In today’s issue of Haaretz (14 June 2012), Israel Harel presents a series of arguments as to “Why the world shouldn’t support UNRWA.” He makes a powerful argument against continued international funding for the organization—powerful, that is, until you realize that he has almost all of his facts wrong.
Five million Palestinians define themselves as refugees. They insist on festering away in camps, at the international community’s expense, while holding fast to their main dream: returning to the towns and villages from which their ancestors fled or were expelled.
Fact: Only 29% of refugees live in refugee camps. Refugees are also free to move in and out of camps, and do.
Their ambition to realize this dream – which is a major stumbling block to ever ending the conflict – is made possible by the unending aid they have received for more than 60 years now from the UN Relief and Works Agency.
Fact: As opinion surveys have repeatedly showed, receiving UNRWA services (or, indeed, being refugee) is not a significant determinant of Palestinian attitudes to the “right of return.” Palestinian attitudes are far more deeply rooted in the national experience of forced displacement from their homes in 1948.
It isn’t just the first generation that is entitled to this aid, as is the norm for all other refugees the United Nations helps (though it aids only a minority of the world’s refugees ).
Fact: UNHCR also recognizes second and subsequent generation refugees (“derivative status”), in conditions where they are unable to avail themselves of state protection.
UN aid has raised generations of people who live a life of idleness and are educated toward vengeance, terror and eternal hatred for the Jews and Israel.
Fact: UNRWA largely provides education and health services, which increase employability. It does not provide social welfare handouts of the sort that would generate “idleness”—on the contrary, its social support services are largely limited to special hardship cases (comprising only 5.7% of all refugees) and food aid in Gaza (made necessary by Israeli-imposed trade restrictions). The UNRWA educational system—unlike the one that operated under Israeli control in the occupied West Bank and Gaza from 1967 to 1994—has a human rights component that promotes tolerance and respect for universal human rights.
UNRWA and the other aid agencies that fund the refugee camps’ education system are responsible for schools in which the educational ideal is to become a martyr, and which teach that Jews are the worst and cruelest people in the world. This education adjures its students not to rest until they have liberated Jerusalem and Jaffa, Haifa and Acre, Lod and Ramle, Ashdod and Ashkelon, Beit She’an and Be’er Sheva.
Fact: Not really, no. UNRWA’s curriculum is regularly reviewed by the donor community. It has no such content.
This, however, is the very heart of the issue: Only a reduction in this anti-Israel agency’s budget would curtail its activities and force masses of Palestinians to move from lives of stagnation and decay to productivity.
In Lebanon, government policy and historical legacies limit refugee opportunities—but this is hardly the fault of UNRWA, which has struggled to improve the condition of refugees there. In Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank there is little difference between socio-economic indicators for refugees and non-refugees. The idea that Palestinian refugees overwhelmingly live lives of “stagnation and day” and non-productivity is simply false. The vast major of households live off earned income, the same as everyone else.
Millions of genuine refugees, vulnerable to abuse and even murder, get no help at all. Only the Palestinians, who could rehabilitate themselves – just as millions of other refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have done without any help from the UN – instead continue to fester, generation after generation, at the expense of the world’s taxpayers.
Fact: In fact, by most socio-economic indicators, most Palestinian refugees are relatively well-integrated into host societies. As Fafo researchers have reported, “Perhaps the most pertinent result of these surveys is that the data show small differentials in the main indicators of living conditions between the population of refugees living outside the camps and the host country population in these countries…. These camp refugees have lower incomes and poorer health and education levels than those outside the camps. However, camp refugees have better access to basic health and education services due to UNRWA’s presence. The latter point directly leads to the conclusion that the camp populations do not face homogeneously poor living conditions, nor do they constitute the main poverty problem in the host countries.” Political integration is another issue. However, even if UNRWA were to disappear tomorrow, it is extremely unlikely that Syria or Lebanon would respond by naturalizing Palestinian refugees in those countries, while in Jordan it is equally unlikely that the regime would reconfigure the foundations of political power to favour Palestinians. To blame the political marginalization of refugees in some host countries on UNRWA is at best naive, and at worst a deliberate distortion.
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UNRWA faces difficult issues in the years ahead, faced as it is by limited donor support, a moribund “peace process,” a difficult regional environment and an expanding number of potential clients. As I have argued before, it is not clear that it can “muddle through” the next decade, conducting business as usual. Addressing these challenges, however, requires informed debate—not a fact-free rant from the pulpit of a newspaper editorial column.