The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has become one of the largest UN programs, with over 30,000 personnel operating in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional,and which deals with a single group of people; it is also unique in that it directly provides government-like public services to its beneficiaries.

Undoubtedly, since its inception nearly sixty-five years ago, UNRWA has accomplished significant major achievements, providing relief and humanitarian aid in one of the most complex geopolitical arenas, under the challenging conditions of political uncertainty and physical insecurity. Nevertheless, within the last few decades, the vast, quasi-state machinery into which the Agency has evolved has attracted considerable criticism. Some of UNRWA’s long-standing policies have made it susceptible to political manipulation, in particular by extremist groups. It is evident that the Agency has become deeply involved in Middle-Eastern politics, in a way that might overshadow its significant accomplishments.

In the following commentary,we will review the main areas of criticism regarding UNRWA’s actual performance and strategies,as well as the legal-institutional and political factors that have combined to bring about the current situation, which raises concern among experts and statesmen, calling, in particular, for awareness and action on the part of UNRWA’s donor countries.

Screenshot from “Camp Jihad” documentary about UNRWA summer camps (Israel Resource News Agency)

1. A Humanitarian Agency Becoming an Active Political Actor

On June 20, 2013, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, decided to visit the Rimal Boys’ School in Gaza.1 Obviously, choosing a Gazan elementary school out of all of the numerous refugee facilities and camps scattered around the world was no coincidence. Hosted by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner General of UNRWA, Ashton made it clear that her visit was meant to “underline the situation in Gaza” and to support the work of UNRWA.2 She took that opportunity to share her wish to see the crossings opened, and declared that the EU would continue to be the strongest supporter, providing the required financial aid, and “also the political support.”3 Clearly, Ashton’s visit was a major achievement for UNRWA, the result of an ongoing, intensive, world-embracing lobbying effort by the UN Agency’s leadership, tailored to attract international public attention to the political problem of Palestinian refugees.

Recently, the bloody Syrian conflict provided another excellent platform for UNRWA’s Commissioner General to recall “the plight of Palestinian refugees,resulting in a 65-year-old diaspora.”4 In a written interview given by Grandi (March 2013), broadly spread by the UN News Center, he emphasized UNRWA’s endeavors to assist Palestinian refugees residing in Syria, while expressing grave concerns that the situation in Syria might divert international attention away from the “ongoing Gaza blockade.”5 This very same point had been made a month earlier by Grandi at the Conference on Cooperation Among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development, which was hosted by Japan, where he had stated – alongside Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister – that Syria’s brutal war “should not make us forget that for Palestinian refugees, as for other Palestinians, the most powerful obstacle to development continues to be the Israeli occupation.”6 Grandi publicly condemned the ‘tightening grip” of Israeli policies, while presenting UNRWA as the “international political framework” that “strives to afford a measure of human development amidst the carefully structured and ever expanding occupation,” calculated, according to Grandi, to “slowly but surely alienate Palestinians from their land and assets.”7

These recent examples demonstrate the extent to which UNRWA has become an active player involved in Middle-Eastern politics, and a powerful tool within the anti-Israel propaganda campaign. Nevertheless, this proficiency in translating humanitarian hardship into political gains has been only one cause of the growing body of criticism that has been directed at UNRWA within the past few decades.8 UNRWA’s actual performance, which includes the breeding of an atmosphere of hatred and violence among Palestinian youth and even the support of terrorist activities, as well as the upholding of the concept of the “right of return” and the determined policy of inflating the number of refugees, have raised concern among experts, commentators, and statesmen alike.9

2. Manipulation of Educational Activities

2.1 Improper Use of Facilities

There has been some alarm regarding improper activities in UNRWA schools and summer camps. In 2000-2001, Palestinian children were reported to have received military training in summer camps that had been organized by the PA using UNRWA facilities.10 In 2001, during an awards ceremony held in an UNRWA facility by a Palestinian NGO, an Agency teacher was reported to have publicly praised suicide bombers; a speech by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who at the time was Hamas’“spiritual” leader, followed.11These incidents – the most prominent to have come to light – were most likely the tip of the iceberg, given the fact that out of the Agency’s 30,000 personnel, fewer than 150 are international staff; the remaining staff consists almost entirely of locals.12

Indeed, as the journalist Linda Polman acknowledged in her famous book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?”13 UNRWA camps have in fact introduced the world to the phenomenon of what are now called “refugee warriors”:

The UNRWA camps that sprang up [half a century ago] in Lebanon,Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip have since developed into fully fledged city-states, from which the ‘freedom struggle’ against Israel – and against one another14 – continues to this day. The recruitment of fresh blood is effortless in the camps; one uprooted generation after another has been trained to fight.15

James Lindsay, UNRWA’s former Legal Advisor, also concluded in his in-depth 2009 report, “Fixing UNRWA,”16 that UNRWA makes no attempt to remove individuals who support extremist positions17; the Agency has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from its ranks, while taking “no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, from joining its staff.”18 Applicants in the West Bank and Gaza are thus exempt from pre­employment security-checks and the Agency does not check up on staff members to see what activities they are engaged in outside office hours.19

The fact that there are some UNRWA staff members who support violence, terrorism, and extremist political philosophies20 does not seem to particularly bother UNRWA’s leadership, as was expressed by former Commissioner General Peter Hansen in 2004:

I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas, as a political organization, does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting.21

Moreover, even staff members who come from the refugee camp population who do not agree with extremist views can hardly express any disagreement. Consequently, as Lindsay observes, it is rare for staff members, especially in Gaza or the West Bank, to report or confirm that another staff member has violated rules against political speech, let alone exhibited ties to terrorism.22 Allegations of improper speech or misuse of UNRWA facilities, therefore, remain difficult to prove, as “virtually no one is willing to be a witness against gang members.”23 This is probably the actual reason behind the fact that hardly any incidents of improper use of language or power have come to light, not – as some commentators have presumed – that UNRWA has become more meticulous in screening for the use of its schools.24

