.

The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Arlene Kushner

How to solve their plight and end the half-century-long crisis.


The message of repatriation is reinforced in other ways as well. In the summer of 2000, for instance, bus tours were offered for the residents of the refugee camp at Deheishe so that they might visit the homes they left in Jerusalem in 1948. And in 2001, a Palestinian group called the Higher Committee for the Return of Refugees was permitted by UNRWA to enter its schools in order to sharpen students’ awareness of the “predicament of refugees” and to bolster “their sense of belonging to the homeland.”22 Thus, while UNHCR aims to encourage integration into one’s new country of residence, UNRWA strives to do just the opposite: To instill in Palestinian refugees a sense of impermanency, and to nurture their narrative of loss.

Finally, it should be noted that, over the years, groups of Palestinian refugees have been offered opportunities to move into permanent housing—opportunities that have almost always been thwarted. In 1985, for instance, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units constructed near Nablus with the support of the Catholic Relief Organization—without, it must be stated, demanding that they relinquish the “right of return.” Yet the UN intervened to prevent such an occurrence.23 In response to Israel’s attempts to provide housing, a General Assembly resolution was passed asserting that:

measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return… [the GA] calls once again upon Israel to abandon its plans and to refrain from… any action that may lead to the removal and resettlement of Palestine refugees in the West Bank and from the destruction of their camps.24

Put simply, if UNHCR struggles to bring an immediate end to the plight of refugees through any means available, UNRWA’s entire efforts are geared towards a single “solution” which is both extremely unlikely ever to happen and not in the best interests of the refugees’ humanitarian needs. Rather it is in the interests of their political leaders’ aims.

The difference between the two organizations is felt also in the respective services they provide and the extent to which they are willing to place a burden of assistance on sovereign states. The UNHCR aims to provide basic material assistance only as necessary, and with the expectation that host or new countries of residence will cooperate as far as they are able in providing for refugee needs. The Convention states clearly that UNHCR is “charged with the task of supervising international conventions providing for the protection of refugees,”25 and the UNHCR website maintains that “UNHCR’s main role in pursuing international protection is to ensure that states are aware of, and act on, their obligations to protect refugees… and cannot be considered as a substitute for government responsibility.”26 UNRWA, by contrast, has been providing material assistance to Palestinian refugees for over fifty years in the form of “educational services, including general and higher education as well as vocational, technical and teacher education” and “a wide range of health services, including disease prevention and treatment, health protection and promotion and environmental and family health programs”–services far beyond the scope of “emergency relief” envisioned by UNHCR as a temporary measure on the road to self-sufficiency.27 Indeed, Palestinian Arabs provided for by UNRWA are the only refugees in the world to have guaranteed health care, primary education, and welfare benefits–as befitting a quasi-governmental body aimed at nurturing a people over the long haul rather than providing humanitarian relief. Not surprisingly, in the course of providing these services, UNRWA has developed an extensive bureaucracy—according to its website, UNRWA’s staff currently stands at 24,324 members28—with one staff person per 164 refugees (compared to one staff person per 2,803 refugees in UNHCR), and 99 dollars spent per refugee annually (compared with the UNHCR’s 64 dollars per refugee).29 The result is a kind of mutual dependence: The Palestinian community has become dependent on UNRWA’s services, support, and employment; and UNRWA has become dependent on its clients for its own survival and operational growth.

In short, by introducing broad parameters of inclusion, UNRWA has inflated the original numbers on its rolls; by declining to exempt those refugees who subsequently acquire citizenship elsewhere, it has sustained those large numbers over the years; and by counting successive generations, it has succeeded in indefinitely expanding the number of refugees. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, by encouraging the expectation of and desire for a “return” to Israel that is in all likelihood impossible, UNRWA has done a grave disservice to the refugees themselves—in effect, subordinating the humanitarian aims of refugee assistance to the political aims of Arab leaders. Unlike other refugees, who have been helped to regain some measure of autonomy, the Palestinian refugees remain mired in a sense of helplessness and frustration, condemned to an existence as stateless, displaced persons.

