Critics accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the Palestinian Arab refugee problem and abetting terror. Israeli officials say everyone would be much worse off without it. Has the 50-year-old mission gone right or wrong?

The vanished buildings of the now-notorious 200 square meters at the center of the Jenin refugee camp, flattened to rubble by Israeli bulldozers at the end of a tough battle in April against dozens of Palestinian gunmen of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah Tanzim, are set to rise again. Any day now Peter Hansen, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), will sign an agreement with the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society for $30 million in emergency aid to rebuild the 100 or so destroyed homes.

Along with UNRWA’s obvious obligation to help the largely hapless refugee families who lost their decades-old “temporary dwellings,” there’s a double irony in the fact that the agency is busy with the reconstruction in the area Israeli officials have described as a “hornet’s nest” of terror. For the U.N.-mandated agency, which has provided humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees in the Near East for the past 52 years, primarily in the areas of education, health and social services, has been placed under unprecedented scrutiny of late.

Its critics in Israel, in Jewish and Zionist organizations and among an increasing number of lawmakers abroad, argue that UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem by maintaining a “camp culture” and feeding refugees’ expectation that one day they may return to their original homes. And they ask, incredulously, how civilian camps such as Jenin, which are being serviced by the agency, could have turned into nests of militancy and launching pads for terror under the nose of UNRWA’s vast staff and without so much as a squeak from the U.N.

Irwin Cotler, a Canadian Jewish member of parliament and professor of international human rights law, has long had qualms about whether UNRWA hasn’t become “part of the problem rather than the solution.” Now, he tells The Jerusalem Report during a recent visit to Jerusalem, “the emerging allegations appear to suggest that UNRWA allows the camps to be used as a sanctuary for terror and for incitement.”

Among other things, Cotler points to phenomena such as the “glorification of suicide martyrs as poster boys” in the schools and giving armed elements free rein of the camps. Those, he says, are clear violations of the U.N.’s own conventions regarding both the need to maintain the civilian nature of refugee camps and counterterrorism. The Security Council’s 12-point anti-terror convention of last year, he notes, requires all U.N. parties to report back any relevant information.

UNRWA, he goes on, “has neither done anything to prevent, nor has reported any of the above. So one begins to infer that it may be complicit in incitement and terror.”

Among Cotler’s file of documents, Security Council resolutions and press cuttings about UNRWA is the letter sent to Secretary General Kofi Annan by U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee in May

According to David Bedein, head of the Jerusalem-based Israel Resource News Agency who has been researching UNRWA operations for the past 15 years, these letters constitute the first serious challenge to the agency’s mandate since 1958. Then, Israeli ambassador Abba Eban made a statement at the U.N. on the Arab refugees in which he argued that the problem had been “artificially maintained for political motives against all the economic, social and cultural forces which, had they been allowed free play, would have brought about a solution.”

Bedein and others now hope that questions about UNRWA will be raised not only in Washington and Ottawa, but in every European capital as well.

Lantos’s May 2002 letter echoes something of Eban’s frustration. As well as addressing the “ongoing exploitation for terrorist purposes of Palestinian refugee camps administered by UNRWA,” he also voices his “deep concern that UNRWA is perpetuating, rather than ameliorating, the situation of Palestinian refugees.”

The Jenin camp alone, he notes, produced 23 suicide bombers that killed 57 Israelis. He cites a Security Council resolution that calls upon the secretary general to report to the Security Council situations where “camps are vulnerable to infiltration by armed elements.” And he cites Kofi Annan’s own report to the Council of April 1998 concerning violence in Africa, when the secretary general urged that refugee camps “be kept free of any military presence or equipment, including arms and ammunition.”

Lantos states that he is “frankly baffled as to why, more than 50 years after the founding of the State of Israel, there continues to exist a U.N. agency focused solely on Palestinian refugees,” while all other refugee situations have been adopted by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

The Lantos letter came in the wake of lobbying by Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Israel lobby in Washington. The battle in Jenin, and the extent of the terrorist infrastructure revealed in the camps by Israel;s Operation Defensive Shield last spring, acted as the catalyst.

Although Israel has been taking a back seat in the campaign, Alan Baker, the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, reportedly raised similar concerns to Lantos’s with U.S. officials and members of Congress during a visit to Washington in June.

The Lantos letter contained a number of inaccuracies. It stated that UNRWA’s mandate was up for renewal on June 30, though in fact it had been renewed last December through to June 2005. And it repeated AIPAC’s figure of 23 suicide bombers from the Jenin camp. UNRWA officials counter that the 23 came from the Jenin governerate, which includes the camp, the town and the surrounding villages. The Israeli government speaks of 23 suicide bombers “from Jenin.”

Nevertheless, with Lantos pressing for hearings in the House committee and with the allocation of U.S. funding to UNRWA coming up for annual approval, possibly in September, the stirrings in Congress are certainly not being dismissed. Senior UNRWA officials are concerned that funding could be cut or made conditional. UNRWA receives between a quarter and a third of its annual budget — which stood at $310 million in 2001 — from the U.S.

