By Uriel Heilman
There’s little to distinguish the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Wihdat, in the southeast corner of the Jordanian capital of Amman, from the urban neighborhoods around it.
Established in 1955 to house Arabs who fled or were exiled from pre-state Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, Wihdat—officially known as Amman New Camp—is no tent city. It’s a dense urban environment of cinderblock houses, bustling shopping districts and satellite dishes. Gleaming, glass-front stores offer the latest in Western and Islamic fashions, from skimpy lingerie to traditional Islamic hijabs, and customers from all over Amman shop there. There are no walls or barbed wire surrounding Wihdat.
Perhaps most notably, the vast majority of the camp’s residents were born in Jordan. Most are Jordanian citizens.
Nevertheless, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the agency that runs this camp and dozens of other Palestinian refugee camps around the region, the residents are Palestinian refugees.
Created by the United Nations in the wake of the 1948 war, UNRWA originally was founded to carry out direct relief and works programs for the 750,000 or so Palestinian refugees of the first Arab-Israeli war. It began its operations in May 1950. (Following the founding of Israel, some 850,000 Jews were uprooted from Arab countries, an issue the U.N. has not addressed).
But fast forward 65 years and UNRWA, rather than shrink as refugees from ’48 obtained citizenship in other countries or died out, has ballooned into a behemoth of an institution. Today, UNRWA has a budget of about $1.25 billion, employs some 30,000 Palestinians spread out over five countries and territories, and serves 5 million Palestinians—not just the refugees remaining from the ’48 war but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too.
UNRWA continues to register thousands of new refugees each year. Today, there are about 2.1 million registered refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, 2.1 million in Jordan (where the vast majority have Jordanian citizenship and don’t rely on UNRWA for services), about half a million in Lebanon and half a million in Syria (where most have been displaced by the civil war, and many have fled to neighboring countries).
For critics, this is the core problem of UNRWA. While the U.N.’s main refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, aims to reduce the number of refugees from other areas—in large part by helping resettle them elsewhere if it becomes clear they cannot return to their homes—UNRWA does just the opposite. It continually expands the number of refugees, thereby perpetuating and exacerbating the Palestinian refugee problem—and, by extension, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There are core problems with UNRWA that are severe, and there are many other peripheral problems. The core problem is the existence of the agency,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a pro-Israel watchdog organization. “The whole point of UNRWA’s existence has no rational explanation other than to serve a political cause driven by the Arab states but supported by others to cast Israel as a cruel aggressor and to preserve the Palestinians in a state of grievance.”
By UNRWA’s accounting, the reason the Palestinian refugee problem persists 68 years after Israel’s founding isn’t because UNRWA confers refugee status upon new generations, but because Israel refuses to allow those whom UNRWA calls refugees to return to their ancestral homes. “UNRWA is a witness to their historic injustice and has a responsibility to sound the alarm on behalf of a refugee community that is sinking into the abyss,” the agency’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, told a meeting of the Arab League’s foreign ministers on Sept. 8.
Unlike typical refugee agencies, UNRWA doesn’t merely provide emergency relief and resettlement services. It also runs schools that educate half a million children per year and medical clinics that provide healthcare to 3.7 million people, offering everything from radiology services to dental check-ups. UNRWA has 58 refugee camps for Palestinians but also builds apartment buildings, lends money to small businesses and offers vocational training.
It also trains Palestinians in “human rights advocacy”—part of a curriculum focused on nursing Palestinian grievances against Israel, according to critics.
At its worst, critics say, UNRWA encourages Palestinian victimhood and radicalism, teaches Palestinian schoolchildren to hate Israel and the Jews, and has allowed its schools and facilities in Gaza to be used as staging grounds for terrorists firing rockets at Israel—most notably in several widely publicized incidents during the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“For the last 66 years, since UNRWA was created, it hasn’t really been trying to solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees; it is the opposite,” said Bassem Eid, a Palestinian critic and human rights advocate from the West Bank who grew up in an UNRWA camp but now says the agency is in desperate need of reform. “UNRWA, especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, has become a part of the conflict rather than a part of the solution.”
UNRWA says the opposite is true, that its programs serve as a stabilizing force without which Palestinians would fall into destitution and desperation and would turn to radicalism and violence.
“The conditions facing the 5.3 million refugees are now worse than at any time since 1948,” Krähenbühl, the UNRWA commissioner-general, told the meeting of the Arab League.
“The risks of radicalization of isolated and desperate young people are huge. Extremists are on the constant lookout for new recruits. To date, few young Palestinians have answered their calls. But if nothing is done, that may well change,” Krähenbühl said. “I am convinced that renewed attention to Palestine refugees and Palestine refugee youth is urgent. It is a matter of humanity. But it is also a real investment in the stability of many areas of the Middle East.”
UNRWA in Gaza
The last time UNRWA captured the world’s attention was during the 2014 Gaza war, when its facilities in Gaza got caught up in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Palestinian rocket crews in Gaza were using civilian areas to fire missiles at Israel, including launching, storing and hiding rockets at UNRWA facilities. In returning fire to those areas, Israel struck UNRWA facilities several times, leaving more than three dozen people, including 11 UNRWA staffers, dead.
