Canada is uniquely positioned to change the terms of debate about Palestinian refugees and push for their resettlement, an Israeli researcher says.

As the second-largest funder of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Canada could urge Palestinian refugees to give up on their so-called “right of return” to land in what is now Israel, said David Bedein, head of the Israel Resource News Agency and an old hand at detailing what he calls abuses at UNRWA.

“Imagine if Canada took a role in trying to convince Palestinians not to want to return,” Bedein said in an interview with The CJN from New York.

He noted that at $10 million per year, Canada is second only to the United States in funding UNRWA. As well, Canada, which will also provide a further $6 million for job creation and micro-credit lending in Gaza – as announced in September – also chairs the refugee working group, the international body charged with resolving the refugee problem.

Using its leverage to urge Palestinians to pursue resettlement would do more for them than encouraging them to hold out in refugee camps for a “right” they will never exercise, Bedein suggested.

And for Canada to do so would only require that it apply the same principles of refugee resettlement that the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) operates under, he added.

Earlier this month in New York, Bedein presented a study about UNRWA to international reporters who cover the UN.

The report, UNRWA, A Hard Look at an Agency in Trouble, was prepared by the Center for Near East Policy Research under the supervision of Bedein’s Israel Resource News Agency. His briefing, Bedein said, was meant to give reporters the tools they need to better understand the controversial issues concerning UNRWA – particularly its intense politicization (in favour of the Palestinians), its employment of Hamas personnel and its misuse of its facilities to support attacks against Israel.

At around the same time Bedein was meeting with reporters, the UN began a review of the agency’s work and various international figures pronounced on the agency’s efficacy.

Israel’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Silvan Shalom met with newly appointed UNRWA commissioner general Karen Koning AbuZayd and said he felt an improvement in the atmosphere.

Shalom suggested that in the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement, UNRWA ought to transfer its education, health and employment functions to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Such a transfer could strengthen the position of the PA and weaken Hamas’ efforts to replace UNRWA.

In the United States, Margaret Scobey, the United States’ ambassador to Syria, told the UN General Assembly that UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance to Palestinians was a stabilizing force in the region.

“UNRWA has an important role to play in supporting the efforts of the Palestinian Authority” and of international organizations, with the goal of “launch[ing] economic recovery and development in Gaza and the West Bank,” JTA reported the ambassador as saying.

That’s likely not the kind of endorsement Bedein would find palatable. He said UNRWA has kept Palestinian refugees in a state of dependence while prolonging their suffering. The UNHCR, whose mandate is to assist all other refugees worldwide, is able to successfully settle people so they can get on with their lives. “Their job is to resettle people as fast as possible and with as much dignity as possible,” he said.

Unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA makes no attempts at permanently resettling Palestinian refugees, he said. On the contrary, the agency has adopted Palestinian nationalists’ claim that those people displaced from pre-1948 Israel will someday recover their residences. UNRWA bases that approach on UN Resolution 194, passed shortly after Israel became an independent state.

Bedein suggested that is a one-sided interpretation of the resolution – which anyway does not have the force of law – since it also requires returning refugees to live in peace. Those who do not return can receive compensation. UNRWA ignores those aspects of the resolution, he said.

In a written response to CJN queries, Marie-Christine Lilkoff, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Canada, said that “UNRWA provides essential services to over four million Palestinian refugees. Its work is supported financially by donors that include the United States, U.K. and the European Commission. The United States alone provided more than $127 million to UNRWA in 2004. Its work is also supported (although not financially) by Israel, which recognizes the critical role that UNRWA plays.

“While it is widely known that the relationship between the previous [UNRWA] commissioner general and Israel was a difficult one, the relationship between the current ComGen and Israel is known to be very positive. Israeli officials have frequently expressed support for the assistance Canada provides to UNRWA.

“Canada’s commitment to UNRWA remains strong, and we are working closely with other donors, including the United States, to support the organization as it continues to reform its programming and management mechanisms and procedures.”

Lilkoff did not respond to questions concerning the alleged infiltration of UNRWA by Hamas.

“The vast majority of the 25,000 employees of UNRWA are themselves refugees and they are frequently themselves associated with terrorist groups,” the report UNRWA: A Hard Look at an Agency in Trouble alleges, adding that UNRWA facilities are used by terrorists and terrorists receive UNRWA benefits and assistance.

Other findings in the report include:

• UNRWA accepts as refugees the great-grandchildren of those who lost there homes in 1948. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not define refugees’ descendants as inheriting their status;

• UNRWA refugee totals are inflated.

• The UNRWA education system employs PA textbooks, which presents an entirely negative image of Israel and denies Jewish links to the Holy Land.

• UNRWA won’t suspend aid to known terrorists because of intimidation.

• UNRWA’s budget per refugee in 2005 is almost $100 (US). UNHCR’s budget per refugee in the same year is around $65 (US).

In a statement to the special political and decolonization committee earlier this month, AbuZayd said she had met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and “he emphasized that the disengagement from the Gaza Strip has not changed the status of Palestine refugees within the strip, as the refugee issue is one to be dealt with in final status negotiations.”

UNRWA has defended its activities in a Web document titled Setting the Record Straight. The agency asserts it does not run the refugee camps, but merely provides humanitarian and other services. The agency denies any of its installations have been turned into bomb-making factories.

It also states it “is not in the business of hiring terrorists. It has in place very strict standards of conduct, and it expects all of its area and international staff members to adhere to them” – to perform their duties fairly and refrain from political activities that might reflect on the agency impartiality and independence.

UNRWA says its staff union “is not staffed by representatives of any militant or political group or party” such as Hamas.

As to the contention that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem, Setting the Record Straight states a solution will require a political settlement. “UNRWA was established to cater to the humanitarian needs of the refugees pending such a political settlement. Removing UNRWA from the scene would not cause the refugee problem to disappear, but it would lead to untold suffering and hardship.”

Following the Oslo accords, UNRWA prepared to hand over its services to the PA but with the collapse of the peace process, the need was seen for UNRWA to continue providing its services, the document states.

This piece ran in the November 17th, 2005 issue of the Canadian Jewish News