UNRWA: Refuge Of Rejectionism
by Barry Rubin, Asaf Romirowsky, and Jonathan Spyer
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: Israel's extinction. In the meantime, their suffering and anger is maintained as a weapon to encourage them toward violence and intransigence.
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 Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa, began to leave.
The second phase occurred in March 1948, when tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the Sharon coastal plains began to move to the Arab-controlled hill regions. During this phase, some 6,000 left their homes in Tiberias, 60,000 fled Haifa, and 65-70,000 left Jaffa.
The third and most dramatic phase began in May following Israel's independence declaration and the simultaneous military invasion by the Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, and Transjordanian armies. During that period, the flight of Palestinian Arab civilians grew exponentially. When the hostilities ended, the UN estimated that around 350,000 people had left after May alone.
Refugees from the northern regions of the country (Haifa, the Galilee, and Tiberias) fled further north into Lebanon and Syria. Those from the coastal plain regions went east to Jordanian territory (including the West Bank). Those in the south went to the Gaza Strip (Egyptian-held territory).
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 Middle East]) was born with a clear humanitarian mandate.
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 Israel existed. If they built lives elsewhere, even after many generations--decades or centuries--they remained refugees officially. In contrast, other refugees only retained that status until they found permanent homes elsewhere, presumably as citizens of other countries.
In 1948, the UN inexplicably set a cutoff date for refugee status at two years' residency in western Palestine. UNRWA's operational definition of Palestinian refugees was: "... persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict."
That definition is all the more questionable given the permeable nature of western Palestine's frontiers and the fluid quality of the residency, particularly among the urban proletariat, a portion of whom came from neighboring countries. The number of such people in 1948 is estimated as between 16 and 25 percent of those defined as refugees. By virtue of that definition, thousands of Arabs from other countries were granted instant Palestinian identity with a permanent right to being supported by foreign contributions.
Fred Gottheil of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign characterizes this as UNRWA's "moral hazard" saying that,
"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 Near East (July 1997-30 June 1998):
"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 Israel's creation.
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 Israel.
Thwarting offers of permanent housing
Over the years there have been numerous opportunities for groups of refugees to move into decent, permanent housing, and almost always they have been thwarted. For example, in 1985, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units that had been constructed near Nablus with support from the Catholic Relief Organization. In this instance (as in several similar instances) the UN intervened. A General Assembly resolution was passed, indicating that:
"measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return, [called] once again upon Israel to abandon its plans and to refrain from...any action that may lead to the removal and resettlement, of Palestine refugees in the West Bank and from the destruction of their camps."
Dr. Eli Lasch, head of medical services in Gaza for Israel's Civil Administration from 1967 until 1985 reports that in Gaza when the Israeli Department for the Rehabilitation of the Refugees prepared houses for thousands of refugees, UNRWA threatened the refugees with the loss of their rights as refugees.
It should be noted that in neither instance did Israel require of the refugees that in order to move into new housing they relinquish their "right" to return.
Equally significant is that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which ruled the Gaza Strip and West Bank population from around 1994 onward made no attempt, despite large-scale foreign aid, to move people out of refugee camps into permanent housing. They would thus be living in Palestine (both pre-1948 Palestine and the future state that the PA was supposed to be constructing) but not in the area where they formerly lived which was now Israeli territory. Such an improvement in their status, even as citizens of an incipient Palestinian state, did not meet the political goal of using them to erode and eventually eliminate Israel's existence. The fact that it would have benefited the refugees was of no importance.
UNRWA: a unique international body
There is no other body like UNRWA in the UN system. Millions of refugees worldwide--over 130 million since the end of World War Two-- fell under the responsibility of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which aims to resettle and rehabilitate the refugees. UNRWA was created as a separate body and its jurisdiction is solely the Palestinians. It is UNRWA that defines the term "refugee" in the broadest terms by including not only those Arabs who fled from territories held by Israel, but also those who stayed in their homes and lost their source of livelihood as a result of war. Today, this would include all third and fourth generation of refugees even those children of just one Palestinian refugee parent.
All in all, not a single Palestinian has ever lost his refugee status. There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees or their descendants who are citizens of Jordan. Yet as far as UNRWA is concerned they are still refugees.
Consequently, UNRWA over the past 60 years has transformed itself into the main vehicle for the perpetuation of the focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the UN. In contradistinction to UNHCR, UNRWA is an apparatus that maintains the status quo--in other words, the office has no incentive to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.
