UNRWA, Thomas L. Thompson, and others.

Palestinian Refugees
I would like to correct a series of inaccuracies in Arlene Kushner’s article, “The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem” (Azure 22, Autumn 2005). The first concerns UNRWA’s mandate. By stating that UNRWA operates “outside the norms accepted by the international community,” Kushner distorts the basic facts regarding UNRWA’s creation and its fifty-plus years of operation. Surprisingly, she also gets the basic concepts (UNRWA’s mandate concerns “Palestine refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees”) and nomenclature (UNRWA is advised by an Advisory Commission rather than by an “Advisory Committee”) wrong.
Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was established by UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of December 8, 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestine refugees. Since that time, in the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, recently extending it until June 30, 2008. Indeed, contrary to Kushner’s assertion, it is the international community which originally determined the parameters of UNRWA’s operations, and which continues to support such operations to this day.
Kushner goes on to fault UNRWA for never having “sought to promote resettlement” for Palestinian refugees, and for its failure to solve the refugee problem. A woeful and seemingly willful misunderstanding of UNRWA’s mandate is at work here. From the outset, UNRWA’s mandate was strictly limited to the delivery of humanitarian services, and then moved progressively into basic and preparatory education, and health and relief assistance. Since 1991, UNRWA’s activities include an award-winning micro-finance and micro-enterprise program, which has disbursed more than 95,000 loans valued at $98.6 million. Issues such as the promotion of resettlement and the resolution of the refugee problem clearly do not fall within this mandate; they are political rather than humanitarian in nature, and can only be addressed by political decision-making among the parties involved. As is well known, the solution to the refugee question is one of the “final-status issues” to be addressed by the parties to the conflict in the course of comprehensive peace negotiations.
Moreover, though earlier criticizing UNRWA for operating outside international agreements, Kushner soon switches tracks and faults UNRWA for continuing to provide services to Palestinian refugees as per successive UN resolutions that extended its mandate. UNRWA, as a UN organization, is directly governed by the General Assembly, and must act in compliance with its resolutions.
But it is not UNRWA’s continued adherence to its mandate that is the real source of Kushner’s ire. Rather, it is the issue of the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return.” Kushner accuses UNRWA of gearing its “entire efforts” towards an unrealistic right of return, that is, repatriation to Israel. Yet she begins this argument with a claim that is simply false: UNRWA never sponsored bus tours for Deheishe camp residents to their pre-1948 villages.
Next, Kushner focuses on the UNRWA register of refugees, condemning such registration as instilling a sense of impermanency, and nurturing a “narrative of loss.” Yet, it is the right not just of Palestinian refugees, but of refugees everywhere, to possess formal registration of their full identity, including their place of origin.
Failing to prove the merit of such accusations, Kushner switches tactics again, this time to “terrorism.” Citing a series of agency “links” to terrorist activity that have clearly been disproved, Kushner concludes that UNRWA is “afraid or unwilling to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps.” But UNRWA has no mandate to administer refugee camps. It simply provides services for the refugees who live there, as well as for those refugees who live outside the camps. The security and policing of refugee camps is the sole responsibility of the host country or occupying power.
UNRWA has, nonetheless, added unarmed guards in vulnerable areas as an adjunct to requests for increased police protection inside, and near to, refugee camps. Furthermore, for the past five years, UNRWA has operated a U.S.-funded program in the West Bank and Gaza, staffed by 14 internationals who regularly visit UNRWA installations to ensure that they are not being used for improper purposes.
Kushner insinuates that UNRWA does not wish to see or does not care if its facilities are misused by militants. This is not true: Thanks to the respect UNRWA enjoys from the local population, there have been very few incidents of this sort. In those rare instances of misuse, UNRWA protested in the strongest possible terms to the Palestinian Authority, just as it protested every time the Israeli army commandeered UNRWA facilities during its military operations to use them as detention or interrogation centers.
Finally, UNRWA funds do not “sometimes end up serving the goals of Palestinian terror.” This very serious and damaging accusation has been thoroughly disproved by the numerous audits and evaluations to which the agency is subjected, inter alia by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Indeed, UNRWA scrupulously respects the provisions enacted 30 years ago by the U.S. Congress precisely on this issue.
In addition, Kushner unfavorably compares UNRWA with UNHCR, holding UNHCR aloft as the UN agency with “the far more successful strategy for dealing with refugees.” Yet, the present leadership of UNRWAboth its commissioner-general, Karen AbuZayd, and its deputy-commissioner, Filippo Grandi—are refugee affairs experts, with long and distinguished records of service at UNHCR. Collectively, they have directed successful operations assisting Ugandan, Ethiopian, Chadian, and Liberian refugees, as well as coordinating the Namibian return of apartheid-era refugees and the South African repatriation effort, among others.
Again, it is not UNRWA’s operations (or “strategy”) that displeases Kushner, but rather its mandate. UNHCR is mandated to offer refugees three options: Local integration, resettlement in third countries, or return to their home countries. Such choices are not feasible in the Palestinian context, since the first two options are unacceptable to the refugees and their host countries, while the third is consistently rejected by the State of Israel. Crucially, Kushner fails to mention that any one of these options must be accepted voluntarily by the refugees under UNHCR’s care, a principle shared by UNRWA’s mandate.
Kushner states, “one might rightfully wonder what positive value UNRWA’s continued existence may serve.” She could easily obtain answers from the Palestinian Authority, the government of Israel, and the international community. In a meeting with UNRWA’s commissioner-general last August, President Mahmoud Abbas voiced the PA’s strong support for UNRWA’s continued role. Also, a recent letter from Israel’s permanent representative to the UN stated: “Israel appreciates and reaffirms its support for the humanitarian work being carried out by the UNRWA.” And a statement by the UK government on behalf of the European Union noted that until a final-status agreement in line with relevant UN resolutions is reached, “the services provided by UNRWA remain essential to ensure a decent life to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.”
Kushner concludes her article with the allegation that “UNRWA has failed the Palestinian refugees.” But perhaps she should speak with the refugees themselves, who have directly benefited from the services UNRWA provides. Such services have enabled the vast majority of them to become self-sufficient and productive. Only a third actually live in camps, and far from sitting around waiting for handouts, most refugees are fully engaged in the economic life of the society they live in. UNRWA-educated teachers, doctors, engineers, and social workers have made important contributions not only to the refugee community, but to the development of the region as a whole. Indeed, UNRWA’s commitment to the empowerment of Palestinian refugees, and the consistency with which it delivers its services, is well known. Removing UNRWA from the scene would not cause the refugee problem to disappear, but instead would significantly increase the suffering and hardship they endure.
The UN resolution establishing UNRWA recognized the need for humanitarian relief to Palestine refugees not only to prevent “conditions of starvation and distress,” but also to “further conditions of peace and stability.” During a period of instability and change, UNRWA is confident it has fulfilled this role and remains a force for good.
Gina Benevento
Chief, UNRWA Public Information Office
Gaza City

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