Annan’s reply to Lantos explains that “the United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory.” Rather, since the Oslo agreements, that responsibility lies with Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Of the 27 camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 20 sit in PA-controlled areas, and 7 in areas where Israel has overall security control.

Annan says the U.N. has frequently called on the PA to do more to fight terror. Furthermore, alarmed by the human toll on both sides, he writes, he suggested in April that an armed multinational force be established in the area — something that Israel would vehemently oppose.

Hansen, in his clarifications attached to Annan’s letter, stresses that UNRWA, a humanitarian organization, has no mandate to administer or police the camps, and as such has no “police force, no intelligenceapparatus and no mandate to report on political and military activities.”

And he takes strong issue with charges that UNRWA creates dependency. In normal times, he writes, only 5.7 percent of the refugees receive food or other direct assistance from the agency. And UNRWA has awarded over 49,000 loans to budding refugee entrepreneurs over the past 10 years, amounting to over $69 million. Today, less than one-third of the 3.9 million Palestinian UNRWA-registered refugees live in the camps around the Middle East, though all are entitled to use UNRWA’s facilities.

UNRWA was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949 with a temporary mandate to provide basic humanitarian and social services to the refugees until a political solution could be found. Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestinian refugees are people 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. Their descendants are also classed as refugees, and as such, the register has grown from 914,000 refugees in 1950 to close to 4 million.

There are 59 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. In Jordan, the government extended citizenship to all refugees in the country, who now number over 1.6 million. In the West Bank and Gaza, over 600,000 of the 1.5 million refugees live in camps.

The UNRWA tents of the early 1950s turned into cement-block dwellings. Some have now grown into rickety-looking three-story homes. With the arrival of the PA in the mid-1990s, Paltel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, introduced phone lines into the West Bank and Gaza camps for the first time. Foreign donor aid was used to modernize sewage systems.

UNRWA schools have a reputation for excellence. The UNRWA mandate stipulates that its schools teach the same curriculum as ordinary schools in the “host” areas or countries, so students can qualify to go on to university. UNRWA says it provides extracurricular enrichment that “focuses on peace education, human rights, tolerance and conflict resolution.”

Along with its international staff, UNRWA employs some 18,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, making it the largest employer in the field after the PA.

All of which begs the question why many suicide bombers did come out of the Jenin camp — and why terrorists and armed militiamen have been able to turn other West Bank and Gaza camps into refuges of their own, where PA police often fear to tread.

Cotler acknowledges that UNRWA “may not be wrong in ascribing responsibility to the host countries.” But it cannot exonerate itself, he says, as an agency of the U.N., which has set forth principles of conduct in its Security Council resolutions. All this, he fumes, is “taking place on UNRWA’s watch. They may have no police, but they have a responsibility to report to the U.N. that ‘we are unable to implement the mandate to which we are charged, or to fulfill international humanitarian law. Instead, Cotler asserts, UNRWA is displaying a “willful blindness to what’s going on. And that’s being charitable, because this appears to be complicity.”

UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd pleads innocent. “We just don’t see anything like this,” she tells The Report, speaking from UNRWA headquarters in Gaza. “These things are not visible to us.” She says her staff files daily reports on events in the camps to the security office in New York — about a bomb that goes off here, or a casualty there — but what the security office does with that information she doesn’t know.

What AbuZayd does know is that UNRWA staffers are operating within a very grim reality. Expelling armed men from the camps would be “difficult in this region,” she says, with obvious understatement, though they are not allowed in the clinics and schools. When it comes to the posters and shrines to the suicide bombers that TV cameras have shown in the schools, she says, “We have to take the safety of our staff into account too. If we were to ask our staff to do certain things, we realize that would get them into big trouble. And if they didn’t do them, would we take action against them?” As things stand, the local staff is not required to report on such activities.

She adds that U.N. resolutions about keeping armed elements out of the camps, haven’t been applied elsewhere. “Think of the Somali or Afghan camps. People just look the other way.” And here, she says, everything is “upside down. The refugees are the armed elements.”

UNRWA did complain to the PA once when its police tried to use a school in Gaza after hours for meetings. “The PA police are not allowed in our facilities,” she says.

In Minister Dani Naveh’s March 2002 special report for the Israeli government on “Inciting and Educating Children Towards Hate, Anti-Semitism, and Violence in the Palestinian Authority,” there is one documented case from July 2001 where Saheil Alhinadi, an UNRWA teachers representative, praised suicide bombers at a Hamas rally at the Jabalya camp in Gaza. AbuZayd says this case was only recently brought to the agency’s attention by AIPAC, and that UNRWA is investigating. According to AbuZayd, the agency still lacks evidence. For now, Alhinadi remains on staff.