As one of the largest employers in the host countries which have Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA is staffed there by local Palestinians, over 23,000 people, with only about 100 international UN professionals. The pattern of hiring within the served population is unique in the UN constellation-both UNHCR and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Fund) avoid employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, considering it a conflict of interest.
The bureaucracy, well over 99 percent Palestinian, has created an infrastructure of Palestinian dependency on the ground whereby Palestinian refugees rely on the services UNRWA provides (medical assistance, jobs, education) and have absolutely no incentive to plan or implement any solutions that may endanger their livelihood by rendering their services obsolete.
Thus, UNRWA is not so much in reality a UN body but a Palestinian organization funded by the UN. Since its employees have traditionally been supporters (or at least feel the pressure to act as such) of Fatah and the PLO, UNRWA behaved largely on the ground as a PLO front group. Today, especially in the Gaza Strip, it has moved toward becoming a virtual arm of Hamas.
Since its inception UNRWA has became a vehicle for Arab propaganda and incitement towards violence. As Israel's first director-general of the Foreign Ministry Walter Eytan explains,
"The refugees were a gift to Arab propaganda, which succeeded, by perverting the facts, in turning them into the gravest political liability with which Israel has had to contend in the first decade of her existence. Wherever in the "Western" world anti-Israel feeling exists, it draws its inspiration primarily from the Arab refugees. For all her efforts, Israel has never succeeded in freeing herself from the reproach leveled at her by Arab propaganda - that she drove out the refugees in the first place and has since cruelly denied them the elementary human right of 'returning home,' and that in doing so she has 'defied' the United Nations."
In addition, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion bluntly described the Israeli obstacle of finding a resolution of the Arab refugees saying that, "the fact that Israel is trying to solve the refugee problem proves that she has an interest in its solution. This alone is enough to damn any such attempt in Arab eyes."
And although, some support the Palestinian "right of return" out of good-hearted naiveté many others have a different agenda. Their purpose is not the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the destruction of Israel. As one of Yasser Arafat's closest advisors, Saker Habash, once commented, "The right of return is our winning lottery ticket for the destruction of Israel."
UNRWA is simultaneously a UN agency and an integral part of a long-term Arab strategy to use the perpetuated misery of the Palestinians in order to keep this humanitarian burden at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its approach basically said: Israel's existence necessarily meant Palestinian suffering since there was no other way of relieving their situation.
In this context, up until 1967 there was no attempt to bring a humanitarian option to the Palestinians. In fact, only when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza did the Palestinians get the opportunity, from Israel no less, to build homes and get out of the refugee camps. This was of-course rejected by Yasir Arafat. Even though arguably such a strategy could have contributed to building an independent Palestinian state it detracted from his true aim of seeking total victory and Israel's elimination.
He pursued the same policy after he took over the Gaza Strip in 1994 and the Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank in 1995. In 2000 an official PLO document Arafat and his administration endorse the Arab strategy to perpetuate the refugee problem and keep them in their dire conditions in the camps, stating approvingly that, "in order to keep the refugee issue alive and prevent Israel from evading responsibility for their plight, Arab countries--with the notable exception of Jordan- have usually sought to preserve a Palestinian identity by maintaining the Palestinians' status as refugees."
A secondary factor was that, after the establishment of the PA, UNRWA meant that Arafat could continue to disclaim all responsibility for the well-being of the refugees. Their social, medical, educational, service, and even financial provider remained UNRWA and the UN, at no cost to Arafat in resources or governmental effort, contrary to every principle of normal territorial integrity and autonomy. The situation signaled that no outcome of the Oslo peace process--and that is to say any two-state solution--could possibly help the refugees' situation.
CHAPTER TWO: UNRWA and Terrorist Groups
When the Arab world was pursuing the "quest for Palestine" between 1948 and 1967 the Palestinians were a minor and marginal consideration. The West Bank was ruled by Jordan as an integral part of its national territory; Egypt dominated the Gaza Strip as a colony, doing nothing to develop the area or help its inhabitants. It was only following the 1967 war that Palestinians shifted to a distinct Palestinian nationalism. As the Palestinian author and activist Fawaz Turki writes of this time,
"Palestinians and Palestine finally meshed in 1967, following the vacuum and disarray that occurred following the collapse of the Arab armies in the June War....The Palestinians claimed to be "wresting control" of their cause from the Arabs, forming their own liberation organization, and becoming azhab el-kadiya, literally, the owners of the problem. Suddenly Palestine became the Palestinians, the Palestinians became the PLO, and the PLO became in an age that looked romantically at such things, a national liberation movement."