After the war, U.N. investigative committees charged with probing these and other reported violations of U.N. neutrality found that, in several instances that July, Palestinian armed groups indeed likely fired mortars from UNRWA schools.
There were also several documented cases of weapons components found at schools. In one, this disturbing sequence of events occurred at the UNRWA Gaza Beach Elementary Co-educational “B” School: Security measures at the school were weak. Armaments subsequently were discovered on school premises. UNRWA senior management notified local authorities and asked that the weapons be removed.
In other words, poor UNRWA oversight allowed militants to use the school as a base for operations against Israel, and once UNRWA discovered this, the weapons were recovered by the militants. The fact that the classroom door was locked after the militants retrieved their weapons suggests that they had the cooperation of UNRWA staff with keys to the classroom—or worse, that the militants were themselves UNRWA staffers.
Einat Wilf, a former Israeli Knesset member who is now writing a book on UNRWA, says it’s no surprise that there is collusion between Hamas and the U.N. agency.
“UNRWA operates in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, so of course UNRWA facilities there will be staffed by Hamasniks, and of course they will turn a blind eye to weapons in schools,” Wilf said.
UNRWA says it requires its employees to sign a statement pledging that they have no affiliations that would violate U.N. neutrality.
“Staff must be, and be seen to be, neutral at all times,” UNRWA chief spokesman Christopher Gunness says. “The agency routinely checks its staff members and personnel against relevant U.N. lists … and shares its staff lists with host and other authorities.” But, he noted, “The U.N. does not vet against national or regional counterterrorism lists.”
While the use of UNRWA facilities by militants during the 2014 Gaza war marked a particularly flagrant violation of UNRWA neutrality, it is symptomatic of the larger structural problem of the agency.
At its heart, critics point out, UNRWA is a Palestinian entity. It’s staffed almost entirely by Palestinians. It provides services more consistent with a government than a refugee agency, such as trash collection, education, healthcare and small-business loans.
Though UNRWA carries a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly, the only funding it receives from the United Nations is to cover the costs of the 140 or so international staffers at the organization, amounting to about $30 million of the $1.25 billion annual budget. The remainder of UNRWA’s money comes from voluntary contributions from foreign governments and individual donors—mostly in the West. UNRWA’s largest single donor is the United States, which makes an annual allocation to the agency that varies from year to year. Last year the U.S. allocation was $380 million.
Perhaps most egregiously, UNRWA is not neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, charge critics ranging from pro-Israel Jews to Israeli and U.S. politicians. UNRWA’s schools, in everything from textbooks to school plays to art projects, promote the message that Israel is the reason for Palestinian misery and that Palestinian “return” to ancestral homes inside Israel is a right and an achievable goal.
In one textbook, for example, Israel is referred to as a “Zionist terror organization,” Palestinian resistance to Israel is extolled as “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” and militant Palestinian groups are referred to as “self-sacrificing warriors,” according to a March 2016 study of Palestinian textbooks by the German Mideast Freedom Forum. Second graders in UNRWA schools are urged to visit the families of “martyrs”—Palestinians killed fighting Israel. Maps of the region label all of Israel’s territory as “Palestine.”
UNRWA says its curricula are those of the host countries—in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority—which enable refugee children to take state exams; creation of parallel UNRWA curricula wouldn’t make sense. As for UNRWA’s human rights program, agency spokesman Gunness said it focuses on “promotion of the universal values of the United Nations,” including “the teaching of and learning about human rights, non-violent conflict resolution, gender equality, disability rights and tolerance.”
Eid, the Palestinian human rights activist, says UNRWA textbooks and teachers train students to hate Israel, according to interviews he conducted last year with Palestinian students from UNRWA schools in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.
“These pupils, from 8 to 12 years old, are talking about suicide bombing, about stabbing, about military resistance against the Israeli occupation,” Eid said. “When I ask who is teaching you these things, they said, ‘Our teachers at school.’ I interviewed several UNRWA teachers in Jordan and asked them, ‘Are you teaching these young kids about suicide bombing and military resistance against the occupation?’ They said very clearly on camera: ‘Yes, because without the military resistance these people are never going to be able to liberate their lands from the Israeli occupation.’”
A direct line can be traced between Palestinian violence and UNRWA, Neuer says.
“The UNRWA educational system teaches millions of Palestinian that they’re going to go back to their homeland, which is Israel,” Neuer said. “It’s not surprising in Gaza that when they receive cement from the international community to build homes, schools and hospitals, they instead build terror tunnels into Israel—because they are told one day they will go back and they have to fight the occupier. That is the message of UNRWA.” It’s not just UNRWA’s Palestinian staffers that promote a political agenda. Its top international officials, too, take overtly political positions.
“I stand before you with an urgent and simple message: the necessity to keep alive hope and dignity for Palestine refugees,” Krähenbühl told the Arab League in September. “UNRWA is a witness to their historic injustice.”
During the 2014 Gaza war, UNRWA’s Gunness said during an interview with Al Jazeera, “The rights of Palestinians—even their children—are wholesale denied. And it’s appalling.” Then he broke down sobbing.
