How a person feels about the vast and sprawling UNRWA organization – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – is a kind of proxy for how open he or she is towards understanding what actually happens in this part of the world as distinct from what people wish were happening.
If you think UNRWA is just great, deserves all the support we can give it, one of the mankind’s major humanitarian achievements, then you may be part of a hugely uninformed majority. A blog with the modest title “Call to Humanity” (just as one small example among many) reflects that standpoint, calling UNRWA “the oldest, most-established and perhaps the most successful international humanitarian operation in the world“.
It’s nothing of the sort as, for instance, the Red Cross (established in 1863) might point out. As for successful, there’s room for thinking very differently.
When UNRWA got started on December 8, 1949, it defined a Palestinian refugee as someone whose “normal place of residence” had been Palestine during the 23 month period ending in May 1948. Yes, that’s 23 months, not years.
In 1965, the class was widened dramatically by an UNRWA decision to extend coverage to third-generation refugees i.e. the children of parents who were themselves born after 14 May 1948, the day Israel came into formal existence and was massively attacked by all the Arab states.
This must have gone over well in certain quarters because in 1982, eligibility was extended to all subsequent generations of descendents, without any limitation. This chain of events is described in a recent monograph, “UNRWA: Blurring the Lines between Humanitarianism and Politics“, authored for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs by Dr. Rephael Ben-Ari.
What’s more, those “refugees” remain refugees even after they become citizens of other countries.
Given UNRWA’s broad definitions, it is therefore no wonder that the current number of Palestinian refugees, according to the Agency’s figures, amounts to nearly 5 million – half of the number of refugees in the entire world - whereas the formal number of original refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 was around 700,000 – 750,000 out of whom only 8 percent are still alive. [Ben Ari]
UNRWA has evolved into one of the largest programs of the United Nations. Its 30,000 employees are part of a structure that delivers services to its beneficiaries in ways that, elsewhere, would be considered government-like. But in the Middle East, government-like can be a fairly loose and unhelpful definer. For instance, though polio has erupted in the region, the government operated by the Hamas regime in Gaza is said to be refraining from spending any of its hard-earned military-equipment budget on anti-polio vaccine.
How effective is UNRWA? A different refugee agency (the Office of UN High Commission for Refugees) set up in the same year to serve the remainder of the world’s displaced innocents
has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of some 8,600 people in more than 125 countries continues to help some 33.9 million persons [UNHCR website].
Yet people like the blogger we just mentioned keep putting UNRWA at the top of the heap.
Now, sixty-plus years after it got started, UNRWA is about to come under some brief scrutiny within the UN, though let’s quickly add that no-one expects anything good to come of it. Jonathan Tobin explains this in an article published yesterday on the Commentary Magazine website, called “Want Peace? Change UN’s Refugee Policy”:
A UN panel will discuss an effort to revise the rules under which the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) operates. The pending debate is the result of an initiative pushed by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Judges and seeks to redefine who can be considered a Palestinian refugee and therefore a recipient of UNRWA’s largesse… This discussion not only calls attention to UNRWA’s misguided policies but also highlights an issue that is one of the chief obstacles to peace. Though UNRWA is tasked with helping the Palestinians and is, for lack of a Palestinian government or groups dedicated to providing their people with a path to a better life, their primary source of sustenance, it actually plays a central role in their continued victimization… Rather than help the refugees to adjust to reality, UNRWA’s policies have dovetailed nicely with a Palestinian political identity that regards accommodation to Israel’s existence as tantamount to treason. The Palestinian belief in a “right of return” for not just the original Arabs who totaled a few hundred thousand but for the millions who claim to be their descendants is only made possible by UNRWA’s willingness to go on counting second, third, fourth, and now even fifth generations of Palestinians as refugees. [Tobin]