This became more evident recently, when new video footage came to light,entitled “Camp Jihad,” showing the curriculum of Palestinian children in several UNRWA summer camps, which incite hostility towards Israel and the Jews.25 The documentary that filmed summer programs in the Gaza Strip and Balata refugee camp (north of Nablus) shows young campers being educated about the “Nakba”26 and taught about “the villages they came from,” such as Acre, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Haifa, Jaffa, Lod, Nazareth, Safad, and even Tel-Aviv (Sheikh Munis) – all cities within sovereign Israel. Even the names of the teams in their summer camps take on the names of these cities. In the documentary, the director of the Gaza camp explains that these programs are meant to motivate the youngsters “to return to their original villages,” and she expresses her deep gratitude to UNRWA for financing the camp.27 One scene shows a teacher telling a group of young students a story about the “wolf ” – that is, the Jews who brutally expelled their parents from their peaceful sea-side “palaces and villas.” Another teacher tells a group of young campers that “with education and jihad we will return to our homes; we will wage war.” Evidently, the indoctrinating messages are well absorbed by the youngsters, as several scenes in the documentary show young girls singing “I will not forget my promise to take back my land” and “we are filled with rage.” A young camper declares to the camera that she “will defeat the Jews,” who are “a gang of infidels” that “don’t like Allah,” while in another scene, a young boy explains that “the summer camp teaches us that we have to liberate Palestine.”

2.2 Inappropriate Textbooks

The continued use of inappropriate textbooks in UNRWA schools, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank,28 also remains a source of much controversy, despite the fact that reports of various sources have repeatedly raised the issue of a hostile attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people, promoted by the schoolbooks.29 A recent ten-year research study, regarding the Palestinian curriculum at UNRWA schools, examined some 150 textbooks of various subjects, taught in grades 1-10,which had been issued by the PA between the years 2000-2005.30 The study found three fundamental negative attitudes in the presentation of the Jewish/Israeli “other”: denial of the legitimacy of the State of Israel; demonization of the State of Israel; and advocacy for the violent struggle for Palestinian liberation.

According to this research report, PA schoolbooks, for example, do not recognize any Jewish rights or Jewish holy places in Palestine, but merely “greedy ambitions.”31 Generally, the name of the state, “Israel,” does not appear on the maps (or within textual material), and Jewish cities and regions within Israel proper are presented as exclusively Palestinian.32 Israel’s Jewish population is not counted among the country’s legitimate inhabitants, which are comprised solely of Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Palestinians.33 Demonization of Israel has it as an occupying entity, existing at the expense of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and as a source of many evils committed against the Palestinians and other Arabs.34 Consequently, no peaceful solution to the conflict has been advocated in PA books that are used in UNRWA schools; instead, the books advocate a violent struggle for liberation, not restricted to the West Bank and Gaza, and underlined by the notions of Jihad and Shahadah (martyrdom).35

* * *

Clearly, the educational services provided by UNRWA to Palestinian students – particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also in neighboring countries – help to propagate a non-peaceful point of view, upholding a political vision of a continued struggle against a delegitimized Israel until its eventual destruction.36 By maintaining the policy of non-involvement in the local curricula taught in its schools37 – a policy that should not be taken for granted in the first place by a UN body38 – as well as by refraining from screening the use of its facilities and by ignoring the “unofficial” activity of its local staff, UNRWA at best ignores the obvious.39 The Agency’s relatively powerful influence on Palestinian educational activities, as well as the fact that more than half of its general budget is dedicated to education,40 further highlight UNRWA’s problematic educational role in the Middle East conflict. It demands urgent, ongoing scrutiny on the part of donor countries – most of which are Western democracies – to ensure that their contributions are not being used inappropriately to support terrorism or to incite violence and hatred.

3. Politicization of Relief

3.1 Self-Proclaimed “Protection Mandate” & Political Advocacy

It is no secret that UNRWA’s work has long crossed the lines of humanitarianism and relief, deep into the political realm. Indeed, the acceptance by UNRWA’s leadership of the mission to enhance the political rights of Palestinians at large, not only refugees, has gradually become a key trend, characterizing the Agency’s activity.41 Particularly since the first Intifada (1987), and following the request of the UN Secretary General that UNRWA expand its activities to provide protection for refugees and non-refugees alike “on an emergency basis and as a temporary measure,”42 UNRWA has unilaterally expanded its mandate to include “protection” and to encompass all Palestinians.43 The Agency’s international staff, including its Refugee Affairs Officers (RAOs) in the West Bank and Gaza, who had been nominated to implement UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate,”44 had become intensively involved in publicity activity – that is, the collection and collation of information on protection issues, and their publication – either through reports or by making this information available to the media.45 Consequently, as Lindsay observes, even when the first Intifada ended and the Interim Self-Government Arrangements had been signed,

the mandate to protect Palestinians, and the accompanying sense of being joined with the Palestinians against Israel, remained a part of UNRWA’s culture.46

UNRWA’s endorsement of Palestinian political views was also notable throughout the second Intifada (2000).47 The Agency’s RAOs were replaced by Operations Support Officers (OSOs), whose main duty was to provide “general assistance” protection, including “observing and reporting.”48 The one-sided positions of UNRWA officials were reflected by their focusing on condemning Israeli counter­terrorism efforts in language associated with war crimes; criticism of Palestinian-initiated attacks was mild and infrequent.49

This trend has continued ever since. UNRWA officials frequently condemn the IDF’s attacks on terrorists, in response to rocket strikes on Israeli civilian targets launched from Gaza, as a “disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive use of force.”50 For the appearance of balanced reporting, UNRWA commentary would sometimes also mention “the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel” – but as an afterthought, not in terms of war crimes or terrorist attacks, never protesting the bombarding of innocent Israeli civilians.51 In fact, on several occasions, former Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd even referred to the continuous firing of Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza as a legitimate “response” to “military incursions.”52

