Recently, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) celebrated the 65th anniversary of its creation with an event at U.N. Headquarters in New York. The agency—whose regular budget is funded predominately from Western donor countries—serves only Palestinian refugees. All other refugees in the world fall under the care of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Unlike other refugees, Palestinian refugees can also pass on their refugee status to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Instead of settling the refugees, UNRWA has exacerbated the problem and now claims to have 5 million refugees under its care.
It should not be forgotten that the Palestinians were not the only refugees of the period in the Middle East. A greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries were also in need of resettlement at the time. The difference, of course, was that the Arab refugees from the recently-declared State of Israel in 1948 were fleeing an active war zone due to the inability of Israel’s Arab neighbors to accept the nation-state of the Jewish people. Arab countries invaded the fledgling state of Israel while also kicking out their own Jewish populations. Most of the Jewish refugees arrived in the newly-emerging State of Israel penniless, but were integrated within the new state (albeit often in a far from seamless or ideal way).
The Arab world never took responsibility for the creation of both refugee situations: the Arab refugees by invading Israel in a bid to end its existence, and Jewish refugees by the mass expulsions of Jews from countries where they had been a thriving community for hundreds of years. The responsibility to care for the Palestinian refugees was transferred to the international community, where it festers to this day because they were never integrated into the neighboring Arab states. Worse, in some cases Arab states have put severe restrictions on the Palestinian refugees’ lives, most acutely in Lebanon which does not allow Palestinians to own property or to enter many professions. These laws were meant to ensure that the refugees could not integrate.
UNRWA is not just an aid agency, though. To be sure, UNRWA does provide medical care and education. One would not know it from the media portrayal of the Palestinians, but the health and education status of those under UNRWA care are actually among the highest in the Middle East (as UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl proudly stated at the celebratory event). But UNRWA also often strays from its humanitarian mission and moves into the political, pushing forward the Palestinian narrative. The agency’s media unit showed off a number of slickly-produced videos during the 65th anniversary event that could have been mistaken for something coming out of the Palestinian Authority, or one of the Palestinian propaganda units within the U.N. Secretariat (most notably the well-funded Department of Palestinian Rights or the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People).
UNRWA representatives also frequently take to the airwaves to bash Israel in times of renewed conflict. Hamas has fired from in and around UNRWA facilities, and when Israel is forced to respond, UNRWA condemns vociferously the Israeli counter-terrorism actions. During the latest round of fighting, rockets were found by UNRWA in its facilities in Gaza, but it is unclear what if any accountability measures have been put in place to make sure such a situation does not repeat itself. In reaction to the discovery of the rockets in three separate incidents, UNRWA could not bring itself to condemn Hamas by name. Needless to say, there is no such timidity when UNRWA has an issue with Israeli actions—the accusations are fast and the condemnations are furious.
Most fundamentally, though, UNRWA perpetuates and promotes the Palestinian narrative of the Palestinian claim to return. Generation upon generation of refugee is told the lie that there is a “right of return;” that they can remain a refugee until there is a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian representatives that will allow them to return to within Israel’s borders. Of course, there is no “right of return,” only the politically-driven (and non-binding) U.N. General Assembly resolution 194, which Israel is under zero obligation to follow. When a Palestinian state emerges as an end-product of direct negotiations with Israel, the refugees will be expected to either settle permanently in the states where they currently reside or move to within the borders of the newly-formed Palestinian state. No Israeli government will accept a flood of Palestinian refugees (and their succeeding generations) en masse within its borders, to do so would be an end to the Jewish democratic state.
As UNRWA turns 65, there appears to be little will in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian leadership, to address the root cause of the conflict: the inability to accept Zionism—the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty and self-determination in their homeland. As such, UNRWA will continue into the future to serve the ever-growing Palestinian refugee population on the dime of Western taxpayers. Donor countries must call for UNRWA reform so that the agency adheres strictly to its humanitarian mission and the refugee population is prepared for reality when a two-state solution is reached.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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