From the 1960s onward it was Yasir Arafat who almost single-handedly made the refugees the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Barry and Judith Colp Rubin wrote in their biography of Arafat, the Palestinian leader, "wanted to establish the PLO's irrevocable legitimacy. This was, Arafat explained, based on four pillars: armed struggle, popular support, keeping a broad coalition, and backing from other Arabs." Arafat knew that if UNRWA offered any way of solving the refugee problem it would most likely be the beginning of the end of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As Rubin notes "he [Arafat] insisted that always 'the Palestinian dreamt of return' [emphasis added]"
Thus, UNRWA could not be allowed to follow the usual course of resettling the refugees in the countries where they lived (including the many in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), or move them to other states where they could become full citizens, or even improve their conditions by removing them from the camps. Such normal solutions to refugee problems were seen as threatening to liquidate the only acceptable alternatives of suffering or a full return to what would be--or could soon become--a new Palestine stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea.
For example, when Israel offered to better the living conditions of the refugees in the camps by building them new houses in the late 1960s the PLO and the Arab states fervently refused because it would undercut the PLO's recruitment efforts.
As historian Kenneth Levin writes,
"The Israelis sought to alleviate the squalid living conditions in the camps. They built new housing units outside the camps for residents and also provided building lots, infrastructure and subsides for those who wished to build their own houses, with, in either case, ownership being transferred to the residents... It is noteworthy, however, that the PLO and the Arab states vehemently opposed these housing programs, perceiving the provision of better living conditions to the refugees and their descendents as undercutting both the push for these people's return to Israel and their efforts to recruit them into the PLO cadres."
Thus, while on the surface UNRWA appeared to be an agency whose mission was to solve the Palestinian refugee problem, its real job was to perpetuate it. While the group did materially improve the lives of its wards by its providing jobs for some, education for many, and welfare for all, it also sharply limited how far this process would go. Individual Palestinians might move into Jordanian or Lebanese society or emigrate to the West, escaping the UNRWA system. But collectively they would continue to be subject to that cycle forever.
This did not mean, however, that UNRWA was universally admired among Palestinians. They recognized, albeit in a somewhat distorted manner, that UNRWA was bad for their development because of its smothering welfarism. Thus, Palestinian activist Edward Said wrote:
"The ambivalence of Palestinian feeling toward UNRWA is a complex subject...One should remember first of all that it did not take long for the refugees to become (as they have remained) a highly politicized group. As against the explicit national self-consciousness in its Palestinian wards, UNRWA stood for a nonpolitical paternalism represented by doled-out food, clothing as well as medical and educational facilities. UNRWA's charitable concern for the Palestinians' political disaster seemed reducible to sterile figures-how many mouths to feed, how many bodies to clothe and treat, etc. I think it is correct to say that the Palestinians living in the political cocoon that UNRWA was supposed to be providing could not determine whether he would ever break through into genuine self-determination."
Said was at times critical of the PLO leadership for its failure to unleash even more revolutionary energy among the Palestinians. In this passage he claims that the politicization was spontaneous and self-generated, rather than understanding how the UNRWA situation developed it. Still, he indicates how UNRWA stifled initiative and change. For Said, this was negative but for the PLO leadership it was positive, ensuring the refugees would remain dependent on it for leadership and not find some individual, entrepreneurial, materialistic alternative to waging a long-term revolution.
Hazem Zaki Nuseibeh, in his 1982 book Palestine and the United Nations states that the,
"Palestinian people are one of the most hardworking, conscientious and proud people in the world. They would be the happiest people on earth if the UNRWA operations, which they deeply appreciate, were to be terminated tomorrow - provided the other part of the equation, namely the implementation of their inalienable right of return to their homeland, [emphasis added] were likewise and simultaneously to be fulfilled. But to leave the dispossessed Palestinians in limbo, in their greatest hour of need, can only be described as a crime against humanity, for which the powers which had wrought this catastrophe upon them must bear the most colossal responsibility, ethically, morally and legally."
But, of course, it has been the Palestinian leadership itself and the Arab states which have promoted the policy of leaving them in limbo. Simultaneously, these forces have blocked any other solution to the problem and complained about the resulting situation. The "powers which had wrought this catastrophe upon them" and thus been guilty of "a crime against humanity" are precisely those who exploit the situation.
