Irredeemable and FlawedMonday 05/08/2019

By Rachel Rosen.

 “There is no doubt that we [UNRWA] have contributed to one of the most remarkable human development processes and significantly advanced several key sustainable development goals for Palestine refugees…”

 The United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinians, or UNRWA, is a UN agency that purports to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. A simple click on their website will bring forth an array of quotes and pictures of children happily reaping the benefits of UNRWA services, such as engaging in art projects and sports competitions at UNRWA schools. According to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, “There is no doubt that we [UNRWA] have contributed to one of the most remarkable human development processes and significantly advanced several key sustainable development goals for Palestine refugees…” If UNRWA is in fact providing essential humanitarian aid to refugees however, then what are the issues with this agency that have caused the US to stop funding it?

Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the UN program which gives aid to refugees from all over the world, UNRWA is dedicated to helping Palestinians alone. Even more striking is the fact that UNRWA created a new definition of refugees that applies only to Palestinians, including not only those who were displaced after the 1948 and 1967 wars, but also their descendants. While UNRWA is commonly depicted as a humanitarian agency that provides educational, health, and welfare services to displaced Palestinians across the Middle East, it is in fact stewing a false hope among Palestinians that they will return to an Arab State of Palestine, and thus erase the State of Israel.

What does UNRWA accomplish? What are the issues it causes?

UNRWA’s definition of refugee has exponentially increased the Palestinian refugee population. While it originally aided 750,000 people, today UNRWA serves 5 million people. Consequently, many Palestinians, have acquired citizenship in other states, in Jordan in particular. Only the return of refugees and their descendants to their homes could remove their refugee status. Several Arab states, such as Lebanon and Syria, do not want to fully integrate Palestinians in an effort to not deny them their right to return to modern-day Israel. According to Einat Wilf, UNRWA expert and former Member of Kennest, this has focused Palestinian national identity on the right of return and on eliminating the modern State of Israel.

The educational system funded by UNRWA is especially problematic. UNRWA schools indoctrinate students in the West Bank and Gaza with violent, hateful ideologies. Students are taught that Israel has no right to exist, that Palestine and Israel cannot coexist, and that the Land of Israel should only contain an Arab Palestinian state. The Center for Near East Policy Research found that textbooks in UNRWA schools were filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements. These instructional materials promote the deligitmization and demonization of Israel and Jews and advocate for a violent struggle for liberation of 1948 Palestinian borders.

The UNRWA definition of Palestinian refugee status and its support for a biased education system does not contribute to peace efforts between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather, perpetuates the conflict. Refugee status is passed on from generation to generation. This ensures that many Palestinian children attend UNRWA schools where they are indoctrinated with hateful, anti-Israel, anti-peace beliefs. Hamas leaders put these beliefs into practice in UNRWA facilities by training children to become terrorists and by using these spaces for terrorist operations- such as digging tunnels under schools or storing weapons in hospitals.

Why has the US stopped funding it?

The defunding of UNRWA is one out of several steps the Trump Administration is taking to strengthen Israel. The US was the largest single donor to UNRWA, giving more than $350 million in 2017. After, however, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to enter US-led peace talks with Israel, the US froze $125 million in aid. The decision was made at a meeting between Jared Kusher and Mike Pompeo, however, many other leaders- including President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton- were supportive. Trump stated, “…With Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” Abbas’s refusal to engage in peace talks stems from the fact that Palestinians do not see the US as a fair, peace-making body. In moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he claims that the Trump administration alienated Palestinians from the peace process.

Both US and Israeli leaders view UNRWA as a means of deepening Palestinian problems. Their alienation from the peace process is not the fault of the US, but rather can largely be attributed to their own neglect to work towards coexistence. US leaders tend to point to the issue of how UNRWA defines refugee, while their Israeli counterparts discuss the existential threat that UNRWA poses to Israel. According to National Security Advisor John Bolton,

“UNRWA is a failed mechanism. It violates standard international law on the status of refugees. UNRWA’s program is the only one in history based on the assumption that refugee status is hereditary… it is long overdue that we have taken steps to reduce funding.”

 US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, affirmed Bolton’s point, claiming that in order for UNRWA to receive US dollars, the number of refugees will need to be changed to an accurate count. Heather Nauert, State Department spokeswoman, called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to support the US decision to withdraw funding from UNRWA, describing the program as an “irredeemably flawed operation” that is based on an “unsustainable” business model. The Prime Minister’s office affirmed Netanyahu’s support for the US’s “critical attitude towards UNRWA” and claimed that “practical steps need to be taken in order to change the fact that UNRWA is being used to entrench the Palestinian refugee problem instead of solving it.” The hawkish view of Israeli leaders is reflected in statements made by former and current Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Proser and Danny Danon, in which they describe how UNRWA-funded facilities are used for terrorist activities. Proser describes UNRWA schools as a “hotbed of incitement” against Israel, Jews, and the West, while Danon points to UNRWA’s adoption of a unilateral political position and the anti-peace rhetoric in course materials taught at UNRWA schools.

What are the solutions to UNRWA?

The largest problem with abolishing UNRWA is addressing who would provide humanitarian aid to poor Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Several solutions have been suggested that seek to reform who controls UNRWA and who oversees where funds get allocated. One solution would be to transfer UNRWA’s responsibilities to the UNHCR. If UNRWA operated under the UNHCR, it would to adopt the UNHCR rules and regulations, ensuring that Palestinian refugees were treated the same as all other refugees around the world. This would revoke the unique refugee status of Palestinians. Another solution would be to put UNRWA under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority, thus terminating its affiliation with the UN and UN funding. A third solution on the table is increasing UNRWA’s transparency in order to ensure that its budget and equipment are used for the correct purposes and to ensure that educational programs are supervised. In a statement to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Haley stated, “UNRWA can stay there, and we will be a donor if it reforms what is does… If it goes and makes sure that they’re not doing those teachings in textbooks, if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account. We will look back partnering with them.” She noted that the administration is seeking to bring resolutions to the UN that will hold Hamas accountable for human rights abuses in Gaza, such as the use of children as human shields.

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