But AbuZayd suggests that it is ridiculous to blame UNRWA for all the ills in the camps. Incitement, she argues, comes principally from TV and the mosque sermons that all Palestinians are exposed to.

“We certainly do our best. If we weren’t there, things would be much, much worse. The children would not have access to the extracurricular activities we provide. It would be dreadful to think.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Israeli officials agree. Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem say that “so long as UNRWA is here, Israel supports its mandate, its work and its goals. It is very important, specifically at this time, to have assistance for the Palestinian refugees whose situation is very difficult.”

Still, Israel has complaints about the agency at the operational level, and protests against what it sees as an increasingly anti-Israeli flavor in the statements Peter Hansen has been making to the press. After the Jenin battle, sources say, he was quoted in the Scandinavian press accusing Israel of having carried out a “massacre.” Moreover, Israeli diplomats say, in its annual reports to the General Assembly, UNRWA consistently ignores the fact that the camps are breeding grounds for terror and that the PA police do nothing to stop it.

Officials admit there is sometimes a problem providing UNRWA with evidence of claims against the organization’s staff because much of it is classified. But they add that when they have offered material, the UNRWA staffers don’t always want it.

Israeli diplomats feel that UNRWA, which has a budget problem, is “demonizing” Israel to garner donor sympathy. “We don’t want countries not to donate,” they say, “but it shouldn’t be at our expense.”

Israel seems to have little interest in Congress cutting UNRWA funds. “If UNRWA wasn’t doing what it does, Israel would be in a worse situation, and the refugees would be worse off too,” says an official in Jerusalem. “We agree with a lot of what Lantos wrote,” he goes on. “On the one hand, we want to see reform in UNRWA. But we don’t want the baby thrown out with the bath water. We have no interest in harming UNRWA’s ability to work.”

To Israeli anti-UNRWA campaigner David Bedein, that smacks of expediency over morality. Israel, he states cynically, has benefited for years from cheap labor, with workers subsidized by UNRWA willing to work for a third of the normal rate.

A Lantos staffer told The Report from Washington that the questioning of UNRWA is ongoing. “We are interested in holding hearings on the subject. Many questions remain unanswered,” he went on. “The purpose of UNRWA in the camps, particularly in the Palestinian territories, is still something we want to look into.”

It is still too early to say whether Lantos will seek a reduction in funding to UNRWA, or for funds to be made conditional, “but I wouldn’t rule it out,” said the staffer. Asked about Israel’s desire to see UNRWA’s work continue unhindered, the staffer said, “We’re aware of that. That’s why we aren’t jumping to conclusions.”

Nevertheless, on the international agenda for the first time is the very question of UNRWA’s continued existence. Many critics argue that the Palestinian refugees should come under the aegis of the UNHCR, established in 1951 initially to deal with European refugees of World War II. Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem call that “a whole other discussion” — one they don’t seem overeager to engage in right now.

Some experts argue that Israel would be better off with the UNHCR, whose mandate is more oriented toward finding permanent solutions for refugees than pure maintenance. UNHCR aspires to offer refugees three options: resettlement in host countries, relocation to a third country or repatriation. UNRWA officials argue that in the Palestinian case, these options have not so far applied with the first two rejected by the refugees, and the third by Israel.

Some experts also argue that under the UNHCR terms of refugee status, the number of Palestinian refugees would significantly drop, since those living within PA areas, or those with Jordanian citizenship would be considered “resettled.”

But Karen AbuZayd, who came to UNRWA after years at UNHCR, says nothing would change in the Palestinians refugee status. On the contrary, she says, the numbers could even rise as the UNHCR doesn’t have as strict a definition as UNRWA regarding the 1946-1948 place of residence. All refugees’ children are refugees, she adds. Ironically, AbuZayd arrived in Gaza in August 2000 because her bosses thought that her UNHCR-acquired expertise in permanent settlement for refugees would be needed as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process progressed. “Now I’m doing emergency relief,” she remarks wryly.

Whether the Palestinians fall under the aegis of UNRWA or the UNHCR, she says, there has to be a political solution to the root cause of the refugee problem before there can be moves to implement resettlement. The refugees in Jordan, she says, “have in a sense opted temporarily for local resettlement,” by taking citizenship. And if local resettlement basically means becoming self-sufficient, then the majority of Palestinian refugees would fall in that category, she says. But eventually, once the root problem is solved, those refugees should have the choice, she suggests, whether to remain with local integration, or, say, to go to Canada.

Officials in Jerusalem, for their part, are split on whether it would be best to stick with UNRWA or opt for UNHCR, seeing advantages and disadvantages in both.

In the meantime, UNRWA will work to rebuild the destroyed houses of the Jenin camp. A roomier piece of land adjacent to the camp had been offered, says AbuZayd, but the refugees turned it down.

“They families didn’t want to move out of the camp,” she says. For them, at least until further notice, it has become home.

This article ran in the August 2002 issue of the Jerusalem Report