Following the recent military operation in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has become a center of attention. For over six decades UNRWA has controlled and perpetuated the Palestine refugee narrative of “right of return.” In order to ensure its continued control over its Arab Palestinian clients and perpetuate the refugee narrative, UNRWA issues Palestinian Refugee ID cards. However, the agency does not have the authority to issue such ID cards. Awarding refugee status is the prerogative of sovereign states, which vet applicants and decide whether to award refugee status. Today, over five million Palestinians are holders of these unofficial cards.
Neither UNRWA nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the authority to award refugee status.
While the UNHCR does not issue such documents, UNRWA continues to print and distribute refugee ID cards to Arab children with the full knowledge that these children have never been refugees as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
A very dangerous interdependence has developed between the agency and its clients: UNRWA is dependent on its clients for its continued existence and the clients are dependent on UNRWA for their “the right of return.” The symbiotic relationships between the agency and its clients have resulted in the extreme anti-Israeli policies and operations.
No one should have been surprised that UNRWA allowed Hamas to use its facilities, provides employment to Hamas members, or that UNRWA’s textbooks follow the Hamas agenda. UNRWA is a Palestinian organization, employing 30,000 Palestinian and an international skeleton of about a 100 advisers, who are dedicated to the Palestinian cause.
UNRWA has been operating as a “non-territorial government” which undermines the ability of those it serves to become independent productive citizens. The fact that the Israeli government chooses to ignore this threat and views UNRWA’s operations as helpful is a miserable, failed, short-sighted political strategy.
UNRWA’s existence is the problem. Stopgap reforms are not possible and would not be helpful even if they were. Transferring UNRWA’s operations to the UNHCR will only make things worse. Such an act will affirm that five million Arab “refugees” living in the region will not be satisfied until they are allowed to move into Israel.
Second, if the UNHCR takes over UNRWA’s responsibilities, the issues of anti-Israeli propaganda, the use of UNRWA’s facilities as safe havens for terrorists, and the employment of tens of thousands Palestinians , many of whom are members of terrorist organizations, will remain unresolved. The only change will be the title of the agency, and the name on the agency’s stationary.
Changing the situation requires that UNRWA’s operations be phased out and that the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan adopt UNRWA’s facilities, schools and health clinics.
The Israeli government should immediately stop using the term “refugee camps” in its formal announcements; it is a false statement.
Refugee camps do not exist; these are urban neighborhoods governed by UNRWA.
The US, as UNRWA’s largest donor, can and should also demand an immediate halt to the dissemination of Palestinian refugee ID cards. All cards should be declared invalid.
Finally, on a personal note, in 1995, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles and the handshake between Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, UNRWA was asked by the UN General Assembly to begin to plan phasing out. A five-year period was assumed to be enough time to phase out UNRWA’s operations and transfer its operations and facilities to the new Palestinian Authority. The document was entitled “Fiveyear Horizon Plan.” I obtained a copy, but then lost it.
UNRWA archived the document, hid it, and now claims that it cannot be found. The phase-out plan did not materialize because the second intifada of 2000 broke out and UNRWA’s emergency services suddenly became necessary.
Indeed, the intifada was a life-saver for UNRWA. The recent military operation in Gaza should not lead to a second resurrection of UNRWA.
The writer, a professor, teaches at the MA program on conflict resolution at Tel Aviv University.