In recent weeks the Weekly Standard has published a number of articles concerning the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). These have contained a large number of serious inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Among these articles were David Tell’s The U.N.’s Israel Problem (May 6) and Charles Krauthammer’s Kofi’s Choice and Dov B. Fischer’s The Overseers of Jenin (May 13). Please allow me to set the record straight.

  1. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes during the war of 1948, pending a political solution to their problem. (Unlike the Jews who fled from Arab countries in the same period–and the Muslims who fled India in 1947–the Palestinian refugees had no state of their own to go to.) This role is quite different from the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is mainly to ensure that states fulfill their obligations to protect refugees and asylum-seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
  2. Israel specifically requested that UNRWA continue to play its role in the occupied territory after 1967, and since then has frequently repeated that it considers UNRWA’s humanitarian work a major factor for stability in the region. This is because UNRWA, far from keeping the refugees in a state of dependency as your writers have claimed, has given them health and educational indicators that compare very well with those in the region, and have thereby enabled the vast majority to support themselves and their families. UNRWA’s micro-finance lending and other similar programs have won awards for helping refugees to help themselves out of poverty.
  3. UNRWA does not “wholly fund” or “largely administer” Jenin or any other refugee camp. It simply provides services to refugees, some of whom live in “camps,” the majority of whom, in the West Bank, do not. The so-called “camps” are in fact urban ghettos without any clear perimeter or central administration. Enforcement of law and order in them is the responsibility of the civil power–which, in the West Bank and Gaza between 1967 and 1994, was the Israeli government. In the latter year, under the Oslo accords, the camps in “Area A” (including Jenin) were transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
  4. Likewise, it is the civil power that approves the textbooks and curriculum used in schools, including those run by UNRWA. Under the Israeli administration, the textbooks were old Jordanian ones, dating from before 1967. Since 1994, the PA has been replacing these with new ones which, according to a study by Prof. Nathan Brown of the George Washington University, published in November 2001, “make no mention of any location as Palestine outside the territories occupied by Israel in 1967,” and “go to some lengths to avoid saying anything about Israel at all,” the few exceptions being “hardly pejorative.” Israeli academics have confirmed Prof. Brown’s findings, and the Israeli representative to the United Nations has praised UNRWA’s own initiatives towards promoting tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution in its schools.
  5. UNRWA is scrupulous about protecting its installations against misuse by any person or group. Only once, in Lebanon in 1982, has there been credible evidence of such misuse by Palestinians, and it was promptly dealt with. Since then the Israeli authorities have made no specific allegations about abuse of UNRWA facilities. Nor have they lodged any complaint with UNRWA about the official or private activities of any UNRWA staff member–though they have arrested hundreds of them, and in each case UNRWA immediately writes asking for information about the grounds for the arrest.
  6. UNRWA employees stand for election to the staff union on their own merits (not on political slates), and UNRWA strictly enforces the rules which oblige employees to behave with integrity and impartiality in their official functions.
  7. UNRWA has never hired buses to take refugees on tours of Israel.
  8. The Weekly Standard’s characterization of Peter Hansen, UNRWA’s Commissioner General as an anti-Semitic “peasant-in-chief” is pure slander and an insult to the intelligence of the magazine’s readership. When Hansen spoke about bodies “piling up,” he was referring to overflowing morgues he had seen with his own eyes. The mass graves he described were created outside Ramallah Hospital by medical staff and were filmed by the international media, as were the IDF helicopter attacks on Jenin camp and other civilian areas. Peter Hansen’s honest, humanitarian response to questions from an interviewer hardly merits the character assassination to which The Weekly Standard has stooped.

    Paul McCann
    Chief, Public Information Office
    UNRWA Headquarters Gaza

    David Tell responds: Should The Weekly Standard remain a going concern for another hundred years, it is almost inconceivable that we will ever again have occasion to publish anything nearly so dishonest as the letter above.