As Robert Bowker writes, "Palestinian Authority and PLO officials dealing with UNRWA were anxious to underline the importance they attached to the agency's on-going role." This is because their priority was never on building a successful Palestinian state but rather on building a successful Palestinian revolution. The former approach might have put the stress on the development of an infrastructure based on a thriving economy and contented people; the latter approach required making sure that there is no end to the refugee problem and suffering. The goal was not to motivate people to work hard and be productive so they could generate wealth or good services but rather to motivate people to go out and kill and be killed.
Governments, notably those of Lebanon and Jordan, have also had problems with UNRWA since it maintains a political-military base outside of their control for groups which oppose the existing regimes and attack them.
In 1976, for example, the Lebanese government accused the PLO of violating the many accords that have been concluded with them in order to limit their presence and military activities in Lebanon. That country's UN Ambassador, Edward Ghora, described the PLO behavior as follows:
"The Palestinians acted as if they were a state within the State of Lebanon, flagrantly defying the laws of the land and abusing the hospitality of its people... The PLO steadily increased the influx of arms into Lebanon...They transformed most, if not all, of the refugee camps into military bastions around our major cities, in the heart of our commercial and industrial centers, and in the vicinity of large civilian conglomerations."
The Lebanese government also issued a letter from the deputy prime minister repeating these grievances, including the fact that the PLO had smuggled heavy weapons into the camps and taken over the UNWRA offices. It was well-known in the camps that the PLO, not UNRWA, ruled them. While foreign officials of UNRWA repeatedly denied this fact it was an obviously hollow claim on their part.
It is important to understand that the use of UNWRA to promote--indirectly and more--and recruit for terrorist activities has global implications. The Palestinian case served as a model for other terrorist groups. As the RAND-St. Andrews Chronology of International Terrorism states, "The number of organizations engaged in international terrorism grew from only eleven in 1968 (of which just three were ethno-nationalist/separatist organizations, the remainder radical Marxist-Leninist, or left-wing groups) to an astonishing fifty-five in 1978)...all [the ethno-nationalist/separatist movements] seeking to capitalize on the PLO's success."
That UNRWA became a de facto extension of the PLO and Fatah, now Hamas in Gaza, has been in direct contradiction to UNRWA's mandate to be a non-political organization. The New York Times reported, June 18, 1979, that the PLO controlled every refugee camp in Lebanon; the UN flags flown over them meant nothing in practice. The UN acted as a shield and covered for the PLO which enabled them to run operations and recruitment for terrorists.
For years the UN refused to respond to its critics and did not admit that the UNWRA camps were entirely run by the PLO. If this situation was never discussed it could hardly be remedied. Only very occasionally was what everyone in the camps, Palestinian and foreign employee, knew confessed by the UN.
In October 1982, for example, UNWRA released a detailed report describing how the "educational" institution at Sibliun near Beirut which was under UNWRA supervision was in-fact a training base for Palestinian terrorists. The report indicated that acting against UNRWA's official policy, the PLO had transformed the institution into a military installation used for training including the use of weapons and explosives to the members of the camp.
In October 2004, then UNRWA's Commissioner General, Peter Hansen publicly admitted for the first time that Hamas members were on the UNWRA payroll, adding, "I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another."
Consequently, Congressman Eliot Engel and a bipartisan group of 37 members of Congress called on the secretary of state to pull U.S. funding for UNRWA until all known members of terrorist organizations were removed from the agency's staff. In addition, the House Members demanded the firing of Hansen in light of his knowledge of and indifference to terrorists on UNRWA's payroll. Engel who is a member on the subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia stated at the time that "it is shocking that American government and taxpayers are supporting a UN agency that employs Hamas terrorists. The State Department needs to pull funding for UNRWA before one more cent makes it way into a terrorist's pocket."
The fact is, however, that taxpayer money in countries where Hamas was legally defined as a terrorist organization, like the United States and Canada, was being illegally used to fund Hamas-controlled activities. These include educating camp residents into a life of hatred against the West, Jews, and Christians, along with the view that terrorists were heroes and that suicide bombers were saints. Of course, this is roughly what the PLO had always done through UNWRA.
