(This article appeared as an oped in the Jerusalem Post of October 28th, 2005)
As the United Nations celebrated its 60th anniversary this fall with a dramatic World Summit, supposedly sweeping reform proposals sought to remove the cloud of corruption and mismanagement surrounding the organization. Unfortunately, the proposed reforms do not really address the UN’s most egregious fault: placing politics before humanitarian goals.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the case of UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated solely to caring for Palestinian Arab refugees. Palestinian refugees – singularly among all refugee groups – enjoy the support of their very own UN agency: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency. All other refugee groups receive assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Since 1951, UNHCR has worked within the regulations of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to find long-term, “durable” solutions to refugee crises. Through legal protection and emergency relief, UNHCR has successfully helped more than 25 million people restart their lives.
For Palestinian refugees, however, no durable solution has been found in the 50-plus years since their problems began. Originally numbering between 500,000 and 750,000, Palestinian refugees now number more than 4 million, most of whom live in or near one of 59 camps in five countries. Their plight’s implications extend far: The Palestinian refugee problem stands squarely in the way of achieving peace in the Middle East.
Understanding the unique phenomenon of Palestinian refugees, however, requires first understanding just how anomalous the institution designed to assist them is.
UNRWA WAS established by General Assembly Resolution 302 in December 1949. From the outset, the agency had an extraordinary degree of autonomy, largely due to pressure from the UN’s Arab bloc. It was thus free to set its own definitions and guidelines – which were markedly different from those of UNHCR.
For example, UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “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.”
By contrast, the UNHCR definition – recognized as the international norm – describes a refugee as someone who “is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.”
By emphasizing “country of nationality or habitual residence,” UNHCR clearly intends to exclude the transients embraced by UNRWA’s definition – people who had only recently arrived in Palestine from neighboring Arab countries in search of work. Moreover, while UNHCR seeks to prevent expansion of its definition in ways that would encourage its improper use for political ends, UNRWA has done just the opposite: Not only has it declined to remove the status of refugee from people who no longer fit the original description, such as the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians granted full citizenship by Jordan, but it indefinitely confers refugee status on refugees’ descendants.
By expanding its already problematic refugee definition, UNRWA guarantees that the problem will remain ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening. For some Arab leaders this may be precisely the aim: So long as the Palestinian refugee problem is visible and acute, Israel remains a convenient scapegoat on which the region’s ills can be blamed.
Such differing definitions, unsurprisingly, lead to divergent policies. Indeed, by refusing to consider any resolution other than that demanded by the Arab world – the “right of return” to Israel – UNRWA has effectively denied Palestinian refugees an end to their unwanted status, the very goal UNHCR takes as its raison d’etre with regard to the refugees that fall within its mandate.
OUTSIDE THE Arab world, it is widely accepted among the international community that an influx of over four million Palestinian refugees into Israel is neither a realistic nor an acceptable goal. Given this, it is remarkable that Palestinian Arab refugees have never been offered a means of resettlement.
With the notable exception of Jordan, the Arab world has denied citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, many of whom have been born and raised in these countries. UNRWA itself has never promoted resettlement, nor pressured Arab countries into meeting their responsibilities toward these refugees.
Instead, UNRWA has followed a policy of reinforcing refugees’ collective attachments to their places of origin. A flagrant example of this policy is the manner in which UNRWA has thwarted offers to Palestinian refugees of permanent housing outside refugee camps.
In 1985, for example, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units near Nablus – without demanding that they relinquish the “right of return.” Yet the UN intervened, asserting 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.”
OF ALL UNRWA’s problems, however, the most serious is links to Palestinian terror. According to a 2003 report by the US General Accounting Office, for example, UNRWA employees were arrested and convicted by Israeli military courts of throwing firebombs at an Israeli public bus, possessing bomb-making materials, and transferring chemicals to assist in bomb-making. Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold saw shahid (martyr) posters in the homes of UNRWA workers during a visit to Jenin in April 2002.
“It was clear,” he said in a December 2003 interview, “that UNRWA workers were doubling as Hamas operatives.”
This should hardly have come as a surprise. As PA Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib remarked in February 2002, every young man in UNRWA’s Balata refugee camp had his own personal weapon because the local steering committee – an official UNRWA body – voted that charitable donations would be used for guns rather than food or other relief.
Whether UNRWA is afraid to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps, or whether it has become so entrenched in the terrorist infrastructure as to be effectively indistinguishable from it, the evidence is clear that an agency mandated to serve a humanitarian purpose has been drafted to further a militant political agenda.
The UN Refugee Convention established international standards with respect to refugees. In its deviation from these it is clear that UNRWA is not only unhelpful to the Palestinian refugee issue, but actually detrimental. Those nations interested in finding a genuine, viable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, a sine qua non for peace in the Middle East, should be encouraged to work toward the termination of UNRWA’s mandate and, in its stead, the application of UNHCR policies to the Palestinian refugee issue.
The writer, a Jerusalem-based journalist, has written four reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Policy Research.
A longer version of this essay appears in the current issue of Azure (www.azure.org.il ).