The so-called “right of return” for Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendents is not a new idea. Yet this claim — that the refugees have the right to return to villages they left in 1948 — is now being promoted with a new vigor. Proponents of this position include the Palestinian Authority and a seemingly unlikely international advocate. That partner is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees. UNRWA was established as a temporary agency 60 years ago in the wake of the 1948 war to aid the refugees in their plight, which they call the Nakba or catastrophe.
Funded by direct allocations from 38 democracies across the globe, UNRWA has an annual budget of more than one billion dollars. In recent years, its budget has ballooned, with US and EU each contributing more than $230 million a year. Other major donors include Canada, Japan, Norway and Australia.
While many assume they understand the plight of the refugees, their story is a complex and singular tale. It is a 60-year-old narrative of a people encouraged by UNRWA and the Palestinian leadership to remain as refugees, so that their steadfast goal of the “right of return” might be fulfilled, – which would create a Palestinian state that would essentially replace the state of Israel.
Those advocating the right of return claim that it has a legal basis in Resolution 194 passed in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. That resolution, which is actually nothing more than a non-binding proposal, has no basis in international law.
While it does say that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so, it also speaks of resettlement of refugees in another country and compensation for those who do not return.
Sixty years ago UNRWA helped feed anywhere from 450,000 to 750,000 refugees from the 1948 war. Now, UNRWA recognizes not only the original Arabs who claimed to have been displaced, but their descendents as well. Thus the number of people on the UNRWA rolls has grown to more than 4 million. They live in and near 59 UNRWA camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
While UNRWA is responsible for the camp’s education, health, relief and social service programs it leaves the day to day operations to local Palestinian known as “popular committees,” who operate inside the UNRWA facilities.
Meanwhile, UNRWA spends about half of its budget each year — more than $500 million — on schools. It has a massive payroll, employing more than 7,000 teachers. UNRWA does not produce its own textbooks. Its policy is to adopt the texts and curriculum of the host entity. In the West Bank and Gaza, it uses new textbooks and course guidelines produced and utilized by the Palestinian Authority.