The defense of UNRWA mounted by UNRWA commissioner-general, Karen Koning AbuZayd, in “Who UNRWA is, and what we do,” ( J. Post, February 13th, 2007) obscures several critical issues. In her take, UNRWA is a humanitarian agency that has tended to the refugees for over fifty years because the international community has found no solution to their situation. In reality, UNRWA serves a political agenda.

AbuZayd charges it is erroneous to claim that while UNRWA considers the children of refugees to be refugees, UNHCR does not. She then undermines her own case by citing UNHCR criteria, which grant refugee status to dependants of refugees “according to the principle of family unity.” Gratuitously, she leaves the impression that this is what UNRWA also does. The reality is that UNRWA gives refugee status to fully grown and independent (patrilineal) descendents of refugees.

In fact, UNRWA never takes anyone off the list; its sole criterion for removing people is that they have “returned” to Israel. Thus, while AbuZayd demurs that the problem cannot be solved in part because the Arab nations won’t have them, Jordan has accepted tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees as citizens. By the criteria of UNHCR, they would be immediately removed from refugee status, but not by the standards of UNRWA.

This has nothing to do with humanitarian service and everything to do with keeping the numbers high. AbuZayd says that resettlement requires consent of the refugees, and that Palestinian refugees insist on repatriation. But UNRWA bears enormous responsibility for fostering this attitude. It begins with its policy, which tells them they haven’t shed refugee status unless they “return.” It can be traced from their ID cards, to the way the camps were designed, to programs permitted into the schools.

The refugees – believing themselves cheated of what is rightfully theirs and seeing Israel as the source of their deprivation – have been prone to radical ideology. It is no accident that the refugee camps in Gaza became hotbeds of terrorism. As we confront ever higher levels of terror in Gaza, UNRWA has a great deal to answer for.

Arlene Kushner’s work on UNRWA can be found at: