Who supports UNRWA – and why

Transferring UNRWA’s activities to the UNHCR will save money and allow Arab refugees to move on and build productive lives.

UNRWA project manager in Gaza 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
UNRWA project manager in Gaza 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Following the tragic loss of life at a UNRWA school in Rafah that resulted from an IAF attack on a Hamas rocket position nearby, Israel was condemned. US, UN and UNRWA officials complained that the air force knew, or should have known, that 3,000 people were sheltered at the facility.
No one asked why UNRWA was sheltering people in an area from which Hamas was firing rockets. UNRWA denies that it knew about Hamas rocket launchers that were built nearby.
Using UNRWA facilities to stockpile weapons is only the tip of the iceberg. UNRWA certainly knows that Hamas uses the immediate area around its facilities to fire rockets into Israel. Housing displaced people in its facilities, therefore, rather than removing them from the conflict area, makes UNRWA complicit in a war crime: using civilians as shields.
Similarly, during the Second Lebanese War in 2006, UNRWA knew that its facilities were next door to gunmen from Hezbollah and other terrorist groups who were attacking Israel.
Despite this dual use of UNRWA facilities, the UN was not criticized for allowing it and endangering civilians. Since Hamas and UNRWA are virtually synonymous in Gaza, it appears that a UN agency is protecting a terrorist organization.
Instead of rebuilding its facilities in the Gaza Strip to serve as terrorist infrastructure, the UN should close UNRWA and transfer its responsibilities to the local government. That is unlikely, however, as long as UNRWA continues to receive funding – primarily from the US and Canada.
Stopping those funds, however, is opposed, ironically, by the Israeli government – notably by the Defense and Foreign ministries.
Moreover, the US State Department opposes any reform of UNRWA, or transferring its responsibilities to other UN agencies.
Rather than deal with the UNRWA problem creatively and realistically, most would rather avoid it, pass it on and hope it will go away, thus compounding the problem.
The complicity of UN in supporting terrorist infrastructure has exposed its role in a regional problem: As long as UNRWA exists, the issue of Palestinian refugees cannot be resolved and will continue to sabotage efforts toward peace.
UNRWA’s population has grown from an initial half-million or so to more than 5 million, and is growing daily, along with its billion-dollar budget. UNRWA-supported schools teach hatred of Jews and Israel, memorialize “The Nakba” (“The Catastrophe,” the establishment of the State of Israel), and advocate “the Palestinian right of return” – the most contentious and passionate issue in negotiations.
Although it might be possible to deal with UNRWA facilities located in Judea, Samaria (“the West Bank”) and Gaza separately from those in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, a comprehensive plan seems unlikely, leaving the issue to fester.
Allowing millions of hostile Arabs dedicated to Israel’s demise to flood Israel would be suicidal. Knowing this, Arab leaders refuse to compromise, assisted by UNRWA which has a vested interest.
The claim that Arabs who became refugees were and are guaranteed the “right of return” is false; there is no such “right.” UN General Assembly Resolution 194 refers to all refugees, Jews and Arabs, pending peace agreements, and suggests other alternatives, such as resettlement and compensation.
Nor would the establishment of another Arab Palestinian state resolve this issue, since most potential Arab immigrants do not want to relocate and there is no infrastructure that could accommodate such a massive influx. UNRWA’s political goals, therefore, represent a strategic threat to Israel and contribute to instability in Arab states as well.
Donor countries that might want to shift funding into productive solutions can, like Canada, direct funds to specific projects rather than support UNRWA’s general funds, but this leaves UNRWA in control. As long as UNRWA exists, no compromise is possible. Why, then, does Israel support UNRWA? According to Robbie Sabel, former senior legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry: “No doubt UNRWA plays a nefarious role since it helps perpetuate the myth that the Arab refugees and their descendants can and will return to Israel. Nevertheless Israel has never acted to dismantle UNRWA, because we were apprehensive that the financial burden of supporting the refugees would fall on Israel. UNRWA provides far more financial support for its refugees than UNHCR provides the refugees [in the rest of the world] under its auspices.”
Another senior adviser warned that Israel is afraid to oppose UNRWA (or any UN-sponsored agency) lest that hurt Israel’s attempts to play a more significant role in UN agencies and other bilateral relations.
Since all 59 UNRWA-sponsored towns and villages (with one exception) are either in PA-administered territory, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, why would Israel be financially responsible? What entitles UNRWA’s clients to more than those assisted by UNHCR? In fact, withdrawing support for UNRWA would allow for more creative and helpful alternatives, enhance Israel’s international position and eliminate one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East.
Transferring UNRWA’s activities to the UNHCR will save money and allow Arab refugees to move on and build productive lives. The government of Israel should not stand in the way.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Israel.
His collection of short stories, As Far as the Eye Can See, was published this month by the New English Review Press.