UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees - was founded as a humanitarian agency but has subordinated its role as a service provider to a political agenda.
It is the only UN agency in the world dedicated exclusively to one group of refugees and establishes its own unique and expansive standards. It defines as refugees hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who would be discounted by the UNHCR Refugee Convention’s international definition.
As the UNRWA mandate is predicated upon the notion of the “right of return”- a right that in fact does not exist within international law - it maintains a policy of keeping the refugees in a temporary situation until they can return to homes and villages in Israel left more than half a century ago (the vast majority of which no longer exist).
UNRWA will not work to find realistic solutions to the plight of the refugees and will not consider resettlement as an option. Instead, it reinforces the goal of return.
Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants, who live in “limbo,” are deprived of basic human rights. UNRWA encourages them to see themselves as entitled to a “return” that will never happen, and promotes the idea that they are being cheated.
As a result, they are filled with frustration and rage, and often turn to radicalism.
What is more, UNRWA schools use textbooks that deny the legitimacy of Israel and promote Jihad. Solid documentation exists for programming that promotes Hamas having been permitted in UNRWA-run schools in Gaza, and teachers who were union representatives in Gaza being associated with Hamas. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendents, most particularly in Gaza, have been educated in an environment that promotes radicalism and Jihadist attitudes.
UNRWA, therefore bears a measure of responsibility for the rise of Hamas in Gaza.
There are multiple instances in which a connection can be documented between terrorism and UNRWA camps - which have sometimes been centers for terrorist recruitment and manufacture and storage of weapons, UNRWA facilities and, in some instances, UNRWA employees.
UNRWA officials dissemble on these issues, claiming to have no responsibility for what is transpiring. They rarely even acknowledge the extent of the problem. The degree to which they turn a blind eye is suggestive of tacit approval if not complicity.
There is no UNRWA policy of denying a registered refugee relief because of an association with terrorism. Clearly, then, some UNRWA funds wind up in the hands of terrorists.
Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that the vast majority of the UNRWA staff is comprised of people who are themselves refugees and who often share the radical perspective of the refugee client population they serve.
In multiple contexts, UNRWA administrative staff exhibits a political orientation that is not consistent with the mandate of a humanitarian organization. The UNRWA Commissioner-General, for example, has inappropriately advocated international cooperation with Hamas. Frequently the political statements by the UNRWA Commissioner-General reflect a clear anti-Israel slant.
The UNRWA operation exhibits a host of anomalies and questionable practices that require closer examination.
There is an unusual measure of autonomy in the operation, and insufficient accountability.
Numbers served are exaggerated and there is dissembling with regard to the political, rather than humanitarian, nature of the record-keeping process. Those putative refugees eligible for services elsewhere remain eligible, as well, for UNRWA services.
The major funding of UNRWA is done not by Arab states but by Western nations: First the US and then the European Commission. Canada plays a special role in convening the donor nations to allocate funds to UNRWA, in its capacity as the gavel holder of the RWG, the Refugee Working Group that was established at the Madrid Middle East Summit in October 1991.
Ultimately, there will be no resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, and no genuine cessation of violence, until the refugee issue is resolved.
It is time for the concerned international community to hold UNRWA accountable. The involvement of major UNRWA funders is key to UNRWA accountability.
Arlene Kushner, Center for Near East Policy Research.