Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Which Side Is UNRWA On?

by Elliott Abrams
September 1, 2014


The war in Gaza has brought UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian “refugees,” back into the news– mostly because UNRWA schools were used to shoot rockets at Israel.

The failings of UNRWA were examined here (“Ending UNRWA and Advancing Peace“)  in December, 2011, although today they seem even worse. The UNRWA employees union is under Hamas control, and it’s clear that the staff is riddled with Hamas “activists.” The Israeli commentator and former Knesset member Einat Wilf wrote yesterday that

now, with the fighting over, it is time for Israel to do what it should have done decades ago — remove the layer of protection and legitimacy it grants to UNRWA. Israel should recognize UNRWA for what it is — a hostile Palestinian organization that perpetuates the dream of the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel — and treat it accordingly.

So now there are two compelling reasons to end UNRWA. Its cooperation with Hamas, and the way in which it has been permeated by Hamas, constitute one reason. The second is that UNRWA is engaged in the perpetuation and expansion of the “Palestinian refugee problem” rather than its solution. Here is the explanation I gave in 2011:

Since the end of the Second World War, millions of refugees have left refugee camps, and refugee status, and moved to countries that accepted them–quickly or slowly–as citizens. Post-World War II Europe was an archipelago of displaced persons and refugee camps, housing 850,000 people in 1947–Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Latvians, Greeks, and many more nationalities. By 1952, all but one of the camps had closed. Hundred of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe went to Israel after 1948, and then hundreds of thousands more arrived from Arab lands when they were forced to flee after 1956 and 1967. The children and grandchildren of these refugees, born after their arrival, were never refugees themselves; they were from birth citizens of the new land, as their parents had become immediately upon their own arrival. In this process many nations and agencies have played wonderful roles, not least the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The exception to this refugee story is the Palestinians. In most of the Arab lands to which they fled or travelled after 1948 they were often treated badly, and refused citizenship (with Jordan the major exception) or even the right to work legally. And instead of coming under the protection of UNHCR, they had a special agency of their own, UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. In the decades of its existence, it has not solved or even diminished the Palesinian refugee problem; instead it has presided over a massive increase in its size, for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees are considered to be refugees as well. Once there were 750,000; now there are five million people considered by UNRWA to be “Palestinian refugees.” And UNRWA is now the largest UN agency, with a staff of 30,000. UNHCR cares for the rest of the world with about 7,500 personnel.

Which side is UNRWA on? Its supporters would say “on the side of Palestinian refugees,” but instead the agency appears to be on two other sides: its own, always expanding its own empire and responsibilities, and on the side of Hamas.

Any transition to UNHCR would need to be slow and careful, but it should begin. One good way to start is to demand independent studies and planning for such a step (independent because you obviously can’t leave this work to UNRWA itself, nor should all of it be conducted within the UN system). For example, a plan might start in one country (such as Jordan or Lebanon) rather than in Gaza. Or it might start by redefining “refugee” the normal way. The United States should begin, after a set future date, to move funding from UNRWA to UNHCR. If UNRWA or the UN refuse, so be it: let those who insist on retaining UNRWA, its pernicious definition of “refugee,” and its ties with Hamas pay the freight.

Such a transition will be extremely difficult and take years. That’s clear–but it’s time to begin. The Gaza war has illuminated once again the ways in which Hamas has been acting as a parasite feeding on this UN agency–to which the United States is the largest donor. Time for a change.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I think it would also be very enlightening to some if they could see exactly what is being taught in these UNRWA “schools” .

  • Posted by efab

    Pressure senators & congressional leaders NOW before November elections to dwmand withdrawal of all US $ from UNWRA.

  • Posted by Rex Brynen

    It is probably worth noting that under UNHCR rules, stateless descendants of Palestinian refugees (namely almost all those in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza) would still be considered refugees, exactly as they are under UNRWA rules. UNHCR calls this derivative status. (Most of the refugees returning to Afghanistan post-2001, for example, were second and third generation refugees born outside that country.) Moreover, UNHCR is very clear that repatriation–NOT host or third country resettlement–is its preferred durable solution. Overwhelmingly in recent decades refugees return to homelands, and only a very small percentage (about 1-3%) are resettled. Indeed, UNHCR arguably has a strong repatriation mandate than does UNRWA. The only substantial effect of transferring responsibility for Palestinian refugees to UNHCR would be reduce assistance to, and potentially destabilize, the government of Jordan (where most refugees are citizens)–something neither the US nor Israel has much interest in doing at present.

  • Posted by EMT

    Hamas and UNRWA Are both Liars and Cheaters

    Hardly the cease-fire announced, and Hamas had already secretly transported rockets and rocket launchers in the Sinai, in order to be used should any agreement or draft agreement with Israel not please Hamas. The position in the Sinai prevents Israel to retaliate on Egyptian territory. In doing so they took the Israelis and the Egyptians for idiots.

    As for UNRWA, they are worse than Hamas. They hid rockets and other weapons in their offices and left civilians be on their premises to supposedly protect themselves from Israeli attacks. But the Israelis have always announced the attacks in advance to the population, so that they may evacuate the target locations. UNWRA is not telling the truth to the United Nations. Thus civilians were killed. It is a scandal, because as representatives of the UN, an important organization in the world, they lie as if we were not following what is happening. As for Ban Ki Moon, I feel sorry for him, because he confuses the truth with lies and it’s not his fault, because UNRWA is cheating.

  • Posted by jeb stuart

    A Palestinian state will most probably be the first entirely international welfare state on the globe. That might be the UNRWA’s point and intent and UNRWA job security Refugee status in perpetuity, perhaps that theme is motivating Obama to increase those on Welfare in the USA over 30% in six years based on an imaginary economic scheme, taxes and debt. Obama seems to hate everything about American institutions which he stereotypes as “white” but still expects whites to shoulder the burden an example of which Obama expressed in his contemptuous blame of Bush for the ISIS and what it is doing now, what he actually means is White America is to blame.. you don’t have to agree with me, wait and see who gets the bill for Islamic state stagnation..

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