November 11th, 2005
A 10-year-old boy maneuvers through a schoolyard in Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp of about 15,000 – the largest in the West Bank. He has been told by family and friends that one day they will return to Palestine, even though he’s never seen it.
On this day in 2002, his Palestinian school – a service of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency – is taking part in a ceremony. UNRWA employees of the school gather the children to pay tribute to Mahmud Tavalba, a leader of Islamic jihad, killed weeks earlier by the Israeli Defense Force.

After being handed a picture of the man he knew nothing about, the boy and others sing out in unison and stomp the ground. “Be strong,” they cry. “We are your soldiers; our camp is one great lit torch.”

A year later, 170 students from two UNRWA schools in Gaza participate in a culture day at a mosque where they learn the importance of Muslims falling as “martyrs.”

Reports of these incidents, compiled by Arlene Kushner, an investigative journalist for the Center for Near East Policy Research, are two examples of activities recorded in UNRWA refugee camps.

Serving the humanitarian needs of more than 4 million Arab refugees ­ now mostly descendents of those forced from their homes after Israel was established in 1948 ­ UNRWA’s legacy of helpful services has become a bombardment of alarming allegations, Kushner’s reports say.

Since 2003, UNRWA has publicly defended its mission, denying assertions of providing anti-Semitic textbooks in its schools, not keeping an eye on employee activities and inadvertently funding terrorism.

David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency, spoke to the U.N. Correspondents Association about what he’s seen firsthand since he began visiting and reporting on UNRWA camps 28 years ago.

“This is not an issue of Arabs versus Jews but of a moral code of UNRWA,” he said. “We’re more asking questions than giving answers, and we’ve been asking questions for a while.”

Bedein offered statistics and investigative literature, information gathered in the last two years, showing where U.N. funds are going and who is keeping track. UNRWA serves 59 Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

UNRWA has a budget of more than $400 million a year ­ 30 percent from the U.S. It has been criticized for negligently sustaining the refugees’ deeply sacred and non-negotiable “right of return.”

Unlike the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, a separate agency serving all other refugees worldwide, UNRWA has been responsible only for Palestine’s unique situation.

UNHCR’s mission is to protect refugees and either help them resettle in another country or return home. Because Palestinians reject resettling outside of Israel and Israel rejects allowing them to settle there, UNRWA has been providing temporary assistance for 56 years.

Kushner, who spent four years in Jerusalem writing books and reports, said UNRWA’s temporary mandates aren’t allowing refugees to live normal lives.

“UNRWA has a whole series of practices that makes people name their hometown villages they left,” she said. “The vast majority of villages that they talk about are not there anymore.”

Kushner said she’s familiar with UNRWA-sanctioned tour buses that take refugees back through their former towns and villages, giving them more reason to feel like they’ve been displaced. Saahir Lone Sr., UNRWA liaison officer, said the agency neither promotes the right of return nor carries out refugees’ wishes. The agency supports Palestinians’ temporary status until they reach an accord with Israel.

“We’re there to make sure they’re not hungry and that their human development needs are taken care of,” he said.One major difference between the two refugee agencies is the employee structure. UNRWA hires almost all of its 25,000 employees from the Palestinian refugee population. UNHCR has 6,000 employees to serve roughly 19 million refugees worldwide, in such places as Sudan, Afghanistan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most work is performed through contracts with third parties. Without requiring background checks, UNRWA relies on the refugee employees to truthfully sign off on the agency’s rules and regulations that prohibit terrorist affiliations, Lone said.

But according to Kushner, Hamas has a strong influence in Gaza in the employee unions, especially among teachers. Hamas, a radical terrorist group, favors an end to Israel and Palestinian return to Israeli lands.

“We have a very serious problem here. UNRWA hires from a client base,” she said. “There have been instances of Hamas rallies on the school grounds of UNRWA schools.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R-Fla., has sought changes in U.N. policies through the United Nations Reform Act of 2005, which would require eliminating duplicative entities like UNRWA.

“It is time for UNRWA’s separate status to be rescinded, and for UNRWA to be integrated into UNHCR ­ Gaza first,” she said in an October 9 op-ed in the Israel Resource Review.

The UNHCR would not comment on the possibility of any changes. State Department official, who asked not to be named because he was providing policy information, said that because UNHCR was created two years after UNRWA, its mandates state that refugees already receiving aid, which applies only to Palestinians, are not eligible to receive from any other U.N. agency.

The official said that, since 2002, UNRWA has hired inspectors to see that the standards of conduct are obeyed. UNRWA dismissed two employees last year after they were convicted by the Israeli government.

“UNRWA’s been able to demonstrate its ability to be effective and cost efficient,” Lone said. “Without the agency there would be a void.”

Kushner said the refugees have been brainwashed for a long time to think returning to Palestine – an area that ran from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea ­ is their unalienable right. Kushner said most refugees would like to get out of Gaza, where the settlements are generally poor and overpopulated.

“There are some with no plumbing and others living in wealth, importing Italian marble for their countertops,” Kushner said.

Some, she said, have taken on permanent roles in society, working full-time jobs and making the best life they can.

“I think it’s a split,” she said. “Some know they’re where they are and they’re OK with that…. No countries want to receive them, and that could mean trouble for Israel.”

Lone said he didn’t think refugees would agree to permanent residency in Gaza and the West Bank.

Musa al-Hindi, of Omaha, Neb., and a member of the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, said UNWRA has unintentionally become a symbol for the Palestinian refugees.

“I think in some ways UNRWA has unintentionally encouraged their right of return,” al-Hindi, said.

Al-Hindi, 40, who spent his first 18 years as a refugee in Beirut before attending Creighton University in Omaha, said most refugees blame Israel.

“Resettlement [outside Israel] will be rejected,” he said. “I think they can wait for a long time.”

After several trips to Lebanon, al-Hindi said he observed that most refugees want civil rights and a return to a secular democratic state.

“It has been shown that there is enough land and resources there for everyone,” he said of Israel. “I don’t understand this need to have an ethnically or religiously pure state.”