The UNRWA leadership’s political position is also reflected in the continuous,unqualified support it provides to Hamas in various international fora, despite its violent methods and declared dedication to eliminating Israel. In the past, Commissioner General AbuZayd was particularly active in campaigning devotedly against the West’s isolation of Hamas, calling upon European leaders in particular to engage with the group as a pre-condition for “regaining credibility with Palestinians” and ending “the partisan approach to denouncing violence and to blaming the victims.”53 In the same spirit, UNRWA’s leadership also protested the Quartet’s embargo of the Hamas government, thus openly challenging the formal policies of its main donors – the USA and the EU – as well as the UN.54 Since 2008, UNRWA has echoed Hamas’ views by keenly criticizing the Israeli blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds,55 while at the same time ignoring reports regarding the theft of humanitarian assistance items by the group.56

Indeed, in practice, UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate” has allowed the Agency to become a fierce advocate for Palestinians in its dealings with Israel, although the Agency remains nearly silent and indifferent when Arab governments in host countries violate or restrict Palestinian civil rights.57 Such was the case, for example, when nearly 400,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait in 1991, in spite of repeated warnings issued by human rights organizations regarding the large-scale violation of their rights; as well, there is the more recent case of the grievous treatment of Palestinians by the government of Lebanon, where Palestinians live, according to Human Rights Watch reports, “in appalling social and economic conditions” due to far-reaching legal restrictions on their access to the labor market and discrimination under property and title laws.58

3.2 Growing Involvement in Political Speech

As cited earlier, UNRWA’s current leadership follows the path of routinely exploiting every international stage and forum available to delegitimize Israel and its policies – a method that has become an essential part of UNRWA’s extensive global fund-raising campaign. A recent collection of the UNRWA chief executive’s pronouncements is illuminating in this regard. Grandi, in his farewell speech before the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly in November 2013, repeated his motto of “profound concern” regarding the preoccupation of the international community with Syria. According to Grandi, it might divert attention from the situation in Gaza, which was “exacerbated by the closure of tunnels, through which many basic commodities were entering”59 – completely ignoring the systematic abuse of such tunnels by terrorist groups for their massive smuggling operations of illegal arms and ammunition into the Gaza Strip.60 He further condemned, at length, the “stifling restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank including East Jerusalem,” as well as settlers’ behavior, the “possible transfer of the Bedouin community,” and the conduct of Israeli military operations61; no censorship whatsoever was mentioned of Palestinian violence or terrorist activity against Israel and Israeli citizens. “Rockets launched towards southern Israel” were briefly mentioned – not condemned – by Grandi, and only after raising concerns about possible “Israeli military incursions.”62

A few days later, at the opening session of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission (AdCom), Grandi suggested that “strengthening the human security of the people of Gaza is a better avenue to ensuring regional stability than physical closures, political isolation and military action”; to obtain this, according to Grandi, “first and foremost, the Israeli blockade, which is illegal,63 must be lifted.”64 At the previous round of the AdCom’s meetings, several months earlier, Grandi had blamed “the interests of the Israeli government in sustaining an unresolved situation” and trumping “the real substance of security and stability” in the region, including the fact that “Palestinian leadership remains divided.”65 During a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, in an effort to add Brazil to UNRWA’s donor base, Grandi spoke about the Gaza blockade as “one of the harshest occupation measures of modern times,” and condemned the “complex web of policies and restrictions” that “thrives under the umbrella of military occupation and has been slowly depriving Palestinians of assets and of livelihood.”66

It is no wonder that the style, tone, and example set by UNRWA’s Commissioners-General has had an impact on other UNRWA officials. A lively example was provided recently by UNRWA’s spokesperson, Chris Gunness,who took advantage of a public event to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Count Bernadotte to condemn Israeli officials who were, according to Gunness, “venerated in the most senior echelons of Israeli public life,” and whose “values and rejectionist attitudes towards the UN sadly are reinforced by repetitious nationalistic mythologizing.”67 “Selective ignorance” was his preferred terminology for describing the attitude of these officials, who, according to Gunness’ historiography, followed Ben-Gurion’s dismissive attitude towards the UN.68 In this regard, it is no surprise that UNRWA’s Area Staff Regulations, as well as International Staff Regulations,69 which both necessitate “to avoid any action and in particular any kind of pronouncement which may adversely reflect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality which are required by that status,” as well as the engagement “in any political activity which is inconsistent with or might reflect upon the independence and impartiality required by their status,” are easily ignored. After all, if the Agency’s most high-ranking officials consistently disregard their obligation for impartiality, what can be asked – or expected – from the more junior officials, let alone the area staff,made up almost entirely of local Palestinians?

* * *

In reality, despite repeated statements that UNRWA is not a political organization,70 the Agency is regularly involved in political speech and public pronouncements.71 In large part, this is the outcome of the fact that UNRWA lacks outside controls over its chief executive, who receives hardly any political guidance from any of the relevant international bodies that are in a position to provide direction,72 and thus effectively enjoys wide authority and freedom of action and of speech.73 Sixty-five years after its establishment, UNRWA still has no settled accountability framework – let alone a broadly accepted, defined mandate74 – that would enable the international community to scrutinize and to direct the Agency’s daily performance. This situation allows its leadership, as well as interested parties – first and foremost the Palestinian leadership and some Arab (host) countries75 – to manipulate this vast UN agency, mainly sponsored by good­will contributions of the international taxpayer, using it as a tool for the promotion of specific political agendas. As commentators have observed in the past, there is therefore a need for donor countries in particular, having, in practice, the most influence to impact UNRWA’s leadership, to persuade the Agency to strictly limit its actions and public pronouncements to humanitarian issues.76

4.Lex Specialis Bypassing International Law

4.1 Defining a “Refugee” & Upholding the “Right of Return”

UNRWA’s activity involves two complex, interrelated conceptual-legal controversies: the definition of who is a “refugee,” entitled to the protection of certain international arrangements, and the existence of a so-called “right of return.” A thorough doctrinal investigation into these issues is clearly beyond the scope of this paper.77 Nevertheless, it is important to note how UNRWA’s very existence and, moreover, its actual performance, have created a sort of lex specialis in the case of Palestinian refugees, thus bypassing existing legal arrangements and contributing to the complication and misconception of these issues.