An element of this indoctrination and control is that the refugees themselves, or at least their organized "representatives" ostensibly endorse the strategy of keeping their own lives more miserable than they need be. As Shaul Mishal writes of Jordan in the 1950s:
"The refugees opposed the Jordanian settlement policy and that of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) because they saw it as detrimental to the return to Palestine. 'These programs,' stated one of the refugee organizations, 'have not aimed at fulfilling a pure humanitarian mission but at finally liquidating the Palestine problem by settling the refugees far from their homeland and assimilating them, trying to complete the Jewish imperialist plot and bring the curtain down on the Palestinian tragedy."
In practice the matter is not so simple, of course. Many individual refugees have opted out of the camps, especially in Lebanon and Jordan, and some have emigrated out of the Middle East altogether. But the vast majority is kept permanently in their situation. Thus, it can be pointed out that the refugees live in dreadful housing and the result blamed on the West and Israel. Yet the fact they have poor housing and no jobs is a deliberate choice of the Palestinian political leadership, at times abetted by a host country that either wants to keep Palestinians out of its own system due to domestic interests (Lebanon) or to preserve them as examples of suffering and potential warriors (Syria).
Supporting the Hamas Platform
Hanson's view that Hamas was a normal political organization whose doctrines did not interfere with the governance and education of Palestinians has continued. This has been true even when Hamas has committed violence against other Palestinians and Fatah. When the organization seized Gaza by force in June 2006, UNRWA waited to see who would win the battle, then immediately indicated to Hamas that it was eager to get back to providing its services. Nothing was changed in its procedure or performance after the takeover.
Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi has stated that UNRWA employs, "members of different political groups such as...Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group." If presented as an example of non-discrimination in employment due to someone's private political views, this might seem palatable. But these are not only terrorist groups but also revolutionary organizations imposing discipline on their members and with clear aims. Thus, a teacher who is a member of Hamas does not merely read the group's newspaper and vote for it but teaches students in the classroom a specific extremist ideology, advocating violence and terrorism, anti-Semitism, and so on.
Television crews have filmed UNRWA employees escorting armed Palestinian fighters in UN vehicles. Agency-operated, U.S.-funded schools decorate their classrooms with the slogans and banners of terrorist groups.
As Yoni Fighel, a former Israeli military governor, asked, "Who's going to check up on them to see that they don't [do so]? UNRWA? They are UNRWA."
A graphic demonstration of this issue was the death, in May 2008, of Awad al-Qiq. He had a long career as a science teacher in an UNRWA school and then had been promoted to run its Rafah Prep Boys School. Qiq was also the leading bombmaker for Islamic Jihad. He was killed while supervising a factory to make rockets and other weapons for use against Israel, located a short distance from the school. Qiq was thus simultaneously building weapons for use in attacking Israeli civilians while indoctrinating his students to do the same thing. Islamic Jihad did not need to pay him a salary for his military and militant activities since the UN, and American taxpayers, were already doing so.
There is no telling how many other Qiqs there are among UNRWA employees but there is no chance that any of them will be rooted out by the agency.
Teaching and Preaching Hamas Ideology
Over time, it has become apparent that UNRWA does not only embrace Hamas, it actually teaches the violent Hamas platform. Since UNRWA teachers are typically alumni of the UNRWA school system, they perpetuate the vitriolic curriculum they were taught which vilifies Israel and the West.
For example, Suheil al-Hindi an UNRWA teachers' representative in 2003, applauded suicide bombings in a school in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. Instead of condemnation, al-Hindi received a promotion and was subsequently elected an official in the UNRWA union.
The increasing numbers of UNRWA teachers who openly identify with radical groups have created a teachers' bloc that ensures the election of members of Hamas and individuals committed to Islamist ideologies. Using their classrooms as a place to spread their radical messages, these teachers have also gravitated to local Palestinian elections. Thus, UNRWA's education system has become a springboard for Hamas-affiliated Palestinians with political aspirations. For example, Minister of Interior and Civil Affairs Minister Saeed Siyam of Hamas, was a teacher in UNRWA Schools in Gaza from 1980 to 2003. He then became a member of UNRWA's Arab Employees Union, and has headed the Teachers Sector Committee. Other notable Hamas graduates include Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who received his education at UNRWA schools, and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, the former Hamas chief, who attended the UNRWA secondary school in Khan Younis and graduated top of his class.
Not surprisingly, UNRWA institutions have produced terrorist ideologues. They have also produced terrorist masterminds. As Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, writes, UNRWA has produced graduates like Ibrahim Maqadama, who "helped create the military structure of Hamas." Gold notes that, "at least 46 terrorist operatives were students in the UNRWA schools."
