A veiled Muslim woman stands in front of a UNRWA sign.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent decision by the American administration to withhold significant funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has been met with warnings of a humanitarian crisis and regional unrest. This is a mistaken reaction.
Instead of smearing this bold decision as a perceived slight, the United Nations should seize this moment and use it as a catalyst to implement both short- and long-term changes to UNRWA’s mandate. In the immediate future, UNRWA must undergo significant reform and enhanced oversight must be put into place. Then, steps must be taken to finally end the role of this nearly 70-year-old organization.
UNRWA has many flaws. Over the past year alone, multiple UNRWA employees have been caught working for Hamas, the internationally designated terrorist organization. One of them, Suhail al-Hindi, who served as chairman of the UNRWA staff union in the Gaza Strip and principal of an UNRWA boys’ elementary school, was forced to resign last April after it was exposed that he was simultaneously serving in a position of leadership in the Hamas terrorist organization while working as an employee of the UN.
Beyond the improper relationship between this UN agency and one of the worst terrorist organizations, the lessons of hate taught by many UNRWA employees are even more dangerous. Over the years, numerous UNRWA teachers, counselors and other employees have been caught glorifying terrorism and inciting hatred and violence on social media and in the classroom.
On one revealing occasion, in June 2016, as then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon was about to visit, staff at an UNRWA school in Gaza covered up a map they regularly used that taught students how Israel is to be replaced by a Palestinian state.
Allowing UNRWA to poison the minds of the next generation of Palestinians with hate is not only wrong, but only serves to ensure future conflict in our region. This is why vigorous oversight procedures must be put in place.
All staff must be screened to ensure that they are not affiliated with the worst terrorist elements of Palestinian society. The pedagogical content taught at UNRWA facilities must be completely overhauled.
If UN schools are not teaching Palestinian children that Israel is a legitimate state that is here to stay, then no amount of negotiations will overcome another generation of institutionalized biases.
If these intermediate measures were to be put into place, then important progress will be made. But this is not enough. In the long run, UNRWA must finally complete its long overdue mission.
THE MANDATE of UNRWA was flawed from its outset in 1949, charged with providing assistance to Palestinians who were displaced in the hostilities that resulted from the Arab attacks on the nascent State of Israel. The UN never considered assisting the over 800,000 Jewish refuges forced from their homes in Arab countries in the years following Israel’s independence.
As opposed to refugees from every other conflict since World War II, UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees continued to expand over the years. The 700,000 displaced individuals from 1949 has ballooned as their refugee status was passed down over the generations. Additionally, even those who had received citizenship in other countries, or are residents of the autonomous Palestinian Authority, have retained their refugee status. In short, UNRWA has done everything in its power to perpetuate the status of faux refugees instead of working diligently to resolve the issue as the UN does in every other conflict in the world.
The tools and frameworks already largely exist on the ground to ease UNRWA out of existence. Additionally, instead of pouring more money into UNRWA, these funds should be rerouted to more efficient, and one hopes more successful, solutions.
In countries where Palestinians have been granted citizenship, the refugee status should be revoked and aid should instead be provided to the host country to assist in their absorption and acclimation.
Similarly, countries that have not yet granted citizenship to Palestinians who have lived there since 1948, should be incentivized to finally end their refugee status. In territories where neither of these policies is an option, existing UN agencies can step in to ease the plight and provide essential services for those in need.
FINALLY, there is absolutely no justification for UNRWA’s operation in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority. The PA receives almost $700 million in foreign aid annually. Half of this sum is spent paying stipends to convicted murderers and other terrorists.
If the international community were to insist that its aid be used for actual humanitarian purposes, and even supplement it with aid rerouted from UNRWA, then those who have called Ramallah, Nablus and other Palestinian cities their home for almost seven decades could be incentivized to finally relinquish their refugee status.
The new American policy provides the UN and international community with the opportunity to institute some fresh thinking into the quagmire that is the issue of Palestinian refugees. The naysayers and alarmists are sure to reject these recommendations out of hand and demand that UNRWA continue to operate under its current mandate.
Those, however, who really care about the plight of Palestinians should insist that the real danger lies in continuing to pursue policies that have failed to bring peace, tranquility or prosperity to the Palestinian people.Danny Danon is Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.