One for the Gunness Book of Records: The myth of an UNRWA policy of peace that does not exist

If UNRWA chose to operate according to UNHCR principles which protect the rights of refugees to be resettled, the plight of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would have been addressed, long ago.

A man with an UNRWA flag in the southern Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man with an UNRWA flag in the southern Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“We Are Returning
Returning, returning, we are returning
Borders shall not exist, nor citadels and fortresses
Cry out, O those who have left:
We are returning
Returning to the homes, to the valleys, to the mountains
Under the flag of glory,
Jihad and struggle With blood, sacrifice, fraternity and loyalty
We are returning
Returning, O hills; returning, O heights
Returning to childhood; returning to youth
To Jihad in the hills, [to] harvest in the land
We are returning”
(Our Beautiful Language, Grade 7, Part 1 (2013) p. 28: taught in all UNRWA schools)
On December 19, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness articulated UNRWA policies in an op-ed that ran in The Jerusalem Post titled, “UNRWA: A different perspective.” Gunness proclaims the myth that UNRWA strives for peace and tolerance and acts as nothing more than an innocuous social welfare agency for refugees.
He compares UNRWA with UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which, according to Gunness, registers refugee children “as refugees so long as their plight remains unresolved.”
Unlike UNRWA, however, UNHCR resolves the plight of refugees through permanent resettlement, a policy which the United Nations does not forbid UNRWA from applying.
If UNRWA chose to operate according to UNHCR principles which protect the rights of refugees to be resettled, the plight of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would have been addressed, long ago.
By not resolving the refugees’ plight and extending their refugee status to the 1948 refugees’ children, grandchildren and to all future generations, UNRWA does not allow the descendants of Arab refugees to see any end in sight to their refugee status.
Gunness neglects to say that UNRWA, unlike any UNHCR entity, is the only refugee agency which assures its population of the “right of return.” New UNRWA school books openly promote the “right of return” in stories, language exercises and poems to an extent which cannot be concealed.
In terms of the UNRWA education which Gunness lauds, new Palestinian school books introduced into UNRWA schools between the years 2000 and 2006 demonize Israel, without advocating any possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. New UNRWA school books obliterate Israel, which does not exist in them. New UNRWA school books replace all Israeli cities with Arab villages that existed before 1948. New UNRWA school books advocate war to liberate all of Palestine, and never confine that war to areas that Israel acquired during the 1967 war.
So where is the UNRWA “neutrality” that Gunness professes? The fact that Gunness notes that the new UNRWA books are used in Arab schools in Jerusalem where Israel maintains sovereignty cannot legitimize their approach.
Our agency has confirmed at the Jerusalem office of the Israeli Ministry of Education that no Israeli government agency has never examined the new books that UNRWA used. It would be hard to imagine that any Israel government agency would allow for any such curriculum to continue under UNRWA’s supervision.
Regardless of the UNRWA policy to use the school books of the host entity, a school book which defies UN principles of peace should no longer be used in a UN school.
There is, indeed, an UNRWA curriculum which features human rights and tolerance.
Our agency carefully reviewed the UNRWA human rights curriculum for a Norwegian media outlet and found that UNRWA teaches peace, tolerance and human rights – for the Palestinian Islamic society only, with no mention of tolerance or acceptance of Jews, Christians or any other ethnic group.
Meanwhile, UNRWA’s 30,000 employees make no pretense of neutrality.
UNRWA employees are organized in professional unions without any affinity to organizations that advocate peace.
In Gaza, the UNRWA workers union and the UNRWA teachers union have elected Hamas in successive elections to lead their unions since 1999, with 93 percent voting for Hamas in the 2012 elections.
A mantra that Gunness repeats frequently, most recently on Fox News, is that “there is no evidence that Hamas terrorists are on the payroll of the UN.”
However, the European Parliament funded a study that documented Hamas takeover of the UNRWA unions in March 2009.
Successive reports of the US Congressional Research reports that UNRWA has never vetted its staff to see if the agency employs members of Hamas. In March 2013, in my presence on Capitol Hill, Gunness informed a senior staffer of the US Congress that Hamas leader Suhail al-Hindi, head of the UNRWA teachers union in Gaza, had been dismissed by UNRWA. However, Hindi was suspended for less than one week and continues to function in his capacity to this day.
Moreover, UNRWA schools in Gaza openly conduct Hamas paramilitary training programs known as El Kutla clubs, to prepare UNRWA students to fight to liberate all of Palestine and prepare them to die as child martyrs.
While Gunness reports that UNRWA acknowledged that Hamas rockets were in UNRWA schools, no investigation has ever been conducted to determine how the rockets got there in the first place. Were these lethal weapons imported to UNRWA schools by the El Kutla clubs? To whom did UNRWA hand over the rockets? And why has UNRWA, a UN agency dedicated to peace, not stopped Hamas paramilitary training in the UNRWA schools? While the UNRWA theme is PEACE STARTS HERE, the current adage for UNRWA schools would be that WAR STARTS WITH UNRWA.
There is a bright side of things, when you look at how UNRWA can be ameliorated.
It is the donor nations from democratic nations in the West that allocate the $1.2 billion budget for UNRWA, not the UN itself.
The US remains the largest donor, giving $300 million of the annual UNRWA budget.
The new session of the US Congress provides an opportunity for it to hold open hearings on UNRWA policies.
Congress can invoke a US law on the books since 2003 which obligates the federal government to suspend funding for any agency that retains terrorist organization members on staff.
Indeed, after UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen confirmed to me at the UNRWA annual conference in Geneva in June 2004 that Hamas members were on the UNRWA payroll, Hansen was fired.
Canada, which chairs a Refugee Working Group made up of donor nations to UNRWA, can invite representatives of all donor nations to also conduct open hearings and invite residents of UNRWA facilities to hear if they want to live with another generation of empty promises to return to villages that existed before 1948.
The exclusive focus of UNRWA education is the “right to return” to villages that existed before 1948.
That can change with the input of donor nations, whose elected officials do care about the principles of the UN.
The choice is clear: Will UNRWA residents cope with yet another generation of refugee existence under the promise of the “right of return” or will they look forward to a future of dignity, rehabilitation and resettlement.
Perhaps the UNRWA funders will obligate UNRWA to replace books that advocate war with school books that advocate peace.
The writer a social worker and journalist who has worked on the subject of UNRWA reform for the past 44 years.