UNRWA, Thomas L. Thompson, and others.

Arlene Kushner’s important article misses one vital fact: UNRWA was established not to direct relief and works programs for “the Palestinian Arab refugees.” Actually, in the December 1949 General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV), which established UNRWA, and from which Kushner quotes, the object of that agency’s assistance is an entity referred to as “Palestine refugees” and not “Palestinian refugees.” Indeed, a visit to the UNRWA website will confirm this nuance. In other words, Jews, Christians, and Muslims could have applied for aid. The definition was not one predicated on a religious or ethnic identity but was geographically based. Since the original intent of the definition was geographical, a Jew expelled from his home during the War of Independence and who lost his livelihood should have been qualified for assistance.
Indeed, for several years, Israeli citizens were considered candidates for UNRWA care. These were the Jews who became refugees after Arab forces overran Jerusalem’s Old City and smaller agricultural communities such as Atarot, Neveh Yaakov, Bet Ha’arava, and the four Gush Etzion kibbutzim. In a communication dated October 6, 2003, B. Scott Custer Jr., chief of the international law division of UNRWA (Gaza), informed me that in 1950, 17,000 “internally displaced Jews coming from original mandate Palestine” (as he defined them) who resided in Israel were provided support from the agency. In July 1952, Israel assumed responsibility for 19,000 “refugees,” which included 3,000 Jews, and UNRWA ceased its operations inside Israel.
Yisrael Medad
In the course of my research on UNRWA these past three years and more, I have observed a tendency among its spokespersons of absolving their organization of all responsibility for problems connected with its policies and operations. Gina Benevento’s letter reflects this thinking. Employing a familiar mantra, she claims the agency serves a purely humanitarian function and is both outside of the fray of politics and absolved of accountability with regard to terrorism within the camps. In making her case she fundamentally misrepresents the manner in which UNRWA operates and ignores documentation I have provided.
She says, first, “it is the international community which originally determined the parameters of UNRWA’s operations.” And then, more astonishingly: “UNRWA, as a UN organization, is directly governed by the General Assembly.” In point of fact, quite the reverse is true. UNRWA, within the family of agencies functioning under the UN umbrella, has a marked and extraordinary degree of autonomy; the agency’s own literature acknowledges this. While UNHCR is bound by the definitions and strictures of the Convention on Refugees, UNRWA is not. The international community did no more than set broad guidelines when establishing UNRWA, and the General Assembly does not do much more than receive, pro forma, an annual report from the commissioner-general and every so often renew its mandate. There is no serious oversight; UNRWA has, to a considerable degree, been granted the latitude to establish its own policies and modes of operation. Therein lies the heart of the problem.
Benevento states, “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.” This is true, as far as it goes, which is not nearly far enough: In subordinating its humanitarian role to a political agenda, UNRWA has blithely moved beyond its presumed mandate limitations.
Nowhere is this more glaringly the case than with regard to its highly political promotion of the ostensible right of return. Although UNRWA predicates its operation on this political premise, there is no such right in international law. In my essay, I refer to the fact that the registration numbers assigned to the refugees include codes for the village they came from. Benevento attempts to make the case that such registration codes reflect no more than the basic right of all refugees “to possess formal registration of their full identity.” For her the registration is simply a universally identified humanitarian act. In reality, a great deal more is involved.
Let me move past my earlier citation of BADIL, the Palestinian NGO advocating the right of return. Attached to family registration cards are extensive documents containing information about property left behind over 55 years ago. UNRWA is currently involved in the “Palestine Refugee Records Project” operating out of its Jordan field office. The goal of this project, to be completed in 2006, is the digital scanning of all of these documents in order to preserve them and make them readily accessible. Not remotely concerned with issues of immediate relief, education, or health care, this project is blatantly political in intent. What is more, while UNRWA complains of deficits with regard to its ability to provide necessary humanitarian services, it has done fundraising for the records project and as of mid-2004 confirmed international pledges of $6.7 million.
This brings us to the basic question of how UNRWA has chosen to define its refugees. UNRWA claims—that claim can be found on its website—that its definition is “operational.” Were that legitimately the case, those no longer requiring assistance would be removed from the rolls. In reality, however, refugees who acquire citizenship—whether in Jordan or the U.S. or Canada or elsewhere—and receive services and protection from the new state, are still kept on the UNRWA rolls. This can only be justified from a political perspective.
