Frontpage Interview's guest today is Asaf Romirowsky, a Middle East analyst and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Forum.
FP: Asaf Romirowsky, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Romirowsky: Thanks for having me.
Tell us about the new UNRWA accountability bill.
Romirowsky: After much pressure from Congressman like Mark Kirk (R – IL) and Steve Rothman (D – NJ) and others we are now seeing a new bill entitled UNRWA accountability. It demands transparency and responsibility from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). The bill seeks to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United States do not fund acts of terrorism in any way (bringing the funding into compliance with the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961).
The bill goes further, underscoring the need to evaluate the text books used in Palestinian UNRWA schools; to ascertain there is no "inflammatory and inaccurate information about the United States and the State of Israel, anti-Semitic teaching, as well as the glorification of terrorists." Something that has been a constant problem in UNRWA schools which have acted as a catalyst for terrorist activities against innocent civilians in Israel.
FP: How does the UNRWA perpetuate the Palestinian Refugee Problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general?
Romirowsky: UNRWA has been the main vehicle for the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the United Nations. Where once it was charged with resettling Palestinians, its explicit mandate in recent decades has been to maintain them in the camps where Arab states left them some 60 years ago. Education, health and limited vocational training are provided, just enough to keep Palestinians as "refugees." UNRWA is an apparatus that maintains the status quo — a huge bureaucracy with no incentive to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Furthermore, as the largest employers in the host countries with Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA is staffed mainly by local Palestinians — more than 23,000 of them, with only about 100 international U.N. professionals. The pattern of hiring within the served population is unique in the U.N. system. By contrast, UNICEF (to cite one example) avoids employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, considering it a conflict of interest. UNRWA bureaucracy has created an infrastructure for Palestinian dependency. Refugees, now in their third generation, rely on the services UNRWA provides and have no incentives to plan or implement solutions that may endanger their livelihood by rendering UNRWA's services obsolete.
In the process, UNRWA has broken all the rules that are presumed to govern humanitarian enterprises, encouraging their resettlement, avoiding political stances, and putting refugees in danger. But by design, UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee relief operations, such as those orchestrated by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. UNHCR seeks to resettle refugees; UNRWA is dedicated to blocking resettlement in favor of the 'right of return.'
FP: Illuminate for us how UNRWA serves as a conduit for terrorist groups.
Romirowsky: 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. 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 such, Arafat made the refugees his primary target audience recruiting them to the PLO by working in the UNRWA refugee camps. As such, UNRWA became a de facto extension of the PLO and Fatah, now Hamas in Gaza, and has therefore been in direct contradiction to UNRWA's mandate to be a non-political organization
It was under the leadership of former UNRWA Commissioner Peter Hansen that the organization's complicity with terror was openly exposed. In a statement to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Hansen admitted: "I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime."
As Hamas' genocidal agenda has become impossible to cover up, UNRWA has now resorted to professions of shock and promises of "zero tolerance." For some UNRWA's affiliation with terrorism is not a detraction but an added value that shows "diversity."
UNRWA institutions have not just produced terrorist ideologues. They have also produced terrorist masterminds. There have also been widespread reports of terrorism from UNRWA-supervised facilities, including 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. Something we witnessed in Israel's last war in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
By working, with these groups UNRWA has given Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others diplomatic immunity and we as US taxpayers have been contributing to this through our annual gift to UNRWA's budget.
A graphic demonstration of the above was the death, in May 2008, of Awad al-Qiq, who 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 bomb maker 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.
FP: How about UNRWA text books and Holocaust denial?
Romirowsky: Recently, in a deliberate exercise of Holocaust denial, any references to the horrors of the Holocaust have been excised from UNRWA's curriculum. This has to do with refusal to let Palestinians children be taught this "lie" created by the Jews.
Furthermore, the underlying message is that according to the Palestinian narrative Israel's creation is considered to be the Naqba – the catastrophe of Israel's existence. Moreover, Palestinian society has adopted Holocaust rhetoric to describe their own state of affairs, saying that there is a "Palestinian Holocaust" administered by Israel. The security fence is seen as a tool to "ghettoize" Palestinians. These are just but a few examples however, denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust is a goal of Palestinian schools. As such, UNRWA, which is mandated to use to the text books of the "host countries" now in the Hamas-mini state in Gaza, follows suit by contributing to the Holocaust denial education that is so pervasive within Palestinian society.
