UNRWA and the code of silence

Never, ever tell Palestinians the truth that they’re not going back to their ancestors’ homes.

November 7, 2010 23:35
Miki Kratzman, ‘Refugee Camp 2000,’ 2000, digital

refugee camp 2000 311. (photo credit: Miki Kratzman)


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One of the first rules of being an UNRWA official is omerta. Above all the code of silence means refusing to tell two truths. First is the truth about UNRWA. It is a key mechanism that keeps Palestinians “refugees” over 60 years after their ancestors’ flight during the Arab war against the creation of the State of Israel. It is internationally funded, to the tune of $1.23 billion for 2010-2011, but since it is run by Palestinians, it is a tool for reproducing their sense of grievance against Israel and the West, and a unique culture of dependence and entitlement with respect to the world.

The second thing UNRWA officials need to learn is to never, ever tell Palestinians the truth that they are not going back to their ancestors’ homes in what is now Israel. That pipe dream underlies the entire Palestinian sense of grievance and perhaps of self.

Recently, for perhaps only the third time in UNRWA history, a high official let the truth slip. In a speech to an Arab-American group, Andrew Whitley, outgoing head of UNRWA’s New York office, stated the obvious, “We recognize, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent... It’s not a politically palatable issue, it’s not one that UNRWA publicly advocates, but nevertheless it’s a known contour to the issue.”

UNRWA’s reaction was swift, saying “UNRWA unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by the director of its office in New York, Andrew Whitley, at the National Council on US-Arab Relations in Washington on October 22, 2010. These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the agency and are the personal views of Mr. Whitley.”

Unfortunately, Whitley came under such pressure from his former employer as a result of his comments that he publicly apologized for the error of his ways, stating that his comments were “inappropriate and wrong.”

To allay all doubt, he added that he “wish[ed] to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA.”

So dedicated is UNRWA to lying to the Palestinians, perhaps as a function of maintaining its own role as their permanent caretaker, that it is willing to slap one of its own officials in public and even make him retract. The same thing happened in 2009 when James Lindsay, UNRWA’s former general counsel, wrote a critical report on the organization for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Among other things Lindsay criticized UNRWA’s continued employment of known terrorists and continuing politicization of the “refugee” issue.

Ironically, it was Whitley who then had the task of slapping down Lindsay, saying: “The agency is disappointed by the findings of the study, found it to be tendentious and partial and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used... The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures.”

Whitley also insisted that that “someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

This conveniently forgets that Israel evacuated all of Gaza in 2005.

SOMETIMES UNRWA will simply deny its internal critics even existed. In 1952 Lt.-Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, a noted British soldier-diplomat who was then UNRWA director in Jordan, made what was to become a famous statement to a group of visiting American church leaders: “It is perfectly clear than the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”

Galloway’s solution was straightforward: “Give each of the Arab nations where the refugees are to be found an agreed-upon sum of money for their care and resettlement and then let them handle it. If... the United Nations had done this immediately after the conflict – explaining to the Arab states, ‘We are sorry it happened, but here is a sum of money for you to take care of the refugees’ – the problem might have been solved long ago.”

In an op-ed in the same year Galloway was even more blunt about UNRWA: “Staff begets more staff. Plan follows plan. Typewriters click. Brochures and statistics pour out. The refugees remain and eat, and complain and breed; while a game of political ‘last touch’ goes on between the local governments and the director, UNRWA.”

He went on to say: “There is need to distinguish between a tempting political maneuver and the hard, unpalatable fact that the refugees cannot in the foreseeable future return to their homes in Palestine. To get this acceptance is a matter of politics: It is beyond the function of UNRWA. Second, a determined effort should be made to get the ‘host’ countries to take over relief from the agency, thus freeing it to get on with the much more important task of resettlement.”

For his honesty, Galloway was fired at the demand of the Jordanian government, which wanted UNRWA to hire local citizens instead of foreign nationals. Indeed, since that time UNRWA has done the precise opposite of what Galloway recommended, opting for the “tempting political maneuver” of lying to Palestinians about the future, never demanding that host countries resettle Palestinians and instead becoming the Palestinian ministries of health, welfare, education and, to an astonishing degree, foreign affairs.

Through a strange series of events historians and journalists transformed Lt.-Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway into “Ralph Galloway,” which has permitted UNRWA officials to this day to deny that any such person ever existed.

But the problems he found in 1951 and 1952 remain, only vastly larger, more entrenched and more expensive.

The solutions he recommended may be equally valid today.

UNRWA’s raison d’etre is the existence of Palestinian “refugees” and it has in turn created dependency within Palestinian society on its services. Galloway may have been forgotten, but Lindsay and Whitley are harder to ignore in today’s information age. If there is any chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Western leaders need to find the political will to tell the truth to the Palestinians and exercise control over UNRWA, otherwise the organization will continue to lie, spend money and demand omerta from its officials.

Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky are the authors of "A Tale of Two Galloways: Notes on the Early History of UNRWA and Zionist Historiography,” published in the journal Middle Eastern Studies.

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