UNRWA has done more than merely allow such persons to remain on its rolls. At one point in its history it added persons to its rolls for reasons not humanitarian. When UNRWA began, it included in its definition a clause that read: “and took refuge in 1948 in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief.” In 1994, however, UNRWA dropped that clause, and persons who had not qualified for registration previously were suddenly allowed to register. According to Ingrid Bassner Jaradat, director of BADIL, this change was implemented with the expectation that UNRWA’s registration would one day serve as a major resource for determining refugee status.
Benevento says that I have falsely claimed that UNRWA sponsored bus tours from the Deheishe camp to visit pre-1948 villages. I never claimed this. There is more than adequate documentation of the fact that the bus tours did run from the camp; my information is that this occurred with the knowledge and sanction of UNRWA officials. These tours, in any event, are only one example of the myriad instances of programming within the camps that deliver a consistent “pro-return” message to the residents; textbooks within UNRWA schools even feature maps with Israel eliminated.
Benevento counters that residents, were they to be settled outside of Israel, would have to opt for this voluntarily. I suggest that, after 55 years of being fed a consistently “pro-return” line, they are not altogether clear on the alternatives that might be available to them and the ramifications of actually returning. In instances where Israel has sought to provide permanent housing for the refugees in Gaza or Samaria, UNRWA has actively lobbied against this. Thus has the agency worked against reasonable settlement of the refugee issue.
Regarding terrorism within UNRWA, Benevento says that when its facilities have been “misused by militants” (note the avoidance of the word “terrorists”), UNRWA has “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.” This statement is outrageous on at least two counts. The first is the parallel it draws between defensive measures by the Israel Defense Forces in the face of terrorist attacks and the actions of the terrorists themselves.
Second is the assumption that “the militants” are coming into the camps—by implication into the midst of an innocent and vulnerable refugee population—from the outside. The lie is put to this familiar UNRWA mantra by the overwhelming evidence (some provided in my essay) that the refugee population is particularly fertile ground for radicalism and that many of the terrorists are refugees, including in some instances employees of UNRWA, who are themselves refugees. How can one talk about infiltration by outside “militants” when it is a matter of record that Hamas affiliated persons ran away with the elections in the UNRWA teachers’ union in Gaza? And why does Benevento neglect to address the instance I cited of a Hamas rally on the grounds of an UNRWA school in the Jabalya camp in Gaza, attended by the staff and administration, where one teacher, on behalf of the staff, publicly praised students who become suicide bombers?
Many weapons and weapons factories have been uncovered in the camps, and recruitment of suicide bombers is done in the camps. This would not be possible without the implicit sanction of the local population.
As to my “damaging accusation” that funds may end up helping terrorists, it is from a report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office that I learned that UNRWA has never once cut off funds to a registered recipient because of involvement with terrorism. This cannot be the case because there has never been a necessity to do so. It seems that UNRWA keeps no records on the terrorist involvement of recipients and asks no questions. But then, UNRWA, with its “hear no evil, see no evil” policy, indeed will, knowingly or not, award assistance to some tainted by terrorist associations. There is no way adequately to track where UNRWA money goes under these circumstances, and yet Benevento would have us believe that 14 staff internationals visiting UNRWA installations are able to do so.
UNRWA, deeply in denial, is clearly not going to clean up its own act. It was not my intent to suggest that UNRWA has done no good humanitarian work; indeed it has. But this in no way implies that it is the agency best equipped to continue this work. Donor funds now used to sustain the refugees in indefinite limbo would be far better spent in service of finding permanent solutions for them—a mission in which UNHCR has a sterling record.
I thank Yisrael Medad for his enlightening information. If anything, it adds strength to arguments that Muslim Arab nations should have properly tended to the resettlement of Muslim Arab Palestinians (who constituted the vast majority of those who lost their homes during the war), just as Israel tended to the resettlement of Jewish persons displaced by the war.
In any event, as there has been no UNRWA activity on behalf of any but Arab Palestinians for 54 years, and because UNRWA is devoted exclusively to this population, the import of my essay stands, as I am sure Medad would agree. 

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