In the context of announced budget cuts, the US administration recently announced that it will drastically reduce its financial support of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wanted the outright cancellation of the $364 million allocated each year to the UN agency, as long as it did not implement reforms and transparency, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was for the time being content to halve the first tranche of aid, originally set at $125 million.
At the heart of this case is the desire of US President Donald Trump to stop financing any agency or international organization that does not reflect American interests. There is also, however, a 180-degree turn on the US position in the Arab-Israeli conflict by the new administration. It seems determined not to make the same mistakes -- and fall into the same traps -- as previous administrations.
First, what is UNRWA?
Established in December 1949 with a one-year mandate, UNRWA aimed at its birth to help resettle the 600,000 Palestinian Arabs who had fled the conflict zone during the rebirth of the state of Israel, after five Arab armies had attacked it -- and lost.
The causes of this exile were threefold, according to several polls undertaken in refugee camps and summarized in an article by Tibor Mende, published in French newspaper Le Monde on April 21, 1951:
"Some did not want to live in a Jewish state, others fled the battle and, once that was over, could not return home. Many more left because they were told that it was for a few days, a few weeks at most, and that they would return with the triumphant Arab armies. "
Surprisingly (or not), no parallel office was created to help the 870,000 Jews expelled and despoiled by the majority of Arab-Muslim countries between 1948 and 1974 -- including those militarily forced out of Judea and Samaria by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which hastened to rename this region the "West Bank" after illegally annexing it in 1948.
It is true that most of the Jews expelled from Arab countries were welcomed by Israel and in the Western world, whereas, with the exception of Jordan, no Arab country bordering the Jewish state made the slightest gesture to help its own victims in a conflict the Arabs had begun. They apparently preferred, instead, to let their co-religionists languish in the worst conditions, presumably in an effort to place the blame for their suffering on Israel.
In 1950, when Canada's General Howard Kennedy and Sir Henry Knight, the first UNRWA leaders, realized that their work was rendered impossible by the politicization of the humanitarian crisis with which they were charged, and that their mandate could not be fulfilled in such a short time, an English Labour MP, Richard Crossrian, was called to explain their failure in the House of Commons. His answer, as reported by Mende in Le Monde, was eloquent:
"As long as we rely on the United Nations to do something serious for the settlement of refugees, we will only deceive ourselves because the United Nations is a political organization. There is the Arab League, and all the politics of the Arab League. The Arab League needs the refugee problem to maintain cohesion against Israel. The refugee settlement would deprive her of her most important complaint ... "
This statement is arguably the best explanation for the fact that UNRWA, created for one year, as noted, is still in operation 70 years later.
In seven decades, the small humanitarian agency has become a monster. UNRWA now has responsibility for more than five million souls, of which only some 20,000 should be considered refugees according to the definition of the UN, which applies to millions of exiles around the world... with the intriguing exception of Palestinians.
"A refugee - within the meaning of the Convention of July 28, 1951 - is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries..."
Therefore, according to the UN's own definition, the status of "refugee" cannot be passed from generation to generation -- as it conveniently has been for the Palestinians. A Palestinian with a European, American or Jordanian passport has no reason to be considered a refugee. Except by UNRWA.
Compare some figures:
- All refugees worldwide (with the exception of Palestinians) are supported by the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR). A staff of 10,966 executives and employees is trying to help 65.6 million victims, from Congo to Myanmar.
- UNRWA employs 30,627 executives and 21,571 educators to care for the descendants of Palestinian refugees, whose number, even with the claims of supposedly inherited refugee status, remains ten times lower than all other persons displaced.
In other words, even if one accepts the inapplicable definition of the term "refugee" -- attributed not only to the exiles of 1948 but also to their descendants -- each beneficiary receives assistance in human assistance and money approximately 50 times higher than that of an African or Asian victim of persecution.
UNRWA's annual budget is close to $ 1 billion, of which more than a third, as noted, is funded by the US. Wait, there is more: Unlike other UN humanitarian agencies, the one in charge of the descendants of Palestinian refugees, has a pension fund -- and pensions on the stock market in various countries amount to more than a billion and a half dollars. These figures are astronomical, and only underscore several aberrations of UNRWA.
First, according to UNRWA:
"a refugee from Palestine is a person whose usual place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost both his home and his means of livelihood because of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. "
Clearly, any immigrant worker or visitor, regardless of his or her origin, could thereby enter the UNRWA statistics, if he could justify having spent just those two years inside what then became Israel.
Yasser Arafat's biographer, Said Aburish, a refugee from the northern region of Israel, and also a former adviser to the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, disclosed other aberrations when interviewed by the author:
"Since the UN took them over, the Palestinians started burying their dead at night, without declaring them, in order to share their rations. As a result, for nearly 20 years, the official death rate in the camps was close to zero. In addition, there was a lot of movement between the camps. But these displacements were rarely recorded, so that a Palestinian could appear in several camps at the same time, multiplying the financial support to which he was entitled." (Interview by the author, in 2006, featured in the documentary "From the River to the Sea.")
When it comes to UNRWA, however, the terms used to describe their mission quickly lose their meaning. The suburbs of Jenin and Ramallah, for instance, composed of small plush houses, bordering some overcrowded residences, continue to be called "refugee camps," while tents and stoves have long been replaced by solid constructions, all with sewage and electricity.
