Factcheck #3: UNRWA as artificial ‘obstacle’ to Mideast peace

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Rex Brynen in conspiracies, factcheck, quite a bit of well-deserved sarcasm, UNRWA

In an opinion piece today in the Philadelphia Daily News, Nicole Brackman and Asaf Romirowsky assert that illegal Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories (or, as they prefer to term it, “construction in Israeli towns in the West Bank”) isn’t the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East. No, the real obstacle is the refugee issue, which in turn is kept artificially alive by UNRWA.

We’ve discussed this particular view of the refugee issue before on the blog. Many of those who advocate it, of course, would find it ideologically and politically convenient of the refugee issue could be dismissed as a figment of the UN bureaucracy. However, let’s imagine for the moment that UNRWA is indeed a large global organization bent on perpetuating generations of conflict—the humanitarian equivalent of SPECTRE, or perhaps something more akin to Dr. Evil’s global empire.

In that case, what evidence would one seek, or what research would one conduct, to show that UNRWA indeed has this effect?

  1. Well, first, one could assert that UNRWA “has managed to prevent its demise by ensuring that the refugees stay artificially separated from the rest of the Palestinian population.” This is something that Brackman and Ramirowsky do in fact claim. The problem with that claim, of course, is that with over 70% of refugees living outside camps (and with camp refugees themselves largely integrated into local economies, with the exception of Lebanon) it is demonstrably not true. Let’s see if we can come up with something better.
  2. One could show that refugees (who receive UNRWA education and services) have dramatically different political views from non-refugee Palestinians (who don’t deal with UNRWA), due to the Agency’s nefarious campaign of political brain-washing. The problem there is that we know, from more than a decade of polling data, that this isn’t true either. Indeed, as I have noted before, attachment to or support for the right of return is even expressed by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  3. Perhaps we could show that refugees who have never received UNRWA services have lost their sense of grievance, injustice, and dispossession? Brackman and Ramirowsk are invited to discuss this issue with members of the Palestinian diaspora outside UNRWA’s area of operations—in, say, Philadelphia. I doubt they’ll find what they are looking for.
  4. Perhaps they could show that, historically, no other population displaced from the Holy Land has ever nurtured a multi-generational longing for return. (Well, other than the modern Zionist movement, and the establishment of the state of Israel. )

As we’ve seen this week with the controversy over Andrew Whitley’s comments to NUSCAR, UNRWA is awkwardly placed to address the issue of rights of return and the degree to which they might be realized. As was evident in my comments on the issue, I’m quite critical of collective reluctance to address these issues frankly. That, however, is a rather different issue from imagining that the sense of injustice that Palestinians feel from their forced displacement in 1948 is somehow illusionary or artificial. Moreover, it rather overlooks the fact that the international community, by failing to address the root causes of the refugee issue (forced displacement) or to offer a credible alternative to large-scale return (achievement of an independent, viable Palestinian state) has simply left the refugee issue to fester—and then asked UNRWA to “muddle through” in dealing with the consequences of failed peacemaking.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi and Dr Evil.

It’s a shame, really—the notion of UNRWA as the epicentre of a global conflict conspiracy has a certain attractiveness to it. For a start, the Agency could dispense with all of those blue flags and education and health services and children’s summer camps and emergency relief programs and microfinance projects, and start building death-rays on some secret island hideout. (“Where the hell is Matt? Matt is in Gaza with UNRWA, plotting global conquest.”)


UNRWA's real (secret) headquarters.

Now that would really give them some leverage with donors regarding their current budget shortfall…

  1. karen abuzayd says:

    Brilliant, Rex, and thanks–the most effective way to address this tired old campaign, which somehow continues to rally the troops.

  2. Alice Gillham says:

    Fantastic stuff! Have you checked out our new web campaign at peacestartshere.org?

  3. Rex Brynen says:


    Indeed, yes… scroll back through the blog and you’ll see we devoted a blogpost to it.


  4. Carl Prine says:

    To burst some illusions, I would suggest, Rex, that just as UNRWA isn’t an obstacle to peace in the Middle East neither so is Israel/Palestine the road to peace.

    This is essentialist nonsense. Palestinians and Israelis could dance arm-in-arm around the maypole atop the Temple Mount tomorrow and it wouldn’t create “peace” in the Middle East. There are too many bad borders, antagonized neighbors, illegitimate rulers and aggrieved populations to ever provide much “peace,” whether Israel existed or not.

    Since you favor Israeli pols to “mature” I would urge analysts and aid workers and generals with a kink for Palestine and Israel to do so as well: Palestine really isn’t that important, even if we like to imagine that it is, and it most certainly isn’t a magic key to unlock the chest o’ peace for an entire region.

  5. Rex Brynen says:

    In this case, “Middle East peace” is being used by Brackman and Romirowsky to mean the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” or possibly the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” I agree with you they’re not all the same thing, and that Israel/Palestine is far from the only driver of conflict in the region.

    As for the broader importance of the conflict, I would argue that–to paraphrase Yogi Bear–it is “more important than your average conflict,” with broader implications for regional stability, radical Islamism, terrorism, and a range of things (although, again, far from the only or primary driver of any of those things). Sadly, I also think that most of the major actors (Israel, the US, neighbouring countries… even Fateh and Hamas) can live with the current status quo for a long time, which doesn’t bode well for resolving it any time soon…

  6. […] previously suggested on this blog, there is every reason to believe that Filippo Grandi and Dr. Evil are closely related—twins, […]

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