UNRWA remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional, and which deals with a single group of people78; it is also unique among UN agencies in that it directly provides various government-like public services.79 Unlike its sister organization, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), mandated since 1950 to coordinate the handling of all refugee communities worldwide, UNRWA was established in that same year to deal exclusively with Palestinian refugees, who were thus excluded from the protection of the UNHCR.80 Furthermore, while the aims and operations of the UNHCR are based on international instruments81 – mainly the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – UNRWA was never provided with a specific statute or charter82; it has operated since its inception under a general mandate, renewed every three years by the General Assembly.83 The latter, however, has been offering little guidance concerning the evolution of the Agency’s mandate.84 It therefore remains for the UNRWA Commissioner General to determine, in good faith, any questions concerning the mandate.85

The decision to establish UNRWA, just a few days after the decision had been taken to establish the UNHCR, was the initiative of Arab countries that feared that the inclusion of Palestinian refugees under the general definition of “refugees” would be interpreted as a waiver of their claim that “return” was the sole solution,and as an implied agreement to resettlement in their territories.86 The creation of a separate, autonomous UN agency thus allowed them to impose limitations on UNRWA’s mandate to provide “temporary assistance,” while the UNHCR’s mandate generally provided for refugees’ rehabilitation and resettlement.87 Indeed,in the following years, the majority of refugees, as well as Arab states, objected to any attempt by UNRWA to facilitate integration into their countries of residence,88 insisting on the return of refugees to Israel.89 As was acknowledged by Lt. Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, director of UNRWA in Jordan, in 1952:

It is perfectly clear that Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.90

UNRWA, which never criticized the refugees or the Arab states for failing its original resettlement and reintegration scheme,91 has consequently developed into a vast welfare agency, providing quasi-governmental services for a huge population of refugees which has grown more and more dependent on its benefits.92 It has thus entrenched the idea of return,93 as well as its misconception as a legal right rather than as a privilege or a political claim.94 Today, UNRWA’s leadership does not hesitate to openly advocate the solution of return, as reflected in the words of UNRWA’s chief executive who stated recently that,

[Palestinians’] refugee status remains unresolved, and their exile continues everywhere. In spite of the passage of time and even where they have lived for two or three generations in relative peace and stable coexistence with host communities, refugee status continues to set them apart as a temporary group, unable to return to a state which they call their own, and to permanent homes.95

The fact that UNRWA was established as a distinct arrangement by the General Assembly also allowed for the development of a unique operational definition of a “Palestinian refugee,” entitled to the Agency’s services. Clearly, such a definition, based on UNRWA documents rather than on any formal UN decision,96 deviates from the general definition recognized under international refugee law (as a key for benefiting under UNHCR protection),97 and was tailored to fit the political interests of those states that initially sponsored the Agency. According to UNRWA’s original definition, a Palestinian refugee was a person whose normal place of residence had been Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948,98 who had lost his home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 war. Controversially, in 1965, UNRWA decided to create an extension of eligibility to the third generation of refugees (that is, to children of persons who were themselves born after 14 May 1948).99 In 1982, the Agency took another far-reaching decision to extend eligibility to all subsequent generations of descendents, without any limitation.100 Further deviating from the accepted norms and arrangements regarding refugees worldwide,101 UNRWA also registers as “refugees” those who have acquired citizenship in other counties.102 Given UNRWA’s broad definitions, it is therefore no wonder that the current number of Palestinian refugees, according to the Agency’s figures,103 amounts to nearly 5 million – half of the number of refugees in the entire world104 – whereas the formal number of original refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 was around 700,000 – 750,000,105 out of whom only 8 percent are still alive.106 As was stated recently within a report presented to the US Senate Appropriations Committee,UNWRA’s practice in this regard is,

artificial and misleading, and undermines any possibility of resolving the refugee issue in future peace negotiations. It manufactures fictional refugees who vastly outnumber the actual remaining 1948 and 1967 “refugees.”The real refugees are today only a small fraction of the five million nominal refugees registered with UNRWA.107

Even PA President Mahmoud Abbas has openly acknowledged in the past that,

it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million. That would mean the end of Israel.108

4.2 Mythologizing “Refugeeism”

Whereas the mission of the UNHCR is generally to reduce the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA has brought about an exponential increase in the number of Palestinian refugees. More than anything else, its actions have underlined the issue of Palestinian refugees as a significant, far-reaching practical political concern, not simply a humanitarian one.109 In this, as acknowledged by Zilbershats and Goren-Amitai, the UN Agency serves as an agent, fulfilling “the political desire of the Arab states and the Palestinians to preserve, expand and perpetuate the refugee problem in order to avoid the need to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”110 Others have also acknowledged the financial aspect of the situation, pointing to the fact that a decrease in the number of refugees would result in the PA losing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid.111

