas requested and was promised $ 7.4 billion in economic assistance, for three years (2008-2010). The representatives of the 90 donor nations agreed that the future of the Palestinian people is dependent on a strong and stable PA. The US Congressional Research Service observed that "Experts advised that the PA stability hinges on improved security, economic development, Israeli cooperation, and the continuation of high levels of foreign assistance." [44] The facts show that UNRWA's existence stands in the way of achieving all these goals. Notwithstanding, UNRWA continues to perpetuate the myth that it is the "best show in town."

The billions donated to UNRWA reduce the amount of money available for aid to the PA, making the PA a weaker potential partner for peace. To secure its permanent existence, UNRWA uses scare tactics warning of disastrous consequences to the peace process if its operations are curtailed. Consequently, no donor dares to reduce or cut UNRWA's burgeoning budget. UNRWA's theme of the imagined "five million distressed refugees" feeds the impossible demand for a "right of return." Following UNRWA's path, in a few years we could be facing a fantastical "10 million distressed refugee population," demanding a "right of return. By perpetuating this myth, UNRWA has become a major problem not a solution.

The US is the largest donor and it should expose UNRWA's misleading tactics. The US Congress has demanded transparency and accountability, to no avail. It is time to put a lid on donations to UNRWA,gradually phasing out of UNRWA's operations. A sixty-year entrenched bureaucracy has to be eliminated, and almost 30,000 UNRWA's employees could and should be integrated either in the relevant local governments or in the various international agencies that will take over UNRWA's operation. The process will encounter opposition. "Affected parties would ensure an active, vocal resistance in some quarters. But carefully managed, those sensitivities should not prevent a well-considered series of reforms from going forward."[45] Critics might claim that a central role in the transition for UN and other international organizations will bring with it potential problems of interagency rivalry and bureaucratization. Also, there certainly exists no common vision among UNRWA, UNHCR, UNDP and others, as to what their respective contributions to a transition process might be. Even after decades of simultaneous operation, there is very little vision at all, about the ability of UN agencies (and UNRWA in particular) to plan for a phase out and transfer of responsibilities. UNRWA certainly will put up a fight to secure its bureaucratic survival. As early as 1995, when donors first seriously considered a gradual transfer of responsibilities, UNRWA vehemently objected to any change in its status. " A reduced UNRWA could have potential political consequences…for the Palestinian Authority, the host countries and the peace process itself."[46]

However, resolving the refugee problem requires the termination of UNRWA's operation, and the US and the other major donors should not be intimidated by the political sensitivity surrounding most of the transition initiatives. The transition has to be carefully planned and the annual contributions should be gradually transferred from UNRWA to the regional, host governments. The roles and responsibilities of all the donors that will participate in the transition process should be discussed with the relevant local governments as well as with the US government. Proper bills will have to be passed. Congress, the White House and the Department of State, (USAID) will have to develop a coherent, coordinated plan of action.

We suggest that the execution of the transition be managed by an international working group that includes representatives of US government agencies, various relevant United Nations agencies, the World Bank, representatives of donor governments, in particular, the EC, representatives of UNRWA's Advisory Commission, and finally, representatives of Israel, the PA and the other host governments. The working group should divide the work among the members based on the expertise and the ability of each government and agency to contribute and take part in the transition period. UNRWA (or an UNRWA-successor agency calling upon some of the same staff and facilities) might play a temporary role, for example, in resettlement, economic development initiatives, the administration of refugee compensation, or other possible components of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the final resettlement of the refugee issue.

Other elements of the UN system can also contribute whether in conjunction with, or instead of, UNRWA. The process will require a substantial degree of interagency cooperation and coordination to assure an optimal and smooth transition. This is a complex process that should not be delayed or avoided. UNRWA has to be phased out, and only bold actions will yield the necessary results.


Nitza Nachmias is a Senior Research Fellow at The Jewish-Arab Center, University of Haifa and a Visiting Professor at the Department of Political Science, Towson University, Maryland.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


