Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently challenged a long-standing Israeli policy towards UNRWA as part of his ongoing social media "hasbara" campaign intended to cast Israel in a positive light. In conjunction with the grass-roots Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, Ayalon (a former ambassador to the United States and a Knesset member representing Yisrael Beiteinu) focused attention on UNRWA and its role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee morass.
The matter of UNRWA — perhaps above all others — highlights the systemic oxymoron of the Israeli position on the United Nations. Israeli officials have claimed that absent UNRWA's role in providing for the needs of the Palestinian refugees, Israel would be held responsible. Thus — because Israeli governments prefer not to bear this burden and despite UNRWA's well documented co-optation by terrorist elements — UNRWA continues to remain central to the administration of the Palestinian refugees within Palestinian Authority areas.
This position produces a perversity in which Israel itself ends up reinforcing the very organization whose institutional and ideological role is to perpetuate a central tenet in the Palestinian national narrative and which is cause for Palestinian intransigence in any peace negotiations.
Understanding the way that UNRWA helps perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem reveals the workings of a dysfunctional bureaucracy and sheds light on the subversive dynamic between UNRWA and the Palestinian leadership.
Since 2005, when it disengaged from the Gaza Strip, Israel has made the argument that the notion of occupation is a relic of the past. At the time, the Israeli government believed that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would remove the language of occupation from the lexicon of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. But it has proven to be an intractable element in the debate, notwithstanding the reality that Hamas runs Gaza and the Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction over those areas of the West Bank already disposed in bilateral Oslo negotiations.
The Palestinian conundrum
This leaves the Palestinians in a conundrum. Although one of Hamas's own leaders dismissed occupation in Gaza (preferring to validate its putative monopoly on power in the area), the Palestinians also remain convinced that others should bear responsibility for shouldering the more unpleasant tasks associated with governance (investment in infrastructure, industry, education, trade, and a social welfare net).
UNRWA is the complicit partner in this schizophrenic and ultimately self-defeating attitude. UNRWA Spokesman Hasna Abu Adnan stated on the Voice of Palestine Radio on December 28 of last year that Israel bears the legal and moral responsibility for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. This was, to be sure, an eccentric statement to begin with, leading one to question just what it is that Palestinians desire from independence if not jurisdiction over its infrastructure and governance. But it was not at all out of keeping for the organization that has protracted Palestinian refugee status for over 64 years.
UNRWA advocates that — regardless of the reality — the Palestinians are sine die occupied. UNRWA has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. UNRWA's success is measured not by results — lack of transparency and accountability in the organization's structure as well as its activities reveal a co-opted and compromised core — but by the contributions it receives. Here the agency had until fairly recently been doing well for itself. Despite a commitment from the US for $55 million in funding in the coming fiscal year, UNRWA recently requested an additional $75 million from international donors "to finish the year and be able to keep the schools running and the health clinics running."
The United States, as the third largest donor to UNRWA, is an unwitting accessory in perpetuating a state of utter dependency in which the Palestinian upper class fobs off all economic responsibilities onto the international community. As long as Palestinians cling to the false notion of being "occupied" with Israel in the role of the "oppressor," they will not assume responsibility for themselves. In Palestinian nomenclature, the "occupation" remains the root cause of all problems, from social and economic woes to terrorism.
What Ayalon failed to mention
In seeking to disrupt the status quo acquiescence to UNRWA within the Israeli government, Minister Ayalon's video makes two assertions: first, that the Palestinian refugees are caught between Arab host governments, which deny them basic rights, and UNRWA, which perpetuates their status rather than resolve their plight; and second, that there were more Jewish refugees in 1948 than Palestinian refugees and that the Jewish refugees suffered more losses.
Ayalon takes UNRWA to task by asserting that the organization has failed to resolve a single case of Palestinian displacement, and that responsibility for the refugees should be handed over to the global refugee agency — the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) — so that Palestinians can be treated similarly to refugees from other crisis areas such as Bosnia, Congo, or Darfur.
Unfortunately, Ayalon's argument suffers from a flaw — he did not explain that UNRWA is not mandated to find solutions for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA's authority (defined at its creation by the UN General Assembly) is limited to providing humanitarian and development assistance. Herein lies the essential dilemma for the Israelis: the government annually supports the renewal of the agency's mandate at the UN and has opposed the cutting of aid to its general fund — a policy that makes sense in the short run because it allows Israel to avoid the financial costs associated with the Palestinian refugees. Yet in so doing it perpetually re-entrenches the very issue that radicalizes Palestinians as individuals and reinforces a narrative of victimization and the intransigence of refusing negotiated compromise.
The message about UNRWA's activities is finally penetrating the Israeli public discourse. On a constructive note, MK Einat Wilf (Independence) recently unveiled a proposal to restructure UNRWA — a goal she claims is essential to keeping the notion of the two-state solution alive. The proposal calls for the countries around the world, which contribute $1 billion annually to UNRWA, to request that their donations be allocated to targeted programs, as opposed to the organization's general budget. Wilf asserted that if her plan is implemented, the number of Palestinian refugees worldwide will dwindle from five million to thirty thousand.
Settling the outstanding issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in negotiations will require both sides to forego the operational advantages of short-term calculations in favor of long term strategic thinking. Propping up agencies like UNRWA, which reinforce Palestinian dependency and magnify the myths and falsehoods of the occupation/victimization narrative, is a poor strategic choice for both sides. For the Palestinians, it delays and stunts the growth and maturation of civil society and constructive nation-building; and for the Israelis, it legitimizes and enables those who would use UNRWA as a base for terror activities.
UNRWA is part of the problem, not the solution; an essential part of bringing negotiations to fruition must mean ending UNRWA's hegemony over the refugees.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum and Nicole Brackman is a historian who writes extensively on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics.