The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Arlene Kushner

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

Rather than confronting these problems, however, UNRWA has stonewalled. UNRWA’s then-deputy commissioner general Karen Abu Zayd (she has since been promoted to commissioner-general), in response to the charge of terrorism in the camps, told The Jerusalem Report in August 2002 that “We just don’t see anything like this. These things are not visible to us.”37 And when recently retired commissioner general Peter Hansen submitted to the General Assembly his mandated annual report for the period of July 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002—which covered the period during which Operation Defensive Shield occurred—he failed to mention, even in passing, what had been exposed regarding the terrorist apparatus in the Jenin camp. A little more than a year ago, in fact, Hansen, speaking at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, insisted that charges of terrorism are “all made up to delegitimize UNRWA’s work.”38 He did, however, admit in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll,” but added, “I don’t see that as a crime.”39 Others would disagree: Canada, like the United States and the European Union, lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, and makes no distinction between its “political” and “militant” factions.

Whether UNRWA is afraid to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps, or has become so entrenched in the terrorist infrastructure as to be effectively indistinguishable from it, the evidence is clear that an agency mandated to serve a humanitarian purpose has been drafted to further a militant political agenda. Yet complicity in terrorist activity is only the worst element of an entire UNRWA regime structurally aimed at advancing the Palestinian cause rather than relieving Palestinian suffering.

As its original, noble objectives have been lost, and its policies are now geared to perpetuating rather than solving the problem, one might rightfully wonder what positive value UNRWA’s continued existence may serve. The present situation, indeed, benefits no one: Not the UN, whose reputation as the guardian of international law and guarantor of international peace and security is tarnished by UNRWA’s links to terror; not Israel, whose hopes for peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors are thwarted by UNRWA’s unswerving promotion of the “right of return”; and finally, not the Palestinian refugees themselves, who have been denied the opportunity to create new lives, and thus to break the cycle of dependence, frustrated hopes, and perpetual victimhood. In light of these facts, it seems clear that if one is to take seriously the standards of international law set out by the United Nations with respect to refugees, and the aims of its agencies in helping refugees around the world, one must also conclude that UNRWA is not only unhelpful to the Palestinian refugee issue, but in fact detrimental to it.

UNRWA has failed the Palestinian refugees. This failure is the product of half a century of overwhelming politicization of a humanitarian effort. Fortunately, another UN agency exists to deal with the problem of refugees, one with a successful record of resolving their problems around the world. Those nations interested in finding a genuine, viable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem—a sine qua non for peace in the Middle East—should be encouraged to support the end of UNRWA’s regime and the application of the policies of the UNHCR to the Palestinian refugee issue.

Arlene Kushner is the author of Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO
(Pavilion, 2004) and has written reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Research.


1. The exact number of Palestinian Arabs who fled the region in the period 1948-1949 and the reasons for their flight remain an issue of much contention: Israel puts the number of refugees at approximately 550,000; Arabs claim it was 750,000 or more. UNRWA’s registry put the number at approximately 914,000 in 1950. The fact that more than 100,000 of those ultimately registered as “refugees” by UNRWA were indigents, migrants, and others in need of assistance, but not actually persons who had fled Israel, has further complicated the issue. For UNRWA’s historical statistics of registered refugee numbers by country, see: www.un.org/UNRWA/refugees/pdf/reg-03.pdf.

2. “UNRWA’s Beneficiaries,” at www.un.org/UNRWA/overview/qa.html.

3. Emanuel Marx and Nitza Nachmias, “Dilemmas of Prolonged Humanitarian Aid Operations: The Case of UNRWA,” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (June 22, 2004), at www.jha.ac/articles/a135.htm.

4. The term “Palestinian refugee” as used by UNRWA was never formally defined by the United Nations. The normative version of the UNRWA definition, described here, is applied to those Palestinian Arabs who took refuge in one of the countries where the UN provides relief.

5. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Chapter I, Article 1A.

6. Convention, Chapter I, Article 1C.

7. UNRWA Overview, Frequently Asked Questions, “UNRWA’s Beneficiaries,” at www.un.org/UNRWA/overview/qa.html.

8. “UNRWA’s Beneficiaries.”

9. UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action (Oxford: Oxford, 2004), ch. 1: “The Early Years,” box 1.2, at www.UNHCR.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/template?page=publ&src=static/sowr2000/toceng.htm.

10. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV): Assistance to Palestine Refugees.

11. “UNRWA’s Beneficiaries.”

12. UNHCR, Helping Refugees: An Introduction to UNHCR, 2004, pp. 12-13, at www.UNHCR.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/basics/opendoc.pdf?tbl=basics&id=420795964.

13. www.UNHCR.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/protect?id=3bb2eadd6.

14. UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, ch. 1, “Resettlement: A Virtual Instrument of International Protection and an Element of Comprehensive Solutions,” November 1, 2004. Chapter 1, p. 9, at www.UNHCR.ch/cgibin/texis/vtx/protect/opendoc.pdf?tbl=PROTECTION&id=3d464b239.

15. www.UNHCR.org.uk/resettlement/home_office_scheme.html#whatisresett-lement.

16. UNRWA Overview, Frequently Asked Questions, History and Establishment of UNRWA, “UNRWA Assistance in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” at www.un.org/UNRWA/overview/qa.html.

17.  Emanuel Marx, “Changes in Arab Refugee Camps,” The Jerusalem Quarterly (Summer 1978), p. 43.

18. www.badil.org/Publications/Other/Refugees/Workshop/wkshop2.htm.

19. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), Palestine: Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator.

20. Terry M. Rempel, “The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and a Durable Solution for Palestinian Refugees,” badil Information and Discussion Brief no. 6 (July 2000), at www.badil.org/publications/Briefs/Brief-No-06.html.

21. Jeannie O’Donnell, “Shu’fat Camp: Life on the Edge for Jerusalem Refugees,” The Jerusalem Quarterly File 6, 1999, at www.jqf-jerusalem.org/1999/jqf6/odonnell.html.

22.  Mohammed Daraghmeh, “Teaching the Refugee Issue at UNRWA,” The Jerusalem Times, June 22, 2001.

23. Israel launched a “build your own home” project in the 1970s that allotted a half dunam of land “to Palestinians who then financed the purchase of building materials and, usually with friends, erected a home. Israel provided the infrastructure: sewers, schools, etc. More than 11,000 camp dwellers were resettled... before PLO, using intimidation tactics, ended the program.” Israeli authorities contended that had the program been allowed to continue apace, “within eight years every camp resident could own a single-dwelling home in a clean and uncongested neighborhood.” Joel Bainerman, “Permanent Homes for Palestinian Refugees,” Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 1992.

24. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 40/165, Article J: Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank.

25. Convention, Preamble.

26. UNHCR Basic Facts, Protecting Refugees—Questions and Answers, at www.UNHCR.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/basics/opendoc.htm?tbl=BASICS&id=3b0280294.

27. Organization of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Secretary General’s Bulletin, Article 2.1(b).

28. www.un.org/UNRWA/organization/staff/html.

29. Figures drawn from the respective agencies’ websites. UNRWA cites 4.1 million refugees, although in practice it attends to a smaller number than this; the UNHCR claims 17 million. UNRWA cites a budget of $408 million for the year, while the UNHCR budget is $1.1 billion.

30. www.un.org/UNRWA/employment/organization.html.

31. “In the Second Ceremony for Exceptional Students Organized by the Islamic Bloc in Northern Gaza, Sheikh Yassin: The Current Palestinian Generation is the Generation of Liberation and the Struggle Continues Regardless of Our Sacrifices” [Arabic], Palestine Information Center, July 7, 2001, at www.palestine-info/arabic/palestoday/dailynews/2001/july01/7-7/details.htm.

32. In the 2003 elections for representatives of the UNRWA union in the Gaza Strip, Hamas-affiliated candidates—formally identified with the Islamic Bloc—gained 23 out of 27 seats. These victories made it possible for Hamas candidates to fully constitute the executive committee of the union. Hamas Scores Sweeping Victory in UNRWA Elections,” Palestine Information Center, June 10, 2003, at www.palestine-info.co.uk/am/publish/article_1214.shtml.

33. Allison Kaplan Sommer, “UNRWA on Trial,” Reform Judaism (Winter 2002), p. 42.

34. Yagil Henkin, “Urban Warfare and the Lessons of Jenin,” AZURE 15 (Summer 2003), p. 53; Ronen Bergman, Authority Given (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 2002), p. 266. [Hebrew]

35. From the 2003 report of the US General Accounting Office, detailing an investigation of UNRWA operations.

36. Interview with the author, December 14, 2003. Gold was serving as a consultant to the IDF at the time.

37. Isabel Kershner, “The Refugees’ Choice?” The Jerusalem Report, August 12, 2002, pp. 24-26.

38. Peter Hansen, “The Response of Western Governments and the U.N. to the Humanitarian Crisis and Its Political Implications,” The Politics of Humanitarianism in the Occupied Territories, conference at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, April 20-21, 2004.

39. “Canada Looking at UN Agency over Palestinian Connection,” CBC News, October 3, 2004, at www.cbc.ca/story/world/national/2004/10/03/UNRWA041003.html.


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