For the last couple of years, UNRWA — U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees — has been repeatedly called upon to defend its mission. Established in 1948 and serving the humanitarian needs of more than 4 million Arab refugees, UNRWA has become a major player in ensuring peace in the Middle East. Now, the agency is being accused of propaganda.
David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency, spoke to the U.N. Correspondents’Association about what he’s seen in UNRWA camps since he began covering them 28 years ago. “This is not an issue of Arabs versus Jews but of a moral code of UNRWA,” he said. “We’re asking more questions than getting answers, and we’ve been asking questions for a while.”
UNRWA manages 59 Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Arlene Kushner, an investigative journalist for the Center for Near East Policy Research, has compiled reports detailing UNRWA’s pro-Palestinian stance.
In one of her pieces she writes of an UNRWA-organized school holding a service to commemorate the death of Mahmud Tavalba, a leader of Islamic jihad, killed weeks earlier by the Israeli Defense Force. Kushner says the agency insists on maintaining high tension in refugee camps. “UNRWA has a whole series of practices such as making people name the hometown villages they left,” she said. “The vast majority of villages they talk about are not there any more.”
The attacks from pro-Israeli parties have forced UNRWA to publicly defend its activities, denying charges such as the use of anti-Semitic textbooks in its schools.
The agency has an annual budget of more than $400 million a year, 30 percent of which comes from the United States.
Saahir Lone Sr., UNRWA liaison officer, said the agency does not support any political ideology. “We’re there to make sure they’re (the refugees) not hungry and that their human development needs are taken care of,” he said.
The establishment of UNRWA precedes the setting up of the United Nations High Commision for Refugees, the organization that handles refugee problems throughout the world, except the Palestinians.
While UNHCR employs workers from all over the world, UNRWA’s staff of 25,000 people is almost exclusively drawn from Palestinians. This disparity in the number of employees is often pointed out by critics of UNRWA.
UNRWA’s Chief Liaison Officer Maher Nasser told United Press International the two organizations had different mandates and hence varying hiring practices. Geneva-based, “UNHCR supports a huge international staff which carries out its mandate all over the world,” Nasser said. “On the other hand, we only have 140 international staff members and hire our teachers, nurses, micro finance workers and others locally.”
Nasser said local hires were essential because they were familiar with the language and culture of the region.
UNRWA has also been criticized for hiring without conducting background checks into its employees. Kushner, for example, said the militant Islamic group Hamas has a strong influence in Gaza in employee unions, especially among teachers. Hamas is fielding candidates in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.
“We have a very serious problem here,” she said. “There have been instances of Hamas rallies on the school grounds of UNRWA schools.”
But Nasser denies this. “When we hire someone we request them to provide references and then we conduct background checks to ensure the validity of the information,” he said. UNRWA staffers knew that under U.N. laws they were forbidden from taking part in any political activities.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is a strong advocate for elimination of UNRWA as a separate entity under U.N. Reform Act of 2005. Recently, in light of the charges levied against UNRWA, Ros-Lehtinen and others have started calling for an integration of the two U.N. refugee agencies.
“It is time for UNRWA’s separate status to be rescinded, and for UNRWA to be integrated into UNHCR, Gaza first,” she wrote in an October 9 op-ed in the Israel Resource Review.
Nasser said such a move may prove disastrous. “We already have an infrastructure that is seen as a major source of stability in the region,” he said. “Refugees have developed confidence in our mission and familiarity with our activities. Any attempt to do away with UNRWA will be seen by Palestinians as an attempt to undermine their status as refugees.”
Nasser said an elimination of UNRWA could have political implications.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari Monday came to the organization’s aid, saying continued support of humanitarian programs for Palestinian refugees is vital to maintaining stability in the region.