Welfare dependency harms the Palestinian people
by Asaf Romirowsky
Following a recent meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Filippo Grandi, commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, Canberra agreed to contribute $90 million for additional teachers and doctors working for UNRWA.
Australia will provide these funds over five years to support Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But why is Australia, like so many other Western countries, so ready to write large cheques to the UNRWA?
UNRWA is an open-ended educational and social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But in what sense are these individuals truly refugees who should fall within UNRWA's remit?
Publicly, UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose "normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict".
In reality UNRWA has continually expanded the definition to include "the children or grandchildren of such refugees (who) are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA's operations, and (c) in need".
The best estimates are that perhaps 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1948-1949. By UNRWA's accounting, however, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions.
This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.
The result of this over a 60-year-long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to ever end its operations.
UNRWA states that despite the creation of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians remain refugees. It has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business.
Of the 30,000 people UNRWA employs, the vast majority are Palestinian: UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Contrast this to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which employs only 5000 to 6000 people worldwide and which focuses far more clearly on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees and building new lives, and not on maintaining services that prop up the status quo.
Synonymous with Palestinian national identity is the collective belief in a right of return to "Palestine". Palestinian identity is rooted in three parts. One is that resistance to Israel is permanent and holy. Another is that Palestinians are, individually and communally, refugees, made so at the hands of Israel. The third part is that the world, specifically the UN and Western countries, must support these refugees until they can return to a future Palestine and to homes in what is now Israel.
As such, when the global community hears words such as "refugees" and "refugee camps" the instinctive image is that of fleeing individuals who are living in tents in dire settings. However, a closer look at Palestinian architecture reveals that the camps are actually adjacent to neighbourhoods in Palestinian cities with water, electricity and satellite TV.
The claims of Palestinian refugees have engendered sympathy that has helped UNRWA generate financial support of millions of dollars. This is all a result of the belief that these funds would eliminate starvation and help Palestinian refugees to assimilate.
While its sister agency, the UNHCR, has worked to decrease the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA has worked for more than 60 years to grow the number of Palestinian refugees and to prolong and exacerbate the Palestinian refugee issue.
Of late, Washington has correctly questioned the hereditary clause associated with UNRWA's definition of who is a Palestinian refugee through an amendment proposed by senator Mark Kirk, R-Ill, which sets out a more precise series of definitions for US aid to UNRWA, to be specified in the memorandum of understanding with the organisation.
The amendment states that "a Palestinian refugee is defined as a person whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, who currently does not reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who is not a citizen of any other state".
Refugee status would therefore no longer be heritable, at least if UNRWA were to continue to receive US funding. The amendment would also require the secretary of state to report to congress about the notoriously slippery numbers of refugees and what measures the US government is taking to ensure these limits are abided by.
Accountability and transparency have been hard to come by at UNRWA given its monopoly over Palestinians. If the creation of institutions that foster civil society and promote some element of democratisation are definitive goals, it follows that the present UNRWA model is an abject failure. UNRWA's ability to act independently has been compromised by its having been co-opted.
The Canadian government has taken these problems to heart by becoming the first Western country to defund UNRWA, following a report commissioned by the European parliament documenting that Hamas terrorists have been chosen by the UNRWA labour union to actually administer its facilities.
The Kirk amendment and Canada's actions are good models for Australia to follow as we seek better ways to use our tax dollars to promote independent Palestinian organisations and private-sector growth.