UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, was created in 1949 after the Arabs rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, and five Arab armies attacked the nascent State of Israel and lost. And yet, its role in enabling the ongoing Arab War on Israel is not readily understood nor publicized, but is the essence of David Bedein’s new book, Roadblock to Peace, How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNWRA Policies Considered.
Bedein, a prolific Jerusalem-based investigative journalist, author, and director of the Israel Resource News Agency, who hosts a blog, www.israelbehindthenews.com, is eminently qualified to report first-hand on the workings of this unique United Nations agency whose exclusive mandate is but one ethnic group. This stands in sharp contrast to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which works on behalf of millions of refugees from the rest of the world. The book is extensively documented with sources, citations, graphs, photographs, and footnotes.
Bedein explains that the UNRWA was spawned in response to the displacement of some 540,000 Arab refugees upon Israel’s repulsion of the invading Arab armies in the 1948-49 War. Unlike the UN mandate for all other refugees on the planet, UNRWA has avoided any permanent solution to the predicament of these refugees, and instead focuses on their so-called right to “return” to Palestine. According to Bedein, UNRWA’s mandate is “to provide humanitarian aid (education, health care, welfare assistance, social services) but it has instead absolved itself from any responsibility to resolve the plight of the Arab refugees and their descendants, thus transforming their plight into a political tool.” This is key to comprehending why the Palestinians cannot and will not end the conflict againstIsrael – as there is a theological component Westerners ignore, which encompasses a portrayal of victimization and “occupation” by a dhimmi people, the hated Jews.
Bedein shows that the assumption that UNRWA would have a limited lifespan has been proven woefully incorrect. Instead, it is a behemoth, operating 59 refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, Judea and Samaria (defined as the “West Bank”), and Jerusalem. As of 2011, there were 29,000 staff members; by contrast, UNHCR has 7,200 employees to serve15.4 million refugees. UNHCR is funded through voluntary contributions from 116 donor countries, of whom the US, at 30%, is the largest contributor; in 2011, the U.S. provided almost $267 million. Meanwhile, UNRWA’s budget sky-rocketed to $1.2 billion. This assistance exceeds that of all other refugees in the world. The number of refugees UNRWA served as of 2011 has swelled to 4.681 million, because unlike how the UNHCR counts refugees – which is only the actual individual refugee – UNRWA counts descendants of refugees as well. And, most problematic, UNRWA holds that return to their place of origin is considered an inalienable right; again inopposite to UNHCR in which the right protected is to find asylum and resettlement in a country of refuge or a third country, and help refugees get on with their lives. â€Ž
Two chapters in particular are potent. In Chapter Five, UNRWA Refugees and the Terror Connection, Bedein writes about how UNRWA has circumvented stringent requests from donor nations to weed out Hamas from its ranks. In Chapter Six, Bedein describes the UNRWA educational system, which constitutes half its budget, and the use of school books which contain material that contradict is professed mission – which is the ideal of peace. With numerous examples, Bedein shows how UNRWA school books often advocate armed struggle against Israel, denyIsrael’s legitimacy as a sovereign state, and demonize Israelis and Jews. He demonstrates how Hamas maintains control over its staff union and keeps it a hotbed of anti-Israel radicalism. This type of behavior has been going on for over six decades and has clearly contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict.
Accordingly, per Bedein: “UNRWA should not continue its policy of absolute submission to the political, ideological and propagandist lines of the host governments in its areas of operation whenever these lines contradict UNRWA’s principles and mission. These are things that UNRWA must not teach.” As U.S. taxpayers, we should all be very concerned that we are in essence funding terrorism, not peace.
Bedein concludes with sensible policy conclusions on improving UNRWA’s accountability. The status quo is “neither desirable nor acceptable” and ultimately “detrimental to the long term well being of the refugees and to the possibilities of peace in the Middle East,” he says. His final moral argument is most powerful: it is simply inexcusable and inhumane for UNRWA to continue to cultivate expectations of the “right of return” and “confer on them a limbo status that prevents them from getting on with their lives.”
For anyone truly interested in understanding UNRWA’s largely invisible but looming and forgotten role preventing a genuine reconciliation and peace in the Middle East – this is your book.
Lee S. Bender is co-President of the Zionist Organization of America- Greater Philadelphia District, and co-author of Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z (Pavilion Press, 2012). The book can be purchased here.