Furthermore, UNRWA’s ideological insistence on the “right of return,” combined with its policy of inflating the number of refugees, greatly contributes to the strengthening of the sense of nationalism and solidarity underlined by feelings of injustice,112 cultivating a collective memory based on a mentality of victimhood.113 The Agency’s current leadership plainly – and actively – supports this mindset,as was demonstrated recently, when the Commissioner-General showed pride in unveiling UNRWA’s newly digitized archives, under the title: “The Long Journey:Digitizing the Palestine Refugee Experience.”114 According to UNRWA’s website,these archives, funded by the governments of Denmark and France, Palestinian NGOs, and private sector partners, consist of “over half a million negatives, prints, slides, films and videocassettes covering all aspects of the life and history of Palestine refugees from 1948 to the present day.”115 Describing the UNRWA archives, considered since before their digitization to be part of Palestinian national heritage,116 Grandi stated that,

Collective memory is a vital element of communal identity and this rich archive documents one element of Palestinian identity, the refugee experience….117 These photos are part of an important legacy….To preserve this legacy is an important duty we have to the Palestinian people. They raise awareness about the history of the Palestinian refugee issue.118

Notably, a traveling exhibition based on the new archives was organized and launched by UNRWA; after being presented in the Old City of Jerusalem,UNRWA scheduled the exhibition to go on tour, starting in January 2014, to key cities in the Agency’s areas of operation, as well as “centers of culture and politics in Europe and North America.”119 Such activity exemplifies UNRWA’s decisive role in constructing Palestinian political identity,120 as has been suggested by R. Bowker:

[T]he political mythologies and memoirs of Palestinian refugees in which UNRWA is deeply embedded…are central elements in Palestinian politics. Palestinian refugees…are not merely recipients of international aid. Viewed in terms of the historical conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the relationship of the refugees to UNRWA has been instrumental in forging their sense of identity as refugees, their claims for justice, and their perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of other parties relevant to their situation and aspirations.121

Further significant contribution to the process of mythologizing refugeeism122 is made through UNRWA’s long-standing policy of absolute submission to the political and ideological lines of host governments particularly in the field of education, due to the numerous manifestations of the “right of return” in the textbooks taught in the Agency’s schools.123 In fact, the textbooks used in UNRWA’s schools never discuss any other possible solution to the refugee problem.124 As acknowledged in Groiss’ research study, mentioned earlier, and bearing in mind the huge, accumulated number of UNRWA graduates throughout its years of operation, this might be one of the significant contributions of the Agency to the perpetuation of the conflict.125

Indeed, in recent years, more and more commentators have raised concerns that UNRWA’s determined policies in fact overwhelm voices coming from within Palestinian society – of those who wish their people to abandon the refugee camps without claiming return.126 A recent article in “The Economist,” noting that almost 70 percent of West Bank refugees already live outside refugee camps,127 quotes a camp psychologist admitting that “people don’t even dream anymore of returning.”128 Also, Palestinian leaders privately confess that even if there were a deal with Israel, “the refugees and their offspring will never return en masse to Israel.”129 Thus, by treating Palestinian refugees as a collective socio-political group,UNRWA overlooks differing attitudes of adaptation to changing political contexts and economic circumstances,130 as well as studies that show how new “pragmatic” discourses among Palestinians and new symbolic meanings attached to the “right of return” have emerged.131

5. Conclusion: Donor Countries’ Awareness and the Quest for Accountability

Since its inception, nearly sixty-five years ago, UNRWA has undoubtedly accomplished momentous achievements in the humanitarian field,132 providing relief and essential public services, while operating in one of the most complex geopolitical arenas in the world, under the challenging conditions of political uncertainty and physical insecurity. Nevertheless, within the last few decades under the orchestration of impassioned commissioners-general,133 the vast, quasi-governmental machinery into which the UN agency has evolved has made itself susceptible to political manipulation in such a way that might overshadow its significant accomplishments. Indeed, a quick look into UNRWA’s website or the numerous public pronouncements by its leading officials – particularly since the 1980s – would suffice to demonstrate the Agency’s ever-deepening political involvement; it has become an active agent in reaching out to international actors and audiences, as well as an effective tool in manipulating public opinion worldwide.

Evidently, several legal-institutional and political factors have combined to bring about this situation. The “original sin” of creating a unique, “temporary” agency, tailored to meet certain political demands without providing a specific statute or an accountability framework, in fact left UNRWA’s leadership with unparalleled broad discretion and authority to shape the Agency’s mandate and implement its policies. Furthermore, due to the fact that the Agency’s funding system is guaranteed almost exclusively by the voluntary contributions from donor countries, it has to constantly develop sophisticated communication skills to market its mission and secure its funding134 – a mission that has become more and more difficult since the 1990s. Apparently, crucial policy decisions taken throughout the years and bearing far-reaching political consequences, such as those regarding the definition of the Agency’s beneficiaries that resulted in the relentless inflation in the number of Palestinian refugees, or the adoption of initiatives within a so-called, never-clearly-stated “protection mandate,” have inflicted tremendous, steadily growing budgetary constraints on the Agency. Eventually, the international community has to shoulder the burden of these costs.

UNRWA’s leaders have thus become occupied with efforts to break the vicious circle created by the Agency’s own policies – either by convincing donor countries to enlarge their contributions or by campaigning to persuade other countries to join its donor base.135 Clearly, within these efforts, criticizing the conduct of camp residents, host authorities, or extremist groups for the poor humanitarian conditions of the refugees would lead to their disenfranchisement with UNRWA and would badly affect local refugee communities, and is therefore not an option. However, as was demonstrated earlier, “naming and blaming” Israel definitely is. Mythologizing refugeeism and upholding the “right of return” further validate the Agency’s raison d’être.

Altogether, such activities are not always compatible with the interests and political positions of moderate Palestinian leadership; they obstruct pragmatic efforts to mediate the positions of Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand,UNRWA is a vital source of income and a caretaker of unstable factions within Palestinian society; going against its policies would probably cause much political unrest and be perceived as defying the cause of Palestinian refugees.136 In this way, the status quo, which allows a growing political involvement by UNRWA, mostly plays into the hands of extremist groups such as Hamas, whose position and practices the Agency has been backing in international fora since it took over the Gaza Strip. The same applies to some of UNRWA’s long-standing policies, such as ignoring the “unofficial” activities of its local staff, refraining from screening the use of its facilities, and non-involvement in the local curricula taught in its schools.