There have also been widespread reports of terrorism launched directly from UNRWA-supervised facilities. This includes sniper attacks from UNRWA-run schools, bomb and arms factories in UNRWA camps, the transport of terrorists to their target zones in UNRWA ambulances, and even UNRWA employees directly tied to terrorist attacks against civilians.
For example, Nidal Abd al-Fattah Abdallah Nazzal, an ambulance driver for UNRWA from Kalqiliya in the West Bank, was arrested by Israeli security services in August 2002. Nidal admitted that he was a Hamas activist, and that he had transported weapons and explosives to terrorists. He transported these weapons in his ambulance, taking advantage of the freedom of movement afforded to UNRWA vehicles by the Israelis.
Nahd Rashid Ahmad Atallah, a senior official of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip, was also arrested by Israeli security in August 2002. In his capacity as an UNRWA official he provided support to families of wanted terrorists, on behalf of Fatah and the PFLP.  Additionally, he used his UNRWA car in 2002 to transport armed members of the Popular Resistance Committees, the most extreme Palestinian faction which has been linked to al-Qaida, to carry out attacks against Israeli troops at the Karni passage. The same group was responsible for the killing of three U.S. government employees, security guards protecting a State Department delegation travelling to the Gaza Strip to help students there obtain scholarships.
UNRWA's entanglement with terrorism is actually growing. The New York Times revealed in 2000 that UNRWA was allowing 25,000 Palestinian youngsters to use their schools disguised as "summer camps" for terrorist groups to provide military training. Children, ages 8 to 16, were taught how to prepare Molotov cocktails and roadside bombs.
This is all a far cry from being an internationally funded humanitarian agency that adheres to the UN's intended program of supporting peace. UNRWA has, in fact, become an organization which in practice supports war and ignores the humanitarian needs of the refugees.
CHAPTER THREE: The Money Trail
In observing UNRWA and its financial assets, one of the most significant issues to bear in mind is the contrast between UNHCR and UNRWA. UNHCR has actually managed to resettle and solve many refugee problems whereas UNRWA has still not achieved that goal.
As Edward Buehrig rightfully notes,
"UNRWA's manner of dealing with refugee problems has been quite different from UNHCR's inasmuch as the Agency has directly financed and administered programs of public works, economic, rehabilitation, relief, health and education. Yet despite the depth and intimacy of UNRWA's involvement, the result has not been to dissipate the Arab refugee problem, whereas UNHCR has reached solutions in many situations."
In the early 1950s UNRWA's annual budget was approximately $54 million. It was charged with providing employment for the Palestinians within the host Arab states in which they resided. The UN believed that within a short time (less than five years) the refugees would be self-supporting in their host countries and relief disbursements could end. However, the UNRWA officials ran into much resistance from Arab governments who refused to cooperate with any plan designed to promote economic, social, and political integration or a sense of prosperity.
By 1959, UNRWA reported that its rehabilitation fund--established in 1950 to provide homes and jobs for Palestinian refugees outside the camps--had been rejected by the host countries. The fund had set a goal of $250 million of which about $7 million had already been spent. Thereafter, a small part of the allocation was used for agricultural development and the remainder augmented UNRWA's general reserves.
Once it became obvious that neither the host countries nor the refugees themselves would move forward anything but extremely limited cooperation in rehabilitative infrastructure programs, UNRWA focused its aid in the fields of health, education, and permanent or emergency economic relief. Under UNRWA's care, literacy and standards of public health among refugees rose. UNRWA is also one of the largest employers in the host countries, with more than 23,000 staff--the vast majority of whom are locally recruited Palestinians--in addition to about 100 international staff members.
Financially, the two years following the 1967 war were the years UNRWA transformed into a flourishing financial institution. UNRWA was called on to deal with the crisis and was given funds to do so.
UNRWA's chief, Laurence Michelmore wrote, "Unless the Agency in one way or another receives additional contributions amounting to ten percent of its prospective income for the current year, a reduction in services to the refugee population would be inescapable, with resulting in human hardship and suffering."
Michelmore forgets to mention that it was the government of Israel that built for the refugees an educational infrastructure, a health system as well as social services. Additionally, this was bolstered by a unanimous call in UN Security Council Resolution 237 of June 14, 1967, which called on Israel to "to ensure the safety, welfare and security of the inhabitants of the areas where military operations have taken place and to facilitate the return of those inhabitants who have fled the areas since the outbreak of hostilities." The onus is put on the Israeli government even though it was the one offering to build homes and allocate land for the Palestinians refugees to build on. By not explaining this Michelmore received more international/financial support.
