Critics of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization
tasked with oversight of Palestine refugees, have tended to focus on its sins.
Its camps are havens for terrorists.
Its bureaucracy is bloated and its
payroll includes radicals. Its schools teach incitement. Its registration rolls
reek with fraud.
Its policies encourage a mentality of
But UNRWA’s most consequential problem is its
Over 63 years, it has become an agency that perpetuates the
refugee problem rather than contributing to its resolution.
not work to settle refugees; instead, by registering each day ever more
grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have never been displaced from their
homes or employment, artificially adding them to the tally of “refugees,” it
adds to number of refugees aggrieved against Israel. By now, these descendants
comprise over 90 percent of UNRWA refugees.
Further, UNRWA violates the
Refugee Convention by insisting that nearly two million people who have been
given citizenship in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (and who constitute 40% of
UNRWA’s beneficiaries) are still refugees.
As a result of such practices,
instead of going down through resettlement and natural attrition, the number of
UNRWA refugees has steadily grown since 1949, from 750,000 to almost 5 million.
At this rate, UNRWA refugees will exceed 8 million by 2030 and 20 million by
2060, its camps and schools endlessly promoting the futile dream that these
millions of descendants someday will “return” to their ancestors’ homes in
Israel. When even Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges that
sending five million Palestinians would mean “the end of Israel,” it’s clear
that UNRWA obstructs conflict resolution.
Israeli government officials
are well aware that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem and full well know its
That said, the State of Israel has a working relationship with
UNRWA and looks to it to fulfill certain services.
policy began in 1967 with the Comay-Michelmore Exchange of Letters in which
Jerusalem promised “the full co-operation of the Israel authorities, ...[to]
facilitate the task of UNRWA.” This policy remains in very much place; in
November 2009, an Israeli representative confirmed a “continued commitment to
the understandings” of the 1967 letters and support for “UNRWA’s important
humanitarian mission.” He even promised to maintain “close coordination” with
ISRAELI OFFICIALS distinguish between UNRWA’s negative political
role and its more positive role as a social service agency providing assistance,
primarily medical and educational. They appreciate that UNRWA, with funds
provided by foreign governments, helps onethird of the population in the West
Bank and three-quarters in Gaza. Without these funds, Israel could face an
explosive situation on its borders and international demands that it, depicted
as the “occupying power,” assume the burden of care for these populations. In
the extreme case, the Israel Defense Forces would have to enter hostile areas to
oversee the running of schools and hospitals, for which the Israeli taxpayer
would have to foot the bill – a most unattractive prospect.
well-informed Israeli official sums it up, UNRWA plays a “key role in supplying
humanitarian assistance to the civilian Palestinian population” that must be
This explains why, when foreign friends of Israel try to
defund UNRWA, Jerusalem urges caution or even obstructs these efforts. For
example, in January 2010, Canada’s Harper government announced that it would
redirect aid from UNRWA to the Palestinian Authority to “ensure accountability
and foster democracy in the PA.” Although B’nai B’rith Canada proudly reported
that “the government listened” to its advice, Canadian diplomats said that
Jerusalem quietly requested the Canadians to resume funding
Another example: in December 2011, the Dutch foreign minister said
that his government would “thoroughly review” its policy toward UNRWA, only
later to tell confidants that Jerusalem had asked him to leave UNRWA’s funding
Which brings us to the question: Can the elements of UNRWA useful
to Israel be retained without perpetuating the refugee status? Yes, but this
requires distinguishing UNRWA’s role as a social service agency from its role
producing ever-more refugees. Contrary to its practice of registering
grandchildren as refugees, Section III.A.2 and Section III.B of UNRWA’s
Consolidated Eligibility & Registration Instructions allow it to provide
social services to Palestinians without defining them as refugees. This
provision is already in effect: in the West Bank, for example, 17% of the
Palestinians registered with UNRWA in January 2012 and eligible to receive its
services were not listed as refugees.
Given that UNRWA reports to the UN
General Assembly, with its automatic anti-Israel majority, mandating a change in
UNRWA practices is nearly impossible. But major UNRWA donors, starting with the
US government, should stop being accomplices to UNRWA’s perpetuation of the
Washington should treat UNRWA as a vehicle to deliver
social services, nothing more. It should insist that UNRWA beneficiaries who
either were never displaced or who already have citizenship in other countries,
although perhaps eligible for UNRWA services, are not refugees. Establishing
this distinction reduces a key irritant in Arab-Israeli relations.Steven
Rosen heads the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum and Daniel Pipes is
president of the Forum.