In 2015, an UNRWA school outside Damascus was called out by UN Watch for using its Facebook page to post images celebrating Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis—for example, a cartoon featuring a Palestinian child ramming a hook-nosed Jew with a remote-control car. The postings came amid a spate of car ramming and other deadly attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.
UNRWA’s spokesman responded by taking to Twitter to ask for help in digging up dirt on UN Watch.
“This is typical for UNRWA,” UN Watch’s Neuer said. “They insist time and again that they’re neutral and impartial, but a quick look at their Twitter feed shows they never condemn Hamas. They only condemn Israel.”
In March, the spokeswoman for the U.S. fundraising branch of UNRWA, Laila Mokhiber, shut down her Twitter account amid widespread criticism for publicly endorsing “Israel Apartheid Week,” a campus-focused initiative meant to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and Israel’s alleged sins against them.
“This is politicization gone wild,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “UNRWA is another arrow in the quiver of the Palestinians to achieve their narrative in the U.N. at the expense of Israel. It is long overdue for this agency to be reformed and depoliticized.”
The Least Bad Option?
For Israel, the continued existence of UNWRA presents a conundrum. For all its faults, neither the Israeli government nor pro-Israel groups in the United States have yet called for UNRWA to be dismantled.
On the contrary, the Israeli military coordinates with UNRWA, working with it when allowing cement, aid and other materials into Gaza. And the United States, Israel’s most stalwart ally, is also UNRWA’s biggest funder.
The reason is that the Israeli government and many of its supporters view UNRWA as the least bad option. “Deeply flawed as the agency is, Israel depends on UNRWA as an element promoting stability in the West Bank and Gaza, a vital strategic objective for the Jewish state,” wrote Steven J. Rosen, who worked for 23 years as director of foreign policy issues at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in 2015 in the Middle East Forum.
If UNRWA didn’t exist, the 245 schools the agency runs for 233,000 Palestinian students in Gaza would probably be run by Hamas, a terrorist organization, and there would be even worse incitement. If UNRWA didn’t provide health services in the West Bank, the burden for caring for them probably would fall on the Palestinian Authority or Israel. If the Palestinians didn’t have the welfare and vocational services UNRWA provides, they surely would be much worse off, and Israel likely would get the blame.
“Eliminating UNRWA would serve only to deprive Palestine refugees of the basic public services and human development opportunities offered by the Agency,” Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA’s commissioner-general from 2005 to 2009, wrote in 2014 in the Middle East Monitor. “Such services would then have to be provided by another body; in the case of West Bank and Gaza that would be the occupying power, Israel. This explains the official Israeli government support for the role of UNRWA, and the reason there is a modicum of cooperation in allowing basic provision of goods and services by UNRWA in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The consensus in the Israeli intelligence community is that if UNRWA were to disappear, there would be another Palestinian wave of violence, and possibly regional destabilization, according to Wilf, who while a Knesset member raised the issue numerous times with Israeli defense and intelligence officials.
So, Israel does work with UNWRA. It has been equivocal on UNWRA’s behalf when U.S. funding for the refugee agency is questioned, according to insiders. Rosen says he witnessed this firsthand while at AIPAC. According to Rosen, whenever constituents pushed a member of Congress to challenge funding for UNRWA—as some have—or tried to get AIPAC involved in the campaign to challenge UNRWA, the Israeli government was hesitant.
The Israeli Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces unit that deals with UNRWA, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), declined to comment for this article. Over the decades, numerous UNRWA reform proposals have been introduced in Congress —including in 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014—but none even came close to enactment, except for a 1961 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that requires UNRWA “to take all possible measures” to assure that no U.S. funding goes to refugees involved with terrorist groups.
In Wilf’s view, this short-term advantage for Israel of leaving UNRWA alone—regional stability—carries a heavy long-term price: the perpetuation of the conflict by sustaining the Palestinian refugee problem—and the belief among Palestinians that they will one day return to Israel. Israel needs to have an open debate about whether it’s worth the price, she argues.
“Maybe it’s better to support the Palestinians through the Palestinian Authority or Jordan than through UNRWA,” Wilf said. Even if having UNRWA around is worth the price, she added, “We have to make sure that UNRWA reduces the conflict, not creates more obstacles to peace. As long as they hold onto the right of return, there’s no concession from the Palestinian maximalist position. UNRWA is the only reason the problem still exists today.”
UNRWA won’t disclose the precise number of original refugees remaining from the ’48 war, but it’s probably minuscule. Even by UNRWA’s own accounting, fully half the Palestinian refugee population is under age 25.
In fact, a child born in Amman today to a father who is a native Jordanian and a mother who, while also born in Jordan and a Jordanian citizen, had a paternal grandfather who fled pre-state Israel in 1948, would be considered a refugee.
“The U.N. has created a special status for the Palestinians as refugees that has not been applied to any other group,” Mariaschin said. “And through continued funding without serious reform, the United States is enabling an agency that perpetuates the conflict instead of seeking an end to the conflict. It’s time for change.”