Of all the problems inherent in UNRWA’s policies, however, the practice of hiring from within its own client population is perhaps the thorniest. Of the approximately 24,000 persons in its employ, all but the roughly 100 “internationals” in executive positions are Palestinian Arabs, the vast majority of whom are themselves refugees.30

UNRWA claims that hiring refugees ensures a greater degree of sensitivity on the part of employees toward the problems facing their client base. Yet there is a general rule of thumb that it is not appropriate for an agency to do large-scale hiring of staff from the population it serves. No other UN agency does this; the UNHCR, for example, maintains by design a certain distance from its client base. The reason for this distance is clear: Employers who share the situation of their clients are vulnerable to conflicts of interest. UNRWA staff naturally share the passions and perceptions of their fellow refugees, and can easily be led to act on them inappropriately. In some cases, this means turning a blind eye to beneficiaries of UNRWA services engaged in terrorism; in others, it means outright involvement in terrorist activity itself.

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence of such involvement. Incidents like the one on July 6, 2001 are not uncommon: The terrorist organization Hamas convened a conference in an UNRWA school in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza with the full participation of school administrators and faculty. Students were addressed by Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who spoke about the “liberation of Jerusalem.” He was then joined by Saheil Alhinadi, UNRWA’s representative from the teachers’ sector, who praised the Hamas students who had carried out suicide attacks against Israelis in recent months. “The road to Palestine,” he orated, “passes through the blood of the fallen.”31

It is also common knowledge that Hamas-affiliated workers control the UNRWA union in Gaza.32 Within the teachers’ sector of the union, for example, all representatives are Hamas-affiliated, and Hamas candidates constitute the union’s entire executive committee, as well. Moreover, an organization called Islamic Bloc, ideologically similar to Hamas, has been charged with furthering the goals of Hamas within UNRWA schools; it prepares the next generation of Palestinians for the “liberation of Palestine” by organizing special events and distributing printed materials. Retired IDF colonel Yoni Fighel, a former military governor in the territories, explains how radical Islamic movements have come to dominate the refugee camps: “As long as UNRWA employees are members of Fatah, Hamas, or pFlp [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine],” he says, “they are going to pursue the interests of their party within the framework of their job.... Who’s going to check up on them to see that they don’t? UNRWA? They are UNRWA.”33

The full extent of the terrorist infiltration in Palestinian refugee camps was revealed during the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield, mounted in the spring of 2002 in response to an unprecedented wave of terror attacks inside Israel. The evidence gleaned from that operation is both irrefutable and damning: Hardly innocent residential areas, the UNRWA-run camps which the army entered were riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, Kassam-2 rocket manufacturing plants, and suicide-bombing cells. The camp in Jenin, site of the most intense fighting, provides the most dramatic example of the terrorist takeovers of UNRWA camps. A letter written by Fatah members in Jenin to Marwan Barghouti in September 2001 grants some insight into the situation:

Of all the districts, Jenin boasts the greatest number and the highest quality of fighters from Fatah and the other Islamic national factions. The refugee camp is rightly considered to be the center of events and the operational headquarters of all the factions in the Jenin area—it is, as the other side calls it, a hornets’ nest. The Jenin refugee camp is remarkable for the large number of fighting men taking initiatives in the cause of our people. Nothing will defeat them, and nothing fazes them. They are prepared to fight with everything they have. It is little wonder, therefore, that Jenin is known as the capital of the suicide martyrs.34

It should come as no surprise, then, that the IDF found a number of wanted terrorists hiding inside UNRWA schools; that a large number of youth clubs operated by UNRWA in the camps were discovered to be meeting places for terrorists; and that an official bureau of the Tanzim, or Fatah-affiliated, militia was established inside a building owned by UNRWA. UNRWA’s donors might be surprised to learn that funds intended for humanitarian relief sometimes end up serving the goals of Palestinian terror: In an interview with CNN in February 2002, PA Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib remarked that every young man in UNRWA’s Balata refugee camp has his own personal weapon, since the local steering committee—an official UNRWA body—had voted that charitable donations received would be used for guns rather than food or other relief. UNRWA’s role in the terrorist activity of the Palestinian refugees is not only a passive one. Rather, UNRWA employees themselves sometimes engage in terrorism. According to the 2003 report by the United States General Accounting Office,35 for example, UNRWA employees were arrested and convicted by Israeli military courts of throwing firebombs at an Israeli public bus; possession of materials that could be used for explosives; and transferring chemicals to assist in bomb-making. Also, the IDF demonstrated that UNRWA ambulances have been used to transport terrorists and firearms in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, himself saw shahid (martyr) posters on the walls in the homes of UNRWA workers during a visit to Jenin in April 2002. “It was clear,” he said in a December 2003 interview, “that UNRWA workers were doubling as Hamas operatives.”36



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