    With his first two complaints–directed against Dov B. Fischer’s capsule history of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (“The Overseers of Jenin,” May 13)–that organization’s top spokesman establishes a position too patently absurd to waste much ink on. UNRWA, he writes, cannot be held to the slightest degree responsible for the immiseration of those Palestinian refugees it has housed, fed, taught, doctored, and employed for the past 53 years. This, no less, because Palestinian refugees, flush with UNRWA’s award-winning “micro-financing lending” and whatnot, aren’t actually miserable at all. It’s quite possible that Mr. McCann is the only human being on Earth who even pretends to believe such a thing; graphic evidence of abject squalor in UNRWA installations has been a regular feature of international television broadcasts for decades, after all. At very least, McCann’s claim should prove surprising news indeed to his colleagues in UNRWA’s Department of External Relations, which is at this very moment conducting a “Fourth Emergency Appeal” for donations–on grounds that West Bank and Gaza refugees face a “stark and uncertain future,” fully half of them having fallen into poverty.

    Mr. McCann next turns his attention to my own recent editorial charging, among other things, that UNRWA must be considered complicit in Palestinian terrorism launched from within its compounds (“The U.N.’s Israel Obsession,” May 6). That a U.N. official should decline to acknowledge the existence of such terrorism is unremarkable. That UNRWA should effectively deny the existence of its own refugee camps, however, is something else altogether. His agency neither funds, administers, nor exercises police authority in “Jenin or any other refugee camp,” McCann insists. Instead, UNRWA merely extends “services” to Palestinians who live in “urban ghettos without any clear perimeter or central administration.”

    Here again, Mr. McCann has conveniently ignored what UNRWA itself, in every other circumstance, routinely describes as its mission. These purportedly indistinct neighborhoods McCann now airily dismisses as “so-called ‘camps'” are called precisely that on UNRWA’s website, for example: “official camps” and “recognized refugee camps,” each of which the agency specifically identifies down to the exact number of quarter-acre section dunums it comprises. A “camp,” according to the “working definition” McCann’s front-office superiors have formally adopted and publicized, “is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government for accommodating Palestine refugees and for setting up facilities to cater to their needs.”

    True enough, the provisioning of hooligans to impose “law and order” on the streets of its camps is no longer among the catering services UNRWA offers; Palestinian Authority “policemen,” whose salaries the agency previously paid, now perform their lynchings on someone else’s dime. But it is also true, such technicalities aside, that a series of Security Council resolutions still in force oblige relevant U.N. representatives to take “appropriate steps to help create a secure environment” in all “situations where refugees [are]… vulnerable to infiltration by armed elements.” Mr. McCann’s letter explicitly defies this mandate. Only when the “armed elements” in question are Israeli, it would seem, does UNRWA become energetically “scrupulous” about protecting “its installations” from taint by violence.

    McCann’s account of the history of Palestinian schoolbook publishing is a farce. Israel’s U.N. ambassador will no doubt be astonished to find his name invoked on its behalf. Professor Nathan Brown, on the other hand, clearly intends that his November 2001 “study” be put to such use; those passages in the document to which McCann here refers neatly complement the standard apologetics issued by Yasser Arafat’s Ministry of Education. Trouble is, though they have concealed by omission all the genuinely essential facts of the case, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Professor Brown nor Mr. McCann has ever bothered to dispute those facts. Which are as follows:

    From 1969 through most of 1995, while West Bank and Gaza schools were being administered by Israel, teachers and students employed Jordanian (and Egyptian) curricular material that had been cleansed of inflammatory political and racial content under a system sponsored by UNESCO. In October 1995, following the transfer of educational responsibilities required by the Oslo accords, UNESCO abrogated this system at the request of the Arab League, and the Palestinian Authority then immediately restored unexpurgated versions of the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks to its classrooms. It is beyond serious dispute that these books, still widely in use, are violently anti-Semitic and shot-through with exhortations to “martyrdom” in the war against “Zionist oppression.” For that matter, Prof. Nathan Brown to the contrary notwithstanding, it is beyond serious dispute that the newer, PA-commissioned textbooks gradually being introduced in UNRWA schools are… violently anti-Semitic and shot-through with exhortations to “martyrdom” in the war against “Zionist oppression”–as UNWRA has itself previously admitted.

    In 1998, directed to do so by Rep. Peter Deutsch and other concerned congressional appropriators, the U.S. State Department formally requested that UNRWA conduct an internal investigation of allegations that PA-generated curricular materials were infected with hatred of Jews. In response, UNRWA tried mightily to whitewash the problem. One of the books in question, for instance, turned out to include such evocative lessons as this: “Treachery and disloyalty are character traits of the Jews and one should beware of them”; UNRWA’s researchers advised the State Department that the phrase could not fairly be considered offensive because it described actual “historical events.” Nevertheless, certain aspects of the Palestinian curriculum proved too much even for U.N. functionaries to swallow. In January 1999, the State Department reported to Congress that “UNRWA’s review did reveal instances of anti-Semitic characterizations and content in these host-authority texts.”

