Canada’s temporary suspension of its financing of UNRWA over charges that some of UNRWA’s members participated in the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel should be made permanent. That UNRWA has created the ideal conditions for murderous terrorist groups to emerge, from Black September, which carried out the gruesome slaughter of Israeli Athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics, to Hamas, is not a bug in the operating system, but a feature. Anyone who truly cares about charting a path to true peace in the Middle East should have every interest in ensuring UNRWA is dismantled.
There was nothing particularly unique more than seven decades ago in the establishment of a temporary agency to settle refugees from war. With empires collapsing across the world — Habsburg, Ottoman or British — and new states emerging to replace the former imperial lands, tens of millions of people became refugees as they were fleeing across newly delineated borders. Whether in the Indian subcontinent, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, there was nothing unique in the brutal wars of post-imperial independence leading to tens of millions of refugees. Those refugees were all settled in the places to which they fled (typically new countries with similar ethnic makeup to that of the refugees) or in new places. This was done through local and independent efforts or through dedicated agencies.
The general agency established to handle refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was mostly focused on Europe in its first years of operation. Therefore, in other conflicts of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, such as the one in Korea or in the Middle East, temporary specialized agencies were established with the goal of settling the refugees in a few short years. Unlike the UNHCR these agencies were temporary because they were designed to carry out a specific purpose and close down upon achieving it. That was the case in Korea. UNKRA settled 3.1 million refugees from the war, at least three times the number of the Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1949, with a third of the budget allocated to UNRWA. It completed its job within a few short years and closed down, as planned. Look at South Korea today. It could have been the Arabs.
But the Arab refugees themselves, today known as Palestinians, refused any form of settlement in place because they knew that would mean that the war is over and that the Jewish state would thereby be legitimized as a fait accompli. Given that the explicit Arab goal in the war of 1947-1949 was to ensure that no Jewish state of any size emerged anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the Arab refugees were determined, even when a ceasefire with the Arab states ended the war, to keep fighting to ensure that the Jewish state is undone. Keeping themselves as perpetual refugees, rejecting any form of permanent personal settlement that would allow Israel to exist, became one of the main weapons in this total Arab war against the Jewish state.
UNRWA was established with the best of intentions to help settle the Arab refugees from the war (the much larger number of Jewish refugees, including those from the war and those ethnically cleansed from across the Arab world in retaliation for Israel’s birth, as well as the Jewish refugee survivors from the Holocaust were all absorbed by Israel without any international support). But the Arab refugees and the Arab countries fought against UNRWA resettlement. The agency therefore failed to settle even one Arab refugee. UNRWA’s funders at the time, the U.S. and U.K., wanted to close down the failed agency. There was no question that UNRWA was failing to settle refugees.
But the Arab countries would not hear of closing UNRWA. They had already secured the letter UN in its name in order to send the message that Israel’s existence was essentially the fault of the UN. They also secured a legal loophole exception for UNRWA from the UNHCR, knowing that if the Arab refugees would be treated like all other refugees in the world, no refugees would remain within a few short years. The next step then was to ensure that UNRWA remains open and funded by the West. Given the importance of oil and the Arab position in the Cold War the Arab countries successfully threatened the U.S. and U.K. to keep UNRWA open. UNRWA remains open to this day as a still temporary agency, now funded by numerous western countries to a tune of more than one billion dollars a year.
Once it became clear that UNRWA would neither settle a single Arab refugee nor close down, it became necessary for UNRWA to keep busy, especially since immediate relief was no longer necessary. What started as initiatives for vocational training turned within a few short years into a sprawling education system run by the Arab refugees themselves. In the UNRWA compounds (misnamed “refugee camps״) and the schools a new nationalism was born, the Palestinian one, that united Arabs living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip around the goals of revenge and “return.” The idea that Palestinians were “refugees” generation after generation, possessing a “right of return” that supersedes Israeli sovereignty to settle in Israel’s sovereign territory, became the most deeply held markers of the Palestinian identity and its national ethos.
But Palestinians are not refugees by any international standard. UNRWA registers 5.9 Million refugees in its five areas of operation: Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Forty per cent of them live in the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly by their telling they live in Palestine. They have been born there and lived there. This is where they need to build their future. They are not refugees and have no need of resettlement. Another forty per cent are citizens of Jordan. Jordan naturalized the Arab refugees after the war. By now the vast majority of those registered as refugees in Jordan have been born in Jordan. Nowhere else in the world is a citizen of a country, born in that country, somehow a refugee of another sovereign country.
The remaining 20 per cent are registered in Syria and Lebanon. Both countries have denied citizenship to these Arab born residents in their midst. Lebanon also has a web of laws preventing these Arabs from partaking in the Lebanese economy and society (an actual apartheid system). Yet recent data shows that most of those registered in Syria and Lebanon have long left these countries. Many of them attained citizenship in other countries, and yet UNRWA continues to register them as “refugees.”
In practice the Palestinian “refugee” issue is quite small. Only around two to three hundred thousand people living in Lebanon and Syria are either the real original refugees (the ones who escaped the war from 1947-1949) or their status deprived descendants who are in need of settlement in place or resettlement in third countries. These are small numbers that the actual UN agency for refugees is quite capable of managing. But the issue was never practical, it was always symbolic, the purpose being to keep the Palestinian “refugee” issue as the living symbol that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is temporary.
Not only are those registered as “Palestine Refugees” not refugees by any international standards, but they also do not possess a “right of return”, meaning a right that supersedes Israeli sovereignty to settle within the sovereign territory of Israel. Such right for a people who were never citizens of a country, that supersedes the right of sovereign countries to control their borders and decide who become their citizens, simply does not exist. Even the various UNGA resolutions that Palestinians cite, do not support such a right. But Palestinians believe they have such a “right” and have forged themselves into a nation based on the singular commitment to “return” and revenge.
It should therefore come as no surprise that UNRWA has given rise to generations of trained murderers who took pride in the slaughter of Jews, whether the Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics of 1972, or the peace supporting Kibbutzniks on Oct. 7. Even if UNRWA employees were not directly involved in murdering Jews, and we know that several of them were, given that their entire ideology is about undoing the Jewish state, their continued existence all but ensures that such organizations, whether Black September or Hamas, will always rise to fulfill that goal.
I have spent 14 years by now researching UNRWA, writing and speaking about it and advocating for its dismantlement. The only reason I devoted my time and capabilities to doing so is that, contrary to the reigning impression, UNRWA and the Palestinian “refugee” issue are not marginal aspects of the conflict. They are at the core of the conflict and the reason for its perpetuation. The conflict has always been about one thing and one thing only, the Arab rejection of the Jewish right to self determination in any part of the Jewish historical homeland. Everything else has been the outcome of that single rejection. UNRWA has been one of the most substantial forces in ensuring that this rejection not only never ends, but is indulged, supported and magnified to become the core element of an entire people.
I have always supported the idea that the Jews and Arabs of the land would be best served governing themselves by themselves in states of their own — known as the two-state solution. I continue to support that idea, but I now consider myself a long-term peace activist. Precisely because I continue to be committed to peace, I understand there can be no peace as long as the fundamental reason for the century long war waged by the Arabs against a Jewish state remains. For there to be peace, the war must first end, and the war cannot end if there is an organization, supported by Canada and other Western powers, that does everything possible to ensure it continues.
Einat Wilf is a former member of Knesset and coauthor, with Adi Schwartz, of The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace, published in 2020 by All Points Books.