(photo credit: AP [file])
A group of bipartisan US congressmen is urging reform in UNRWA, the UN body that deals exclusively with Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and calling for alternative solutions to the containment of refugees in squalid camps.
"The Palestinian refugees have been used as political pawns for the past 60 years by people who don't want peace in the Middle East," said Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) at a meeting of international parliamentarians hosted last week by the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, a bipartisan pro-Israel parliamentary group.
"The UN has been part and parcel of this conspiracy," he said.
Engel, who co-chairs the parliamentary group - established as a sister-caucus to the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus - said that UNRWA, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949 to carry out relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees, was actually designed to perpetuate the festering sore of the refugee problem.
"Instead of resettling them, UNRWA keeps them in refugee camps," Engel said. "The Palestinians are in the refugee camps because the Arab nations want them in refugee camps in order to perpetuate political hatred against Israel."
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - with estimates ranging from 400,000 to 750,000 - fled their homes in 1948, and they, along with their millions of descendants, make up one of the most prickly issues Israeli and Palestinian negotiators must deal with as part of any resolution to the conflict.
The issue of the Palestinian refugees has been largely untouched in Israel for years due to the Palestinian demand for the refugees' right of return, which Israel flatly rejects. UNRWA's definition of refugees includes not only the refugees themselves, but also their descendants. As such, the number of Palestinian refugees listed with the organization has mushroomed from over 900,000 in 1950 to 4.5 million today.
About one-third of the Palestinians listed as refugees, or about 1.3 million people, live in 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria the West Bank and Gaza, which critics say have become hotbeds of Palestinian terrorism.
US Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said it was an "international disgrace" that the US, which is the biggest funder of UNRWA, would allow the growth of the number of refugees.
In contrast to the main UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which assists and resettles refugees from around the world and has an international team of around 6,300 employees, more than 99 percent of UNRWA's 25,000-strong staff members are locally recruited Palestinians - almost all of them Palestinian refugees or their descendants, and some of them members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups both the US and the EU classify as terror organizations.
UNRWA, which operated on a cash budget of $487 million in 2007 - excluding special appeals for additional funding - receives most of its money from the US, European Commission, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Four years ago, amid persistent reports that the group was turning a blind eye to Palestinian terrorism, then-UNRWA commissioner-general Peter Hansen publicly admitted for the first time that Hamas members were on the UNRWA payroll.
"I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant, and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another," he said.
"The organization's record would not stand up to scrutiny of its donors in the US or Europe," said Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), blasting UNRWA for its "lack of international standards and arrogance about accountability."
A UNRWA spokesman in Israel did not return an e-mail request Tuesday for comment.
Recently, some Israeli parliamentarians have begun to openly advocate dealing with the refugee issue.
"It has been a big mistake not to deal with the issue of the Palestinian refugees," MK Benny Elon (NU/NRP), who favors dealing with the issue head-on for humanitarian reasons, said at the Capitol Hill gathering.
A cornerstone of Elon's recent diplomatic initiative includes dismantling UNRWA and resettling the Palestinian refugees into countries outside of Israel, in keeping with longstanding Israeli policy that an influx of refugees would demographically damage the country's character as a Jewish state.
"Without the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees, no peace will come," Elon said at the conference, which he attended as chairman of the Christian Allies Caucus.
"We are excited about our network of parliamentary sister caucuses taking on the real issues we face and challenging their respective governments to stand steadfast with Israel," said Caucus Director Josh Reinstein.
Meanwhile, amid increased scrutiny over UNRWA's role, an Israeli academic said in a paper released Tuesday that UNRWA should be dissolved, and the services it provides should be transferred to other UN agencies, notably the UNHCR.
"UNRWA perpetuates, rather than resolves, the Palestinian refugee issue, and therefore serves as a major obstacle toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," wrote Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the IDC Herzliya, in a paper titled "UNRWA: Barrier to Peace."
In the absence of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, recently extending it until June 30, 2011.
The General Assembly, dominated by the Arab bloc and anti-Western countries, is unlikely ever to change the UNRWA mandate, officials said.
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