UNRWA and the ironic benefits of low expectations

Posted: July 24, 2010 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA

The Jewish Chronicle recently had an article on the visit of Senator Robert Casey Jr.  (D-PA, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) to the Middle East. Entitled “Sen. Casey Hopeful of UNRWA Improvement,” it had some interesting things to say about the Agency:

Among Jews, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, doesn’t have such a stellar reputation.

In February, it hosted a soccer tournament at a West Bank facility named for a known terrorist.

Last September, the Simon Wiesenthal Center accused UNRWA officials of making derogatory remarks about the Holocaust. UNRWA denied the allegations.

Most egregious, during the Gaza incursion, UNRWA accused Israel of “violations of international law” while remaining silent on the subject of Palestinian rockets fired from schools, playgrounds and mosques.

Could it be the notorious U.N. agency, which is responsible for providing “assistance, protection and advocacy,” according to its Web site, for Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories may be redeeming itself?

U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. is hopeful.

The Pennsylvania Democrat and two other senators just returned from a Middle East tour, visiting six countries, including Israel, as well as the West Bank.

Among the better news he learned on the trip came from UNRWA Director of Operations John Ging.

According to Casey, Ging said Gazan families are starting to place their kids in UNRWA-run schools instead of Hamas-run schools.

“You have a real connection being made with population and UNRWA,” Casey told The Chronicle in an interview Tuesday. “More [families] are relying on that option than going to schools and centers sponsored by Hamas.”

If true, the development is significant because Hamas has historically won favor with the Palestinian population through the social services it offers, including its schools.

But it’s significant for another reason as well: the Holocaust.

Last October, Ging announced that the Holocaust would be taught in the secondary schools in Gaza that UNRWA administers. Hamas denies that the Holocaust occurred, calling lessons about the period a “Zionist plot.”

The irony, of course, is that UNRWA is apparently “improving” either by doing things its been doing for a long time, or by not doing things that it wasn’t doing in the first place. A few cases in point:

  • UNRWA didn’t actually name a soccer tournament after Abu Jihad. (I could also launch into a long discussion of the historic role of Khalil al-Wazir/Abu Jihad in the evolution of the Palestinian nationalist movement, but that’s a topic for another time and place.)
  • The Simon Wisenthal Center’s attack on UNRWA was bizarre in the extreme. UNRWA proposed to address the Holocaust in its human rights curriculum, for which it is then condemned by some Hamas elements—and, indeed, even received death threats against some UN staff. The Agency attempted to move ahead, but with understandable caution. The Simon Wisenthal Center then issued an attack against UNRWA (for comments that UNRWA denies making), apparently missing the point that UNRWA was proposing to do something that no host country has ever done—including Israel, which controlled the West Bank and Gaza educational system for 27 years, but never sought to introduce human rights or the Holocaust into local education. Even the JTA thought that the SWC attack was a little over-the-top.
  • Of course UNRWA, which had its facilities shelled during Operation Cast Lead, complained about Israeli actions (and, indeed, was later offered compensation for the attacks by Israel). It has an international mandate to look after Palestinian refugees, and would clearly not be fulfilling that mandate if it remained silent. For the most part its statements were measured and accurate, and indeed some of the inaccurate claims attributed to UNRWA were actually made by other UN agencies-who-shall-remain-nameless (for which UNRWA took the blame).

According to the Jewish Chronicle piece, “Gazan families are starting to place their kids in UNRWA-run schools instead of Hamas-run schools.” That’s hardly new—UNRWA was teaching some 206,114 Gazans in January 2010, all of whom would be in Hamas-controlled public schools if the Agency wasn’t present. As for the “real connection being made with population and UNRWA,” that’s hardly new either—for years polls have shown that although refugees love to grumble about the Agency, UNRWA is the most trusted institution in the Palestinian territories. A  Fafo  study  last  year,  for  example,  found  that  81%  of  Palestinians  in  Gaza  (and  87%  of  refugees  in  Gaza)  expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in UNRWA, compared to 64% confidence in al-Jazeera TV, 46% for international NGOs, 40% confidence in Hamas, 37% for local community leaders, 36% for the Fayyad government/PA, 34% for Palestinian NGOs, 25% for Palestinian political parties, and only 12% for the US‐EU‐Russian‐UN diplomatic Quartet.

It is interesting to speculate on what it causing the shift in opinion, by Casey and others, to a somewhat more favourable attitude to the Agency—especially if the Agency hasn’t fundamentally changed course. It could be the Agency’s own efforts to communicate more effectively, or the widespread press coverage of some of its more successful initiatives (such as the Gaza summer camps). It could be the signal sent by strong US government support for the Agency, with the Obama Administration clearly seeing UNRWA as playing an irreplaceable role, especially in Gaza. It could be that, for all the attacks on UNRWA from certain advocacy groups, the government of Israel itself does not favour reduced aid to UNRWA, knowing that any diminution of UNRWA activities in Gaza would only serve to benefit Hamas. (Certainly, the Lebanese government makes a somewhat similar argument to donors, arguing that cuts in UNRWA services only strengthen radical jihadist groups like Fateh al-Islam.)

In any case, the net result is an ironic situation where, with so much inaccurate and scurrilous accusations against UNRWA floating about in the blogosphere (UNRWA, sponsor of terrorism!), the Agency need only do what it is already doing to give the impression of improvement.

This isn’t to say, of course, that everyone is getting a more accurate picture. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) continues to seek Congressional cosponsors for her proposed “United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2009”   (HR 577). According to Americans for Peace Now, the bill “purports to be about general UN reform, but is essentially about treatment of Israel at the UN and an effort to de-fund and shut down Palestinian-related UN organizations (including UNRWA).”

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