Canada plays a unique and almost unreported crucial role in the Middle East Peace Process – holding the gavel of the RWG, the “refugee working group”, which oversees the work of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is in charge of 57 Palestinian Arab refugee camps that have been operating “temporarily” since 1949 under the premise and promise that Arab refugees from the 1948 war will be able to return to homes and villages, even though they no longer exist.
On November 1st, a little more than two weeks from now, the UN will debate the role that UNRWA will continue to play. Canada, as chair of the RWG, will again be empowered to act on the basis of that UN debate.
While UNRWA self-identifies as a humanitarian (‘relief and human development”) agency, on the record it is clear that it is deeply involved in political matters-most specifically direct support for “right of return”-and has been from its genesis.
UNRWA has drawn on a small portion of the phrasing within its mandate to justify practices and policies that are actively pro-“right of return”:
UNRWA was established by UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV), which assigns to the new agency the sole task of “carrying out direct relief and works programs” for the Palestinian Arab refugees. The resolution, however, also affirms “in particular the provisions of paragraph 11” of GA Resolution 194. This is the oft-cited phrase, “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date…,” upon which the notion of “right of return” has been built.
Were UNRWA purely humanitarian in its function, it would be providing services to the refugees while allowing others concerned with the politics of the situation to resolve the matter of return as versus resettlement. In fact, at least in recent years, UNRWA administrators tend to give lip service to this position, saying that the issue it not one for UNRWA to determine but a matter of negotiations. An examination of UNRWA practices and policies, however, exposes quite a different actively pro-“right” stance on the part of UNRWA.
1) UNRWA has worked consistently to block permanent settlement of the refugees. For example, an Israeli Department for the Rehabilitation of the Refugees, which was part of Israel’s Civil Administration in Gaza, attempted prior to 1985 to resettle thousands of refugees in permanent homes inside of Gaza, paying for the building of small houses. UNRWA responded by protesting vigorously, telling the refugees in terms that were threatening that they were about to lose their rights as refugees to return. In point of fact, Israel did not require that refugees surrender any rights, but merely destroy the shacks they had been living in on moving out. Were UNRWA’s primary concern one of seeing that the human needs of the refugees were met, this would not have been its stance; the homes being offered by Israel were far superior to the huts the refugees were living in.
2) UNRWA’s definition of refugee-which it has the autonomy to determine for its population-is not only outside of the international norm for refugee definition, it has parameters that are determined by considerations of “right of return.” All other refugees in the world are considered no longer refugees once they acquire new citizenship and the protection that affords. This is not the case with Palestinian Arab refugees, who, according to UNRWA, remain refugees until such time as they return to the homes in Israel they left in 1948. This is most notably the case with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have become full citizens of Jordan but who are still considered refugees by UNRWA. There is no rationale for doing this except to maintain rolls that will facilitate allowing all those who originally fled from Israel to return there.
UNRWA policy fosters in the Palestinian Arab refugees a continuing awareness of the places from which they, their parents or grandparents fled:
When UNRWA established its camps, streets and neighborhoods were named after villages left behind. This continues to provide refugees with constant visible reminders of the places from which they had come.
UNRWA has, additionally, permitted programs to be run that reinforce this same awareness.
In 2000, busloads of Palestinian Arab refugees from the camp of Dheisheh were brought to see the homes they left in Jerusalem in 1948. The BBC documented these tours, indicating that they were going on during the summer with the cooperation of UNRWA.
In 2001, the Higher Committee for the Return of Refugees was permitted by UNRWA to come into their schools in order to sharpen the awareness of the students regarding “the predicament of refugees. The program concentrated on introducing students to the issue of refugees and “bolstering their sense of belonging to the homeland.” The Committee worked on producing notebooks for the children that would include in the personal information box “a line reserved for the hometown (sic) of the student.” The “homeland” referred to here very clearly is Israel within the Green Line; the “hometowns” are the original Arab villages left behind in 1948, the great majority of which have been replaced by Israeli cities and farms-places where these students have never been. None of this remotely has anything to do with providing humanitarian services to the refugees.
UNRWA record-keeping serves purposes that extend beyond the humanitarian:
Official UNRWA Identity Cards include a five-digit code of origin in “pre-1948 Palestine.” According to BADIL, an NGO working on behalf of right of return, “the village structure, as it existed prior to the 1948 war, has thus been preserved by virtue of the registration system… This information would help identify and provide a profile of those refugees wishing to repatriate according to village unit.”
