In the past the PRRN blog has revealed startling evidence of misdeeds by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In our intrepid search for the truth, we revealed that the Agency is headed by an apparent clone of Dr. Evil, and that its real headquarters is a secret underground missile base. We blithely reported accusations that the Agency behaves like the KGB. This is on top of all the routine accusations that UNRWA is somehow responsible for Palestinian refugees being a little miffed about being forcibly dispossessed and displaced in 1948.
It is now apparent, however, that we’ve failed to adequately appreciate the truly perfidious evil that is UNRWA. Instead, it has fallen to Hoover Institution research fellow Michael Bernstam to reveal the true scope of the conspiracy. As he claims in a recent article in Commentary Magazine, “UNRWA has been one of the most inhuman experiments in human history.” (For those of you who guessed slavery, sexual oppression, Belgian colonial administration of the Congo, Nazism, Stalinism, or the killing fields of Cambodia or Rwanda, I’m sorry—you really don’t seem to understand how truly evil the provision of basic health and education services to refugees is).
But wait, there’s more! As Bernstam also reveals, UNRWA runs a “welfare-warfare state,” and “has become a terror-sponsoring organization.” He also claims that, through a process of natural selection, “the staff of UNRWA must ultimately converge with the terrorist paramilitary organizations”—a situation fully evident in the picture of an UNRWA staff meeting shown here (OK, so that’s not a real UNRWA staff meeting, but you would never know it from reading Bernstam’s piece).
Because of all this, Bernstam argues that phasing out the Agency is a prerequisite for peace:
The end of UNRWA would automatically nullify the pernicious issue of the right of return-cum-retake. It is unsolvable in the presence of UNRWA, because it implies the repopulation of Israel with millions of perennial paramilitary refugees. But once UNRWA is discarded, the refugee status expires instantaneously or after a transition period, and the right of return becomes a non-issue due to immediate and actually pressing needs.
Having read the piece, one might well come to the conclusion that UNRWA actually stands for “Underhanded Nogooders for Really Wicked Activities.” If that’s the case, the Agency really needs to get rid of that feel-good blue UNRWA logo and go for something darker and more conspiratorial. Faintly Cold War East European uniforms would be good too, for the Commissioner-General’s minions (any large evil conspiracy worth its name must have minions, of course). And for goodness sake, “Peace Starts Here” has got to go too! “KAOS starts here,” perhaps?
At the risk of once more retreading very familiar ground on this blog, let’s review the actual facts:
- Displacement and dispossession are central to the Palestinian national narrative because some 80% of the prewar Arab population of Israel was forced into involuntary exile by a nascent Israeli state claiming as its own justification a prior forced displacement some two millennia earlier. Had Arab host countries wished to integrate the refugees, and had the refugees wished to be integrated, perhaps some of that grievance and refugee identity would have faded. However, they didn’t—indeed, refugee resistance made early UNRWA integration efforts untenable—and Palestinian identity in the diaspora is firmly established. Even if UNRWA vanished tomorrow, that’s not going to change.
- UNRWA services have little or nothing to do with attitudes to the refugee issue, as evidenced by the fact that refugees who don’t receive Agency services, Palestinians who aren’t refugees, and even Palestinian citizens of Israel (who receive Israeli services) all have comparable views.
- UNRWA largely provides basic health and education services, none of which are associated with dependency—indeed, quite the opposite. The Agency’s Special Hardship programme supports those families who lack a primary income earner. Its microfinance program works on a repayment/cost recovery basis. Neither of these create dependency either—indeed, the latter programme is explicitly intended to reduce it. While many refugee shelters in camps might have originally been provided by UNRWA, most camps have evolved into vibrant if overcrowded urban spaces, where the overwhelming majority of housing activity is carried out through construction and improvements by the refugees themselves. Refugees are, with the partial and regrettable exception of Lebanon, free to move outside the camps—and most do.
- UNRWA does give one major form of welfare hand-out: emergency food aid in Gaza. This is entirely due to Israeli economic restrictions on the area, depressed refugee incomes caused by this, and consequent problems of food insecurity. The only other options would be i) for Israel to lift its restrictions, or ii) for Israel and the international community to allow growing malnutrition. I’m not sure which Bernstam would prefer, although the latter has a sort of Malthusian aspect to it that might appeal.
The issue of UNRWA and terrorism is more complex, and I’ll leave it to another blog post when I can give it more serious attention. Interestingly, however, Israeli officials increasingly see UNRWA as an important bulwark against the growth of Islamist radicalism in Gaza, and I’m told that they have been quietly urging some Western donors to increase their funding for that reason. The government of Jordan (no slouches when it comes to the fight against terrorism) certainly see UNRWA in the same role. So too does the government of Lebanon, which fought a violent and destructive battle against al-Qa’ida wannabes Fateh al-Islam in 2007, and which have also made it very clear to donors that they see UNRWA as an important part of their counterterrorism strategy.