UNRWA's budget has been supported by many countries of which the United States and other Western countries have been the largest contributors. In 1990, UNRWA's annual budget was over $292 million, and by 2000 that had increased to $365 million. Despite this seemingly significant rise, however, actual allocations among the various refugee camps has decreased--compounded by a very high birth rate and burgeoning camp populations. After all, refugees were discouraged from moving out for political reasons and also had the incentive of being on welfare if they remained.
Per capita spending among refugees in camps thus declined from $200 in services per year per refugee in the 1970's to about $70 currently. This situation has been most evident in Lebanon, where the government provides little if any additional assistance to the Palestinians.
USG Voluntary Contributions to UNRWA
Professor Fred Gottheil described UNRWA's strategy as one of "moral hazard." This term is defined by the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Economics as "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." An example given is that if someone who owns a house is insured no matter what their behavior, they lose the incentive to maintain their home properly. Although providing financial security to the insured, fire insurance may actually invite a higher incidence of fire damage. In a welfare system which discourages alternatives, the recipients are ultimately worse off.
The greatest beneficiaries of UNRWA's wealth are those who work for it. As Martha Gellhorn observed in 1961, the camps provided much employment to others for whom, "The refugees seemed to bring prosperity with them...."
When the U.S. government's General Accounting Office (GAO) asked UNRWA whether it screens beneficiaries for terrorism ties, UNRWA claimed that it couldn't because such a screening would endanger its staff. Moreover, when the houses of six Palestinian families on UNRWA's registry were destroyed during bomb-making activities, UNRWA concluded there was not enough evidence to deny them benefits under the terrorist-exclusion law.
It is important to note that the funds provided through U.S. AID come with legal restrictions. Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, as amended, states that "all possible measures" must be taken to ensure that no U.S. contributions are used to help refugees who have engaged in acts of terrorism, or have undergone guerrilla-type or Palestinian Liberation Army PLO military training
In 2003, the US General Accounting Office conducted an on-site assessment of UNRWA and issued a report, in which then Commissioner General Peter Hansen stated that: "UNRWA has no evidence that would justify denying beneficiaries relief or humanitarian aid owning to terrorism."
So how could the head of UNRWA get away which such a statement?
The answer lies with the word "evidence." UNRWA has adopted a policy of "don't ask, don't tell." As such UNRWA does not note terrorist activities on refugee registration cards, nor do they receive information on terrorist related convictions of beneficiaries in addition, to not asking beneficiaries if they have engaged in terrorism.
In reality, the fact that UNRWA employees' do have ties to terrorism illustrates UNRWA's practice of simply turning a blind eye. Furthermore, the fear that UNRWA staff would be harmed should they be questioned has bolstered the need for employees and ordinary refugees to please the terrorist groups lest they lose jobs or benefits due to the political activists on the payroll. The same situation is faced by the international staff, which lives in or near the camps and whose families are known to terrorists.
The GAO report refers to a widespread consensus regarding this vulnerability. It also indicates that the United States has refrained from defining "all possible measures" in a way enabling UNRWA to deny any recognition of this problem. Or, to put it bluntly, U.S. government agencies are complicit in preventing the laws of the United States from being implemented.
American taxpayers have reason for concern as the United States through AID is UNRWA's single largest donor. In addition to paying approximately one-third of the UNRWA's regular budget, the United States donates millions to the several emergency campaigns that UNRWA runs each year which amount to more than $100 million annually. Thus, in the interest of self-perpetuation, UNRWA seeks to maintain the violent status quo in the Middle East, even if it means turning a blind eye to terror--including anti-American terror-while asking the international taxpayer, and especially the United States, to foot the bill.
CHAPTER FOUR: UNRWA as a Barrier to Democracy
The late, eminent Middle East Scholar, Elie Kedourie wrote in his book Nationalism that
"the idea of self-determination as the highest moral and political good inevitably produced a deep change in the tone and political speculation. A society of autonomous men could not be that collection of individuals possessed of inalienable natural rights which, to the French revolutionaries, constituted a sovereign nation. Autonomy is not a condition achieved here and now, once and for all; it is rather to be struggled for ceaselessly, perhaps never to be attained or permanently secured."