FP: So the U.S. taxpayer has basically been funding terrorists all this time by funding UNRWA right? Tell us some more how this process has worked.
Romirowsky: Yes that is absolutely true. Financially speaking, UNRWA's General Assembly- approved cash budget for 2008 was $541.8 million dollars. And we as US taxpayers fund approximately one-third of UNRWA's annual operating budget. UNRWA provides food, medicine, economic aid, jobs, radical education, political opportunities, and even logistical assistance to Hamas and other Islamist groups. Not to mention, the fact that UNRWA has legitimized Hamas and others by working with them using our tax dollars. There is no doubt that UNRWA has become a conduit for terrorist groups and has lost its integrity as a humanitarian organization.
In addition, UNRWA being one of the largest if not the largest employer of Palestinians does not do any background checks when one applies for a job or ask for past or present terrorist affiliation. As such, one could be a driver or teacher by day employed by UNRWA and by night work with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or any other terrorist group then use the day job to further the terrorist agenda by transporting explosives and suicide bombers with UNRWA vehicles or use the UNRWA school to manufacture the explosives.
FP: How and why has UNRWA got away with this for so long?
Romirowsky: Unfortunately, part of the problem has to do with the Israeli Government itself who believes that as bad as UNRWA is if UNRWA doesn't provide these services it will become Israel's burden. As a general principle, for Israelis the UN at large is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are fully aware of the anti-Israel sentiment that the United Nations perpetuates, but on the other hand they want to be part of it and to have their voices heard.
UNRWA perhaps above all others illustrates the difficulty of the Israeli position on the United Nations. So despite UNRWA's well-documented terrorist ties, Israel prefers not to bear this load. This position produces a situation whereby Israel itself ends up blocking the way to the dismantling of UNRWA. UNRWA, in turn, is a central factor blocking a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue — which is one of the central factors preventing the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the above, when Congressmen like Kirk and Rothman call for initiatives concerning UNRWA they are not always endorsed by the government of Israel. That said, UNRWA is not only an Israeli matter but an American one as we are one of largest contributors to UNRWA we should make sure our monies are not tainted by supporting terrorist groups.
UNRWA in its current configuration is a liability for many reasons. For one, by granting its employees U.N. diplomatic status, it undercuts the organization's accountability. Too many UNRWA workers have abused their diplomatic privilege to engage in or encourage terrorism. TV crews have filmed UNRWA employees escorting armed Palestinian fighters in U.N. vehicles. Agency-operated – and, by extension, America-funded – schools decorate their classrooms with flags and banners celebrating terrorist groups. All this must stop if we ever want to see any kind of change in addition, to calling for accountability as well as checks and balances from those agencies we finance.
FP: What can average citizens do to help stop this madness?
Romirowsky: Without a doubt we need to support initiatives similar to that of Congressmen Kirk and Rothman. Monies that go to organizations like UNRWA through USAID come with strings. Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, clearly state that "all possible measures" must be taken to ensure that no US contributions are used to help refugees who have engaged in acts of terrorism.
If we really care about the well being of Palestinian society there are few things we should strive for. Now that more and more policy-makers and individuals are aware of UNRWA's problems there a few steps we can push for. We need to work towards improving the environment in which Palestinians reside in and work towards the creation of institutions that will foster civil society and promote some element of democratization, all the services UNRWA currently provides to the Palestinians should be handed over to parallel agencies within the UN, who already provide duplicate services for other UN beneficiaries. Gradually weaning Palestinians off UNRWA and moving the inter-dependency from UNRWA to the Palestinian Authority.
A principal policy issue for the United States should be how to aid in mobilizing donors, both public and private, for a financial infusion of aid resources to finance refugee compensation (and resettlement, immigration, and rehabilitation) as well as the permanent status agreement in general. All of this must be done outside the UNRWA framework.
All and all, our tax dollars would be better spent promoting independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth. UNRWA does not work towards a resolution. In fact, the opposite is true. UNRWA perpetuates the problem.
FP: Asaf Romirowsky, thank you for joining us today.