Yesterday, I went to a lunch-time discussion that the US Friends of UNRWA, the UN Association of the National Capital Area, and a number of other organizations held to mark the 60th anniversary of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide relief services to refugees from the area of Palestine that one year earlier had become the State of Israel. To qualify for UNRWA aid, a refugee had to both (a) live in one of the five areas in which UNRWA was offering aid, and (b) be able to demonstrate need. Of course, there were also many Palestinian refugees from that era who did not meet both of those criteria, which is why, today, the number of “registered” refugees falls far short of the total number of Palestinian refugees who have claims still outstanding against Israel…
Today, the number of registered refugees is 4.67 million.
The first speaker was Andrew Whitley, Director of UNRWA’s Representative Office for the United States and Canada. Next up was Milton Viorst, a veteran writer about the Middle east. Then came Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
Whitley gave a very informative and well-crafted presentation. He started by giving a survey of the challenges UNRWA currently faces in Gaza. He noted that,
Even UN has been prevented by Israel from doing any building work in the Gaza Strip– and that includes even the work needed to complete a number of already-started projects including health clinics, school rooms, and so on.
The Israeli government has, recently, agreed to allow work on three water-treatment plants in Gaza. But there, too, there are still many problems remaining in implementing the agreement.
He said, intriguingly, that he thought the exchange of Israeli POW Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit for “some hundreds” of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel seemed to be “imminent.”
He (correctly) described the events of June 2007 as being an attempt by some people in Fateh to launch a coup against the Hamas leadership in Gaza– a leadership that had, as he rightly recalled, been elected by the Palestinians in a free and fair election some 18 months earlier. That coup attempt was, however, repulsed.
Regarding the extensive and chronic harm that the current Israeli siege inflicts on the population of Gaza, 70% of whom are refugees, he said,
Israel bears primary responsible for the suffering– but so too do other forces in the region and beyond, including Fateh and Egypt, and the Quartet, the US, and even the UN itself.
He gave a quick survey of some of the other intense challenges that UNRWA faces today. One is the situation in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon where, as he told us, the Lebanese government has still not allowed any rebuilding even 2.5 years after the fierce fighting there of 2007.
He noted along the way that there are still 11,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in the camp.
The Nahr el-Bared situation is just a very extreme case of what he talked about next, which was the whole question of whether– and to what degree– UNRWA should plan to rehab the very creaky and aged stock physical facilities it has in its five fields of operation… Which is linked, of course, to the prospects for the Palestinian refugee problem getting resolved any time soon…
He finished up by laying out, and refuting, what he described– accurately– as five very widespread myths that are frequently promulgated about UNRWA.
Myth #1: That UNRWA “runs” refugee camps.
No, said Andrew. The governing authorities “run” the camps in the sense of being responsible for their overall governance and public security within them. What UNRWA does is provide services within camps– and also, to many refugees living outside the camps. these services include schooling, health, and other emergency relief as needed. Within the designated camp areas, UNRWA also helps with providing shelter and sanitation services.
Myth #2: That UNRWA “promotes aid dependency”.
On the contrary said Andrew. UNRWA has always worked hard to make the Palestinian refugees whom it serves as self-sufficient as possible, including by giving them the best education possible. He noted that, especially in earlier decades, Palestinian professionals were largely responsible for many aspects of the rapid infrastructural and social development experienced by just about all the states in the Gulf region– and that a large proportion of those Palestinians had received their education at UNRWA schools. It is the political situation, he said, that determines whether the refugees become forced into aid dependency. In some places where UNRWA works, its clients are relatively well integrated into the local workforce and economy. In others, there are still sturdy barriers to their participation– but those barriers have to do with host-country politics, not with the policies of UNRWA.
Myth #3: That UNRWA schools “promote anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel.”
He explained that UNRWA’s longstanding policy has been to use the curricula and textbooks of its host countries– primarily because in most countries, UNRWA schools operate only up to the 9th grade, and after that the refugee children need to attend local host-country high institutions for the high-school or tertiary education. He admitted that there have been some problems in some of the host-country textbooks used– “But the school system run by the PA school system is not any more anti-Semitic than anyone else’s.” UNRWA also has, he noted, a very active human rights education program. (I think this is a supplement it offers to the host-country curriculum.)
Myth #4: That UNRWA somehow “perpetuates”the refugee problem.
Andrew noted that UNRWA uses the standard UN approach to refugee relief, that is also used by UNHCR (that’s the permanent, global UN refugee organization, which opened its doors shortly after UNRWA was established.) He noted that, like refugees everywhere else, Palestinian refugees “have the right of making voluntary, informed choice” about their long-term fate. “And 90% of them still say they want to exercise the right of return. UNRWA as a humanitarian organization does not and cannot interfere in the Palestinian people’s exercise of their political rights.” Their ultimate fate will, he said, be decided by, and be an integral part of, the final political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Myth #5: UNRWA has “no role” in refugee protection, and is “too weak”.
He noted that this myth is put about by many ardent Palestinian nationalists or supporters of Palestine. He admitted that UNRWA’s original mandate did not– specify that physical protection was a part of its task, as it was in the UN resolutions that established UNHCR. However, he noted that later UN General Assembly resolutions did give UNRWA a protection mandate. ” And meanwhile, Palestinian refugees residing in areas other than those where UNRWA operates have access to the full services of UNHCR.
He summed up the controversies around UNRWA by saying that the agency, “has a very general and flexible mandate… And all the stakeholders have their own view as to what it should be doing… Over the sixty years it’s been in existence, UNRWA has shown its flexibility and resilience and has provided many real services to the Palestine refugees whom it was established to serve.”
After Whitley’s masterly– and admirably brief–performance, Viorst gave us a somewhat lengthy recapitulation of the whole history of the Palestinian problem since 1948, interspersed with some references to UNRWA.
After Viorst’s peroration, Amjad Atallah made the wise decision to keep his remarks brief and to the point. He opened his remarks with the following wise judgment: “The survival of UNRWA is a testament both to the failure of diplomacy and to the success of humanitarian efforts.”
He also argued– a propos of the many criticisms that rightwing israelis and their allies have propagated about UNRWA, and about the roots and nature of the Palestinian refugee question in general — that “the attempt by many Israelis to perpetuate a focus on Jewish suffering while denying Palestinian suffering constantly intrudes on the peace diplomacy, and undermines it.”
UNRWA will be marking its 60th birthday next week, on December 8.