[1] Webrelief document: "UNRWA at 60", A concept paper.
[2] Paragraph 7 of UNGA Resolution 302 (IV) of December 8, 1949, established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to administer the distribution of food, shelter, clothing, medical treatment, and education for the refugees. The U.N. General Assembly has renewed the UNRWA mandate ever since.
[3] See James G. Lindsay, "Fixing UNRWA", Policy Focus #91, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 2009.
[4]. "The Jalazon data show that half of the camp's household arrived from 1950 onward …and since then the movement into camps continued at a steady annual rate of about 1 percent. ..most of the families had never been in a camp and decided to move in because of advantages to be gained." Yoram Ben Porat and Emanuel Marx, "Some Sociological and economic aspects of refugees camps on the West Bank," A Ford Foundation Report (Santa Monica, Rand Corporation, August 1971), 9
[5]…there is no logical or humanitarian argument to justify a UN organization providing services such as education, health,and welfare to citizens of a member state in a non-emergency situation." in James G. Lindsay, "Fixing UNRWA", 53
[6] UNRWA has accumulated a billion dollars in a pension fund, the "Providence Fund", controlled by the Commissioner General, and never mentioned in the Agency's annual Report.
[7] UNRWA's has a problem of double loyalty. "UNRWA's inexactitude of the data is due to …double loyalty of the local UNRWA staff." Baerwald, Paul. Survey of the Development and Structure of UNRWA 1948-1967: (Jerusalem, The Hebrew University, 1968), p. 5
[8] For example, since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1993, UNRWA has been competing for development contracts with the PA's Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR).
[9]. "Hamas is a social movement with thousands of activists…and it engages in extensive political and social activities." Glenn E. Robinson, "Hamas as Social Movement", in Quintan Wiktorowicz,(ed.): Islamic Activism,(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 112
[10] 1998 Report of the Commissioner General (July 1997-30 June 1998). Quoted in Barry Rubin at al. "UNRWA: Refugee of Rejectionism", A report from the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, May 8, 2008, p. 4.
[11] Efrat, Moshe. The Palestinian Refugees Social and Economic Survey: 1949-1974, (Tel Aviv University, unpublished Master's thesis, 1976), p. 13
[12]. "Urges the governments of the countries in the area to assist, with due regard to their constitutional processes, in the carrying out of this program… (The program allocated $200 million) for reintegration over and above such contributions as may be made by local governments, to be carried out over a period of approximately three years starting as of 1 July, 1951." General assembly resolution #413. , 26 January, 1952
[13] The British government also considered Iraq as one of the countries that would absorb the refugees. Jacob Tovy, On Its Own Threshold, (Jerusalem: Ben Gurion Research Institute, 2008), p. 5
[14] UNRWA acknowledges that it provides aid to anyone in need. UNRWA's official cite, front page.
[15] United Nation Yearbook, 1987, p.325
[16] A GAO report of November 17, 2003
[17] UNRWA's response to these claims was less than satisfactory. See Andrew Whitley response to James G. Lindsay review of UNRWA's operations. Policy Watch # 1471: Special Policy Forum Report.
[18] Commissioner-General statement, Amman Jordan, 7 April 2009
[19] "This week thousands of children in Gaza will make an attempt to break the world record for the number of kites flying in the same place at the same time". UNRWA press release, 30 July, 2009.
[20] James G. Lindsay, Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugee, Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #91 | January 2009 p.27
[21] Plan is detailed in "UNRWA at 60" , UNRWA publication, p.3
[22] The World Bank. "Palestinian Economic Prospects: Gaza recovery and West Bank Revival." Economic Monitoring Report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, June 8, 2009. 12.
[23] Webrelief document "UNRWA at 60" a concept paper.
[24] A workshop meeting: "The Future of UNRWA", held February 19-20 in Minster Lovell, U.K.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid,. Summary report, p.5
[27] Ibid,. Summary report, p.2
[28] Bob Bowker, "The Political Management of Change in UNRWA," presented at the Workshop on the future of UNRWA, Minster Lovell (UK), pp. 3-5
[29] Workshop on the future of UNRWA, 19-20 of February, 2000, in Minster Lovell, U.K. p.5
[30] That includes: $300 million for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza; $200 million in budget support for the PA; and $400 million to support the PA's Palestinian Reform and Development Plan in the West Bank.
[31] Jim Zanotti, CRS Report, February 20, 2009, p.2
[32] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Sunday, 12 April, 2009
[33] A World Bank publication, June, 2008,
[34] Unlike UNRWA, UNDP employs only 300 primarily Palestinian staff members and the agency subcontracts its projects to local and international contractors.
[35] UNDP publication, 2008 (no date)
[36]See details see "UNRWA and the transitional period: A five year perspective on the role of the Agency," UNRWA Horizon Report, Vienna, January 31, 1995.
[37] International law requires the host government to provide equal civil services to citizens and legal non citizens.
[38] Interviews in Jerusalem, with PASSIA officials, (Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs) February, 2008
[39] Badil – Information & Discussion Brief, Issue No. 6, July 2000, p. 1
[40] In an interview to a Canadian radio station, 2004. The Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2009.
[41] Matthew Levitt, "Broken aid to the Palestinian" January 30, 2009
[42] GAO Report, Washington D.C., November 17, 2003, 3
[43] James G. Lindsay, Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugee, p.32
[44] Jim Zanotti, "US Foreign Aid to the Palestinian., p. 3
[45] Bob Bowker . Workshop on the future of UNRWA, Minster Lovell (UK), p. 6
[46] See "UNRWA and the transitional period: A five year perspective on the role of the Agency," UNRWA Horizon Report, Vienna, January 31, 1995.


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