Within the last few years there has been, however, a growing awareness within political, diplomatic, and academic circles regarding UNRWA’s policies, as well as the Agency’s growing tendency toward active political involvement. This has attracted attention to UNWRA’s lack of accountability, as well as to the unfettered freedom of speech enjoyed by its executive officers, defying the fundamental norms of objectivity and neutrality that oblige UN officials as international civil servants.137 Consequently, some donor states have not remained indifferent. In January 2010, the government of Canada decided to cut off funding to UNRWA,redirecting its contributions to the PA, in order to “ensure accountability.”138 In December 2011, the Dutch foreign minister declared its government’s intention to “thoroughly review” its policies toward UNRWA.139 In March 2009, in the US House of Representatives, twenty-two Democrats and Republicans criticized UNRWA for having violated the requirement of neutrality, and providing assistance to Hamas.140 Furthermore, in May 2012, a significant amendment was passed by the US Senate Appropriations Committee and incorporated into the

Fiscal Year 2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, directing the Secretary of State to report to the Committee on the current number of UNRWA beneficiaries in different categories (“original”1948 refugees; their descendents), as well as the extent to which the provision of UNRWA services “furthers the security interests of the US and of other US allies in the Middle East.”141 Such initiatives testify to the fact that UNRWA’s position as a stabilizing, “peace servicing” factor in the region and as a guardian of refugee interests142 is no longer taken for granted in the eyes of Western donor countries.It also reflects the growing quest for accountability and an acknowledgement of the responsibility of donor countries to scrutinize UNRWA’s policies to ensure the strict application of their tax-payers’ money toward relief and humanitarian causes.

UNRWA is funded by the voluntary contributions of a relatively narrow donor base. Therefore, Western donor countries are likely in the most effective position to influence and direct UNRWA leadership to prevent the humanitarian Agency from being further exploited for the promotion of extremist agendas, the backing of terrorist groups, and the growing involvement of its officials in political speech and public pronouncement. As one commentator put it recently, paraphrasing Clausewitz: “humanitarianism, not just war, has now become the continuation of politics by other means.”143 Indeed, if we are to judge according to someof UNRWA activities and policies within the last few decades, accountable,restrained leadership and more determined action by donor states are required in order to prevent the Agency from further exemplifying this.

Dr. Rephael Ben-Ari, PhD (Bar-Ilan University); LL.M (Pubic International Law) (cum laude) (Leiden University,The Netherlands); LL.B (cum laude) (Tel Aviv University); 2011-2012 Global Research Fellow and Neil MacCormick Fellow in Legal Theory, Hauser Global Law School Program, New York University School of Law; author of the books: The Normative Position of International Non-Governmental Organizations under International Law: An Analytical Framework (Martinus Nijhoff/Brill, 2012); The Legal Status of International Non-Governmental Organizations: Analysis of Past and Present Initiatives (1912-2012) (Martinus Nijhoff/Brill, 2013); former Legal Adviser to the Israel Mission in The Netherlands;teaches public and criminal international law.


1 See Remarks by Catherine Ashton with UNRWA Commissioner General, Filippo Grandi, at Rimal Boys’ Elementary School, Council of the European Union, Press Release (Gaza, 20 June, 2013), A337/13, available at:

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 See Interview with UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi, UN News Centre, (14 March, 2013), p. 1, available at:

5 Ibid, pp. 3-4.

6 Remarks by Filippo Grandi, at the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development (Feb. 14, 2013), available at:, p. 3 (italics added).

7 Ibid. According to Grandi, ‘occupation policies’ include ‘the blockade of Gaza; the cantonization of the West Bank; the expansion of settlements; the usurpation of water resources; and the alienation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem’.

8 See generally J.G. Lindsay, ‘Fixing UNRWA’: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #91 ( Jan. 2009), pp. 33-48. See also A. Kushner, The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem, Azure, No. 22 (2005), available at: http://; A. Kushner, UNRWA: A Hard Look at an Agency in Trouble, Centre for Near East Policy Research, (2005); B. Rubin, A. Romirowsky, J. Spyer, UNRWA: Refuge of Rejectionism, Global Research in International Affairs, (2008), available at: /; N. Nachmias, UNRWA at 60: Are There Better Alternatives?, MEF Policy Forum, (2009), available at: http://www.meforum. org/ ; M.S. Bernstam, The Palestinian Proletariat, Commentary, (Dec. 2010), available at: http://www. ; A. Kushner, UNRWA’s Anti-Israel Bias, The Middle East Quarterly, (2011), available at: A very interesting and significant collection of research papers can be found within the Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), that was dedicated to commemorating UNRWA’s 60th anniversary.

9 Lindsay, ibid, p. 33. See also R. G. Khouri, Sixty Years of UNRWA: From Service Provision to Refugee Protection, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), p. 449.

10 Lindsay, ibid, pp. 39-40.

11 Ibid, p. 30 fn. 30, 40.

12 Ibid, p. 31, 39; ‘UNRWA in Figures (as of 1 Jan., 2013)’, available at: default/files/2013042435340.pdf. In the West Bank there are some 4,500 UNRWA area staff members, while in Gaza there are 12,000.

13 L. Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, (Picador), (2010).

14 For a recent account in this regard, see ‘Palestinian Refugee Camps – A New Type of Settlement’, The Economist, (Oct. 12-18, 2013), p. 36, available at:­africa/21587846-some-palestinians-want-their-people-abandon-refugee-camps-without-demanding.

15 Polman, op. cit. note 13, p. 108; for other ‘refugee warriors’ cases that emerged afterwards – see p. 109.See also R. Bocco, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees: A History within History, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), pp. 239-240.