    The PA’s education ministry, incidentally, freely acknowledges that it “has not mentioned Israel borders on maps” in those texts. The books have never been revised or withdrawn. And various reports posted on UNRWA’s website boast about the fact that “UNRWA staff participated in the design and development of the Palestinian curriculum.”

    More than a thousand Israelis are dead as a consequence of hundreds of terrorist attacks originating in UNRWA refugee camps since 1982, but still Paul McCann has the gall to contend that not once in that 20-year period has there been “credible evidence” that Palestinians have “misused” his agency’s facilities. Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli army’s most recent anti-terrorist sweep through those facilities, has just produced an enormous cache of hard evidence that UNRWA refugee camps are riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, and suicide-bombing cells. Prime Minister Sharon’s office has just in the past few weeks asked the U.N. to “break the bond of silence regarding the misuse of the refugee camps,” and Israel’s U.N. ambassador has pleaded for the General Assembly, at minimum, to repudiate “the use of a U.N.-administered camp as a center for terrorist activity.” But still Paul McCann is unimpressed. He has yet to see any sufficiently “specific allegations.”

    I have no idea what information appears on the printed ballots used in leadership elections for UNRWA’s employees unions. But news accounts of those elections dating back at least 10 years–in both the local Arabic press and the international media–report the results exclusively in terms of political affiliation: this many seats for Hamas, that many for Islamic Jihad, and so forth. It cannot be a secret to UNRWA headquarters that many of its staff members are sympathizers or actual members of terrorist organizations. They are hardly shy about it. Last July, in the presence of dozens of journalists, the junior high school in UNRWA’s Jabalya refugee camp hosted an open-air conference at which Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin urged hundreds of students to martyrdom–only to be followed on stage by one Saheil Alhinadi, officially representing UNRWA’s teachers’ union, who led the crowd in a hymn of praise to suicide bombers.

    “UNRWA has never hired buses to take refugees on tours of Israel,” Mr. McCann tells us. I’m not sure what this business about who “hired” the buses is supposed to prove. What it cannot disprove, in any case, is the point I was trying to make by mentioning the phenomenon in the first place: that UNRWA actively and unapologetically abets and sustains the basic engine of Palestinian terrorism, the irredentist fantasy that refugee-camp residents will someday realize their “right of return” to property within Israel long ago “stolen” by “the Jews.” Every year, during the May anniversary of Al-Nakba, what the Palestinians call the “disaster” of Israel’s Independence Day, UNRWA-financed projects like the Union of Youth Activities Centers sponsor gigantic “right of return” rallies throughout the West Bank and Gaza. From which rallies, the state of the intifada permitting, buses then take refugees on tours of “their” Israeli villages. A first-person diary of one such trip is prominently featured on the Dheisheh refugee camp website. News footage of another such trip has been broadcast by the BBC World Service. Yet another such trip has been recorded for posterity in a video documentary nominated for one of this year’s Academy Awards. Paul McCann protests too little.

    A final word about Mr. McCann’s boss, UNRWA commissioner-general Peter Hansen. No man has done more to circulate lurid fictions about an Israeli mass murder of unarmed civilians in the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp–or done it with greater relish–than Peter Hansen. As Paul McCann reminds us, Hansen once spoke of bodies “piling up” in Ramallah Hospital, site of an entirely separate, and equally fanciful, Israeli “atrocity.” But Hansen has otherwise devoted the bulk of his imaginative energies to Jenin. The official transcript admits of no other interpretation: His reference to “incidences of mass graves,” during an April 5 teleconference from UNRWA’s Jerusalem office, involved not Ramallah but Jenin. Ditto for Hansen’s report, to the Reuters news agency, that “armed activists who were there obviously slipped away before the Israelis moved in–so the exercise of force was mainly vis-a-vis the civilian population.” Ditto for Hansen’s April 7 announcement that “helicopters are strafing civilian areas,” something that simply never happened, though McCann now bizarrely suggests there is film of it.

    Claiming to have “seen the reality with my own eyes”.

This article ran in the June 3, 2002 issue of The Weeky Standard, a Washington based publication.