Attached to family registration cards in the UNRWA files are extensive documents containing information about property left behind over 55 years ago. UNRWA is currently involved in the “Palestine Refugee Records Project,” operating out of the Jordan Field Office of UNRWA. The goal of this project, which is in process and expected to be completed in 2006, is the digital scanning of all of these documents in order to preserve them and make them readily accessible. According to UNRWA itself, this will “allow for the preservation of a unique historical archive.”
None of this is remotely concerned with immediate issues of relief, education and health care for the refugees. What is more, while UNRWA speaks of deficits with regard to its ability to provide necessary humanitarian services, it does fundraising for the “Palestine Refugee Records Project,” and as of mid-2004 had confirmed international pledges of $6.7 million.
UNRWA claims in its material and on its website that its definition of refugee-and by extension the rolls it maintains of those fitting the definition-is operational. However, a careful look at the current definition makes it clear that this is not the case.
When founded, UNRWA included in its definition of refugee a person who “took refuge in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief.” In 1994, this phrase was dropped and persons disqualified previously were added to the list. Ingrid Bassner Jaradat, Director of BADIL, has explained that this change was implemented with the expectation that UNRWA’s registration would one day serve as a major resource for determining refugee status.
In a host of other more peripheral, but not unimportant, ways, UNRWA is associated with promotion of “right of return.”
UNRWA uses in its schools in the West Bank and Gaza textbooks that promote “right of return.” UNRWA claims deniability-as these are Palestinian Authority textbooks, which it did not produce. This denial wears thin, however, as UNRWA has responsibility for what is taught in its schools.
On June 6-7, 2004, UNRWA co-hosted a major conference in Geneva to discuss the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian refugees. At that conference, which I covered, UNRWA hosted the PLO Refugee Affairs Department, which distributed materials on the “right of return.”, with precise maps indicating what should be taken back from 1948.
Several organizations run “right of return”-associated activities within the camps. One of the most significant of these is the Union of Youth Activities Centers; the Centers were originally established by UNRWA but are no longer funded by the Agency. The Union, in the 90s, adopted as its slogan “The Right of Return is the Red Line that Must Not Be Crossed,” and runs “right of return” rallies on Nakba day (the day of “catastrophe” on which Israel was founded). The Union advertises offices in the Kalandia Camp of the West Bank and the al.Maghazi Camp of Gaza.
UNRWA, seeking to disassociate itself from this group, says that the Union is permitted to use UNRWA facilities only if the activity is non-political in nature. (A distinction is made between the environs of the camps, for which UNRWA assumes no responsibility, and UNRWA facilities, for which it clearly does have responsibility.)
What we are seeing then is an acknowledgement that UNRWA facilities are used by this group and the line is a very fine one. If the group is centered in camps, where but in UNRWA facilities-schools, youth centers, etc.-are there places to hold events of a political nature? When “right of return” rallies are held, is it certain that UNRWA school grounds are never used? These school grounds are places where large scale activities, including some by Hamas, are held; it defies credibility to imagine that UNRWA looks the other way when Hamas preaches Jihad on school property, but draws the line at “right of return” activities.
At a time when Gaza has dominated Middle East news over the past few months, most people have overlooked the fact that 70% of Gaza’s Palestinian Arab residents actually live in UNRWA camps, with the full expectation that they will be repatriated to the homes and villages that they left in 1948, even if they no longer exist. And who keeps this illusion alive? An Arab entity? No. Quite the contrary. Take a look at UNRWA policies, and a closer examination at Ottawa, which oversees the RWG, which provides international sanction to the illusion of the “right of return” to areas that are recognized by the entire world as part and parcel of the sovereign state of Israel.
 Dr. Eli Lasch, who until 1985 was head of medical services in Gaza for the Israeli Civil Administration there, in e-mail communication February 2003.
 The BBC program aired September 21, 2000.
2 Mohammed Daraghmeh, “Teaching the refugee issue at UNRWA,” The Jerusalem Times, June 22, 2001.
 BADIL Information & Discussion Brief No. 6
 According to UNRWA press release of May 13, 2004.
 UNRWA’s “Project Update Palestine Refugee Records Project” May 2004.
E-mail communication December 2002.
 See the full reports on Palestinian Authority textbooks issued by the Committee for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP) at www.edume.org.