16 Lindsay’s work is probably the most comprehensive, systematic, and articulate commentary written on UNRWA so far. See also Khouri, op. cit note 9, p. 449.

17 Lindsay, op. cit. note 8, p. 31.

18 Ibid, p. 32.

19 Ibid, p. 41. Indeed, as Lindsay observes, evidence of area staff members who have had ‘second jobs’ with Hamas or other terrorist groups does occasionally come to light.

20 See also in this regard accusations regarding Hamas control over UNRWA area staff unions – ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid, p. 32.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid, p. 40.

25 The video was uploaded to YouTube on July 2013, and was screened in part on Israel’s Channel 2 news.It was directed by journalist D. Bedein, and produced by the Nahum Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research – available at: For UNRWA’s official comment regarding the video, see ‘UNRWA Rejects Allegations of Incitement as Baseless: Statement by UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness’ (22 Aug., 2013), available at:

26 An UNRWA social worker at the Balata camp states in the report that, ‘we teach the culture of the Nakba to campers; we try, on days like Nakba Day, to commemorate the Nakba in the school’. ‘Al Nakba’ – ‘the Catastrophe’ in Arabic – generally refers to the 1948 War of Independence, while the ‘Nakba Day’ refers to the State of Israel’s day of independence.

27 Clearly, the practice of teachers is embedded in their local experience, being themselves refugees – see Bocco, op. cit note 15, p. 245.

28 UNRWA uses the books provided by the host governments. Generally, textbooks used by the Agency in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan have raised less attention – see Lindsay, op. cit note 8, p. 42. Nevertheless,in some cases these books have advocated an armed struggle against Israel, denied its legitimacy as a sovereign state and demonized it, and even called for the annihilation of Jews – see research report by A.Groiss, Problematic Educational Role of UNRWA in the Middle East War, Israel Resource Review, (Oct. 18, 2013), p. 1, available at:

29 See generally, Lindsay, op. cit. note 8, pp. 13, 18, 41-45. Indeed, in the past, it was Commissioner General Michelmore who admitted that UNRWA schools had been supporting a ‘bitterly hostile attitude to Israel’ – see p. 18.

30 See Groiss, op. cit note 28.

31 p. 2.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 p. 3.

35 Ibid

36 See ‘Conclusion’ in ibid, p. 7.

37 Since the mid 1950s, when UNRWA’s mandate changed from relief and emergency assistance to social development, education became UNRWA’s central program, with the Agency adopting the host country curriculum to its schools – see L. Takkenberg, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees after Sixty Years:Some Reflections, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), pp. 255-256.

38 Lindsay argues that, being a UN body, that its schools are not adjuncts to the PA or to the host countries educational systems, UNRWA should provide its students with a UN curriculum using UN textbooks – see op. cit note 8, p. 61. See also Bocco, op. cit. note 15, p. 245.

39 Lindsay, ibid, p. 7. See also p. 41, regarding Hamas control over UNRWA area staff unions. In this regard, UNRWA’s declared efforts to supplement the host governments’ curricula with additional materials and courses designed to ‘foster thinking about human rights, tolerance, and conflict resolution’are quite unhelpful – see p. 6. Bocco concludes that, with due respect to the national curricula of host countries, ‘UNRWA schools could do more to foster a culture of peace and reconciliation’ – see ibid,ibid. See also I. Marcus, ‘UNRWA Workers ‘Adamantly Opposed’ to Holocaust Education in UNRWA Schools’, Palestinian Media Watch, (Apr. 27, 2011), available at:

40 Approximately 57% ($381,055 million out of a total budget of $673,789 million in 2012) – see UNRWA Website, at: Education historically became the main sector of UNRWA activity, both in terms of funds and personnel involved – see Bocco, ibid, p. 244.

41 Lindsay, op. cit. note 8, p. 13.

42 Ibid, p. 20. See also J. Al-Husseini, R. Bocco, The Status of the Palestinian Refugees in the Near East:The Right of Return and UNRWA in Perspective, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), p. 267 & fn. 29, regarding the ad hoc nature of UNRWA protection programs.

43 Lindsay, ibid, ibid. Undoubtedly, UNRWA’s evolving ‘protection mandate’ is one of the most controversial issues regarding the Agency’s activities – see generally M. Kagan, Is There Really a Protection Gap? UNRWA’s Role vis-à-vis Palestinian Refugees, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos.2 & 3), (2010), pp. 511-530. Notably, in 2000, the UN Secretary General described UNRWA’s mandate,acknowledging that ‘Under its mandate… the scope of the Agency’s activities is mainly humanitarian in nature’ – Secretary General’s Bulletin, ‘Organization of UNRWA’, UN Doc. ST/SGB/2000/6 (17 Feb. 2000), note 1, as quoted in Bartholomeusz, The Mandate of UNRWA at Sixty, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), pp. 461-462. Nevertheless, Commissioner General K. AbuZayd stated that, despite the fact that, ‘unlike UNHCR, UNRWA’s creation was not by a statute with express references to “protection”, nevertheless, protection is an integral part of UNRWA’s mandate and in view of the human rights challenges faced by many Palestinians and Palestine refugees, this aspect of our work has gained greater importance since the 1980s’ – see K. AbuZayd, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees after Sixty Years: Assessing Developments and Marking Challenges, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), p. 228, (italics added). For AbyZayd’s significant role in promoting UNRWA’s ‘protection mandate’ through international lectures and by addressing UN bodies – see Khouri, op. cit.note 9, p. 439, 447-448; Kagan, ibid, pp. 518-519. Bocco, op. cit. note 15, p. 232, and Al-Husseini & Bocco, ibid, recognize that UNRWA’s general assistance mandate has never included as a regular activity the protection activities covered by the UNHCR – see p. 267. Compare with Takkenberg, op. cit. note 37, who argues that UN General Assembly resolutions affirm UNRWA’s protecting role by referring to the ‘valuable work done by the Agency in providing protection to the Palestinian people, in particular to Palestine refugees’ (italics added) – see UNGA Res. 62/104 (17 Dec., 2007) (Operations of UNRWA), quoted in Takkenberg, p. 258; see also, in this regard, discussion in Bartholomeusz, ibid, pp. 466-469.