The relationship between Kedourie's observation and UNRWA is that UNRWA prevents this struggle. UNRWA prevents the development of coherent, representative organs of Palestinian society by keeping Palestinians dependent on its services. In turn, in practice, the supply of these services is dependent on radical activists who demand adherence to a political line which places endless struggle for total victory over pursuing a normal life.
The society created has the following characteristics: dependent on welfare, initiative and productivity are discouraged or even counterproductive, extremist and corrupt groups in control of citizens, indoctrination into violent ideologies, hatred rather than constructive activity, and so on.
Good governments and their citizens form the necessary foundations for social trust. Democratic governance gives incentives for participation and tools to influence policy. But UNRWA, which buttresses the eternal sense of victimhood and the "refugee badge of honor," creates not a social trust but an organizational trust that gives only the illusion of fair and balanced representation.
In addition, the "badge of honor"--indeed the very entry ticket for acceptance as a proper citizen--associated with UNRWA fosters eternal hatred towards Israel. Israel very existence is the cause of one being a refugee; only Israel's extinction can change that status. Nothing else is important; nothing else is responsible for one's daily fate.
UNRWA's relations with Palestinian terror groups are also deeply problematic in a very practical sense. Terrorism does not exclude one from being a part of UNRWA; - sometimes it seems as if the opposite is true. In the twisted logic that characterizes UNRWA hiring practices, accepting the political (terrorist) ideologies of its workers and served population actually makes UNRWA more diverse and accommodating as would "befit" a non-governmental organization (NGO). As Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University writes,
"Humanitarian and charitable institutions throughout Palestine employ personnel regardless of sectarian or political affiliation and offer services on a similar basis. Thus, UNRWA, NGO-run and public hospitals and clinics, for example, employ members of different political groups such as Fatah, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group."
UNRWA has become an active impediment to the development of workable, democratic Palestinian political institutions which could actually serve as the basis for a successful development of sovereignty. Equally, UNRWA has become a barrier to achieving a peaceful and lasting two-state solution.
Since its inception, UNRWA has managed to transform itself into the guardian of the refugees' isolation whereby the uniqueness of the Palestinian refugees as far as an entity that cannot be assimilated into any Arab country. UNRWA reinforced this sentiment by becoming the parental supervisor for all things concerning refugees. This dependency also caused the refugees not to get involved in politics but to have UNRWA, which means the PLO and now Hamas, to be their advocate.
As Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal describe, "The refugees' isolation reinforced not only family and clan ties, outside the camps, those in the camps forming approximately a quarter of Jordan's population, provided almost no representative to national political institutions -not a single one to parliament between 1950 and 1965."
Former Commissioner-General of UNRWA Giorgio Giacomelli openly admitted that "it would be disingenuous to claim that UNRWA can perform its tasks without reference to politics." In fact, UNRWA is the only UN refugee agency that has become engrained in politics. In contrast, UNHCR never allowed itself to be put in that position.
It is clear today, that there is no other non-government organization in the world that has let itself become part of a terrorist-dominated movement and a revolutionary effort to destroy a UN member state. Rather than becoming part of any conceivable solution, UNRWA sustains the problem it was supposed to help solve.
CHAPTER FIVE: Is There an Alternative?
This study has highlighted the obstacles UNRWA presents for the world, the United Nations, the West, the United States, Israel, and above all the Palestinians themselves.
The UN erred when it created a UN body devoted exclusively to one population and with an approach and structure contradicting that of all other such institutions.
How do we significantly decrease the hold UNRWA has on Palestinian society, to encourage a peaceful solution of the conflict and a material improvement of the refugees' lives?
Three basic steps are required which are highly reasonable and in line with practices on every other such issue.
First, UNRWA should be dissolved.
Second, all the services UNRWA currently provides should be transferred to other agencies within the UN, notably the UNHCR, which have a long experience in such programs. In addition, these activities must be subject to normal transparency and accountability.
Third, to the greatest possible extent, responsibility for normal social services should be turned over to the Palestinian Authority. A large portion of the UNRWA staff should be transferred to that governmental authority. Donors should use the maximum amount of oversight to ensure this be done effectively.
People often wonder why it is that violence and instability persists after so many years regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and especially the Palestinian element therein. Why is this issue so seemingly impossible to resolve?
A part of the answer is that UNRWA does not work towards a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. In fact, the opposite is true. 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.
Bibliography - Books and Articles
Karsh, Efraim. History and the Palestinian "Right of Return", June 2001.
 Nuseibeh, Hazem Zaki. Palestine and the United Nations, New York: Quartet Books, 1982, P. 130.