In early March, Palestinians took the streets of Lebanon to protest the tragic death of a handicapped 11-year-old boy who was denied care by a Lebanese hospital. The boy was turned away after Lebanese officials told his family that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had to pay for his care. The organization only covered the boy's care for 10 days, and he died at the hospital's entrance when his parents could not afford further treatment.
After his death, a grieving relative told the AhlulBayt News Agency that "We no longer want UNRWA. We want an insurance company to insure our children, families and women." In short, they want the opportunity for a normal life.
But in Lebanon, as in all Arab states except for Jordan, legal restrictions prevent Palestinians from leading such lives, forcing them instead to remain, as they have for over 60 years, dependent on the UNRWA. Lebanese rules keep Palestinians out of various professions, such as engineering and medicine; prevent them from owning property; and ban them from accessing services such as private health insurance.
This latest tragedy underscores these practical barriers against the development of Palestinian civil society. But the organization meant to help them is also a major obstacle to their well-being and peace with Israel. UNRWA facilities are hotbeds of anti-Israeli, anti-Western and anti-Semitic indoctrination, and according to the Palestinian Press Agency, Hamas has stored weapons in tunnels dug beneath UNRWA schools. The organization still refuses to screen its employees against lists of known members of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror groups (although it does say it checks for and excludes al Qaeda and Taliban members as required by a U.N. Security Council resolution). Meanwhile, its staffers intimidate anyone from taking a stand in favor of peaceful coexistence with Israel.
All this helps explain why the Canadian government announced last year that it would defund the UNRWA and divert taxpayer monies to specific projects to help Palestinians. This decision has of course been met with howls of anger, as it challenges the sacred cow that the UNRWA has become.
The outfit intermittently dispatches its more presentable directors and management around the West, largely to give polite talks at Jewish events. But the proof of its work is in Gaza and the West Bank. A youth center at the UNRWA's Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah recently dedicated a soccer tournament to Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian female suicide bomber, who killed one Israeli and injured more than 100 in 2002. Last year the Fatah Students' Youth Movement at the UNRWA's Women's Training Center and Faculty of Educational Sciences in Ramallah named its soccer tournament after the notorious terrorist Abu Jihad.
The U.S. is the largest Western investor in the UNRWA, having given it almost $228 million in 2010, with another $600 million pledged to support the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and $300 million for Gaza. The U.S. provides around a third of the UNRWA's total budget. The European Union isn't far behind, having committed €66 million towards the UNRWA's general fund last March, and another €20 million in November. And in October the U.K. announced it was adding a £3 million "performance bonus" to its earlier £8 million pledge. Americans and Europeans alike would do well to follow Canada's example and use tax money to promote independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth instead.
For the moment, though, that aim seems distant. A bill in the U.S. Congress to demand transparency and accountability from the UNRWA died last year in committee. Fiorello Provero, vice-chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, has also pressed for more clarity on how European taxes are spent by the UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, though without much success thus far.
That's a pity, because both in practice and design, the UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee-relief operations, which generally seek to resettle refugees, not stir grievances and perpetuate indefinite states of dependence. Despite its purported goal, it is hard to claim that the UNRWA has created any Palestinian institutions that foster a genuinely civil society.
Ideally the UNRWA would be disbanded and Palestinians given the freedom—and the responsibility—to build their own society. Or, should the organization be found to carry out any necessary activities that Palestinians couldn't better provide for themselves, these services could be transferred to agencies within the U.N. that actually deal successfully with refugees. The worst choice would be to pour more money into the unaccountable black hole of the Palestinian Authority. Ultimately our tax money would be better spent promoting independent civil organizations and private-sector growth. Perhaps then injustices like the death in Lebanon might be avoided.
Messrs. Romirowsky and Joffe are the authors of "A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography," published in September 2010 in the journal Middle Eastern Studies.