44 Bocco acknowledges that the nomination of RAOs demonstrates the possibility for the Agency to interpret its mandate from a protection perspective within delicate political contexts, as a result of the fact that UNRWA does not have a clearly stated protection mandate – see ibid, pp. 232-233. See also Khouri, ibid, p. 449; Bartholomeusz, ibid, p. 469; Kagan, ibid, p. 522-523.

45 Lindsay, op. cit. note 8, p. 20; Khouri, ibid, pp. 438-439, acknowledges that UNRWA officials have become recognizable in the global mass media as symbols of the Agency’s responsibility to speak out for the physical protection of the refugees, in particular against Israel.

46 Lindsay, ibid, ibid. Lindsay acknowledged that the leadership of UNRWA’s international staff had become identified with Palestinian views particularly after the Agency tasks had changed from resettling refugees to protecting them – see p. 19. See also Bocco, op. cit. note 15, p. 239, who notes that particularly since the end of the 1980s, an increasing number of Palestinian staff have been promoted to higher ranks within UNRWA.

47 Lindsay, ibid, p. 21.

48 Ibid; Bartholomeusz, op. cit. note 43, p. 467.

49 Lindsay, ibid.

50 See ibid, fn. 54. See as well statement of K. AbyZayd at the UN Security Council (2009) – the first time an UNRWA Commissioner General was invited to address the Council – discussing Israel’s ‘systematic destruction’ of civilian facilities in Gaza, as well as the ‘attackers’ failing to distinguish between military targets and civilians’ and ‘indiscriminate violence’- UN Security Council Closed Consultations Session,Statement by UNRWA Commissioner General, Karen AbuZayd, (New York, 27 Jan., 2009), and discussion in Kouri, op. cit. note 9, p. 447.

51 See Lindsay, ibid & fn. 55.

52 See ibid, & p. 23. Note that in 2008, in her lecture at Princeton University, AbuZayd described one of the main five programs constituting UNRWA’s raison d’être as a program designed to ‘build homes for refugees, replacing those destroyed by Israeli forces in the course of conflict’ (italics added) – see K. AbyZayd, ‘Palestine Refugees: Exile, Isolation and Prospects’, Annual Edward Said Lecture (May 6, 2008), available at:, as quoted in Lindsay, ibid,p. 5.

53 See Lindsay, ibid, p. 22 & fn. 60, p. 23. See, for example, speech by AbuZayd delivered at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik (Mar. 8, 2007), where she compared the history of the 1948 war with the present Israeli conflict against Hamas, stating that ‘there is a striking historical continuity in the systematic approach to use overwhelming and disproportionate force in the name of security; to separate and exclude Palestinians from the mainstream; to eject them from their land; and to occupy Palestinian land… [T]hat was the sequence of events in 1948. The very same sequence defines Palestinian reality today’ – see K. AbuZayd, ‘Crisis in Gaza and the West Bank’, available at: statements/2007/IcelandUniv_Mar07.html, as quoted in Lindsay, ibid, p. 19, fn. 45.

54 See Lindsay, ibid, p. 22.

55 See generally AbyZayd, op. cit. note 43, p. 227, mentioning the ‘blockade in Gaza and the closure regime in the West Bank’ within the main impediments challenging UNRWA.

56 See Lindsay, op. cit. note 8, p. 23 & fn. 65, p. 24; T. Sternthal, ‘Media, UNRWA Silent on Attacked Aid Convoy’, Camera, ( Jan. 21, 2009), available at: On UNRWA, as well as other humanitarian organizations, playing the role of Hamas fig leaves – see Bocco, op. cit. note 15, p. 243.

57 See Proposed Report Language on UNRWA, Proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee,Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, Regarding Senate Report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2013, Section:Migration and Refugee Assistance account; funds appropriated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), pp. 7-8 (on file with the author). Kagan criticizes UNRWA’s clear tendency to interpret, and to employ, its ‘protection mandate’ in the form that involves the urging of changes in Israeli conduct and broad policies – which may also apply to non-refugees – while neglecting and ignoring issues involving the protection of individual rights of refugees vis-à-vis Arab host authorities, due to political preferences – see op. cit. note 43, pp. 522-528. On the socio­economic discrimination imposed by host states on the Palestinian refugees, most often in the name of the ‘right of return’, and its political consequences – see Al-Husseini & Bocco, op. cit. note 42, pp.264-266.

58 See Proposed Report Language on UNRWA, ibid, p. 8; ‘Lebanon: Seize Opportunity to End Discrimination against Palestinians’, Human Rights Watch, ( June 18, 2010), available at: See also Al-Husseini & Bocco, ibid, p. 270.

59 Statement by Filippo Grandi, Commissioner General of UNRWA, to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (7 Nov., 2013), available at:, pp. 2-3 60 See J. Khoury, Egyptian Army Destroys 152 Smuggling Tunnels to Gaza Since July, Haaretz Online, (Sep. 16, 2013); Egypt Destroys Smuggling Tunnels on Gaza Border, Times of Israel, (Nov. 12, 2013); T.G. Lichtenwald, F.S. Perri, Terrorist Use of Smuggling Tunnels, International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, Vol. 2, (2013), pp. 210-226.

61 Statement by Filippo Grandi, op. ct. note 59, pp. 2-3.

62 Ibid.

63 Recall in this regard that the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident (Sep. 2011) determined that: ‘Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of internat