To quote a former minister and history professor, Shlomo Ben Ami, in an interview with the author, in May 2006: "Administrations, to survive, tend to perpetuate the problem they are supposed to solve".
UNRWA has mushroomed -- largely on account of at least five generations of "inherited refugee status" -- without apparently having even tried to solve a single refugee problem in seven decades.
In the 1960s, the Israeli government developed a humanitarian project for the self-rehabilitation of Gaza refugees. The idea was simple: it was to build modern residential neighborhoods in the unexploited areas of the formerly-Egyptian Gaza Strip. The 160,000 Palestinians living in camps there would obtain free loans, allowing them quick access to the property, while many would participate in the construction of units, infrastructure, schools and hospitals, in exchange for a salary that would allow them to repay the loan.
The reaction was not long in coming. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat immediately appealed to the Arab League, which immediately put pressure on the United Nations, causing the organization to immediately to condemn Israel for this initiative, and .and concluded its resolution with the following injunction: "Return the refugees to the camps!" The project was aborted after only 7,500 Palestinians were able to enjoy it.
This "incident" was reported by Tibor Mende in Le Monde. Mende discovered, on the ground, that any initiative aimed at integrating or rehabilitating Palestinian refugees from Lebanon -- where, today, they still have no rights, no access to the labor market, nor to the most basic care -- was prohibited, and concluded:
"These examples support the generally held view that the United Nations would spend large sums of money to create a refugee problem rather than solve it."
Proponents of UNRWA, however, such as UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, are right to say that, in a certain way "UNRWA is a stabilizing presence on the ground". If tomorrow the more than 50,000 UNRWA employees, 95% of whom are Palestinians, were left without work; and rations, aids, and access to education for dependents were removed, the already explosive situation in the "camps" could become equally unfortunate.
Another more serious problem remains: UNRWA is not just a humanitarian agency. Its political stance is evident at all levels of the organization. A report from the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, says that the 2016-2017 curriculum for elementary schools in PA, partly funded by UNRWA, "teaches students to be martyrs, to demonize and deny the existence of Israel, and to focus on a 'return' to an exclusively Palestinian country."
Ann Dismorr (right), the Director of UNRWA in Lebanon, poses with a map that erases the State of Israel and presents all of it as "Palestine." (Image source: Palestinian Authority TV via Palestinian Media Watch)
On February 12, 2017, the non-governmental organization "UN Watch" sent a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, denouncing the actions of about 40 UNRWA officials. The officials' Facebook pages, the report shows, make apologies for Nazism, venerate Hitler, call for the extermination of Jews, celebrate the murder and kidnapping of Israelis, publish Hamas propaganda to the glory of "martyrs" and, more generally, deny the right to Israel's existence, whatever its boundaries. With his back put to the wall by these overwhelming revelations, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness hastened to call for an investigation -- against UN Watch!
Even the most moderate among UNRWA loyalists continue to promote the myth of a "right of return" -- a wish that can never be realized because it means flooding the tiny country of Israel (roughly the size of Vancouver Island) with millions of "Palestinian refugees" in order demographically to outnumber the Jews there and thus create the end of Israeli democracy -- and preventing any attempt at "integration".
During the wars between Israel and the terrorist organizations that rule Gaza, rockets were commonly fired from UNRWA schools or from near its hospitals.
Access to several terror tunnels was dug under UNRWA's infrastructure; ammunition was found in its college. Of course, when questioned on these points, UNRWA officials hastened to condemn the intolerable use of their neutrality for the purposes of war! But that did not stop UNRWA from returning the rockets and other mortars found in its infrastructure to Hamas.
Several video reports by the Center for Near East Policy to students at UNRWA schools are even more disturbing. No child, questioned on this point, recognizes the right to the existence of Israel. All girls and boys dream of one day becoming martyrs to the Palestinian cause, and some unashamedly say that their greatest wish is to kill Jews. When asked about the source of their motivation, most said that their teachers taught them that their country was "stolen by the Jews.
So, how to deal with such a situation?
The first logical solution would be to merge UNRWA with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thus ending the "Palestinian exception," while distributing UN budgets more equitably among the true refugees suffering extreme misery.
Unfortunately, UNRWA is dependent on the UN General Assembly, where the anti-Israeli automatic majority, led by the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, has so far been preventing any change in its current status.
The gradual withdrawal of funds allocated by the US seems a positive measure, provided that the resulting shortage leads UNRWA to reform its structure and mode of operation. The danger is that rogue countries will probably try to take over.
The next step would be for the UN to be transparent; to have outside monitors from the US make sure that no member of any terrorist organization is a part of its staff; to trade its highly questionable school curriculum for an education toward peace; to denounce the paramilitary training that sometimes takes place in the courtyards of its schools and, as a token of good faith, to begin by canceling the world tour of its "young ambassador", Muhammad Assaf, who, during his talks, only encourages violence.
It is hard not to include a quote from UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness: "UNRWA will continue to work tirelessly to ensure the full implementation of our mandate, as defined by the General Assembly. "
In other words, in 30 years, if nothing is done, UNRWA, instead of managing the fate of supposedly between 5 - 6.5 million Palestinians as it does now, will be managing the fate of 40 million.
Pierre Rehov, born and raised in North Africa, is a reporter, author and the director of "Hostages of Hatred" and "Silent Exodus", documentary films about Palestinian and Jewish refugees.