David Rosen and Daniel Pipes had an op ed in the Jerusalem Post yesterday, once again critical of UNRWA. As usual it trotted out the usual accusations that the Agency (“Its camps are havens for terrorists. Its bureaucracy is bloated and its payroll includes radicals. Its schools teach incitement. Its registration rolls reek with fraud. Its policies encourage a mentality of victimhood. But UNRWA’s most consequential problem is its mission. Over 63 years, it has become an agency that perpetuates the refugee problem rather than contributing to its resolution….”)—canards that we’ve addressed before at the blog.
Rather more interesting, however, was a noteworthy shift in the tone and the approach of the article, which argued that UNRWA should continue to exist, and continue to receive funding—but that its role should be limited to social service provision and detached from refugee registration.
That said, the State of Israel has a working relationship with UNRWA and looks to it to fulfill certain services.
Israel’s cooperative policy began in 1967 with the Comay-Michelmore Exchange of Letters in which Jerusalem promised “the full co-operation of the Israel authorities, …[to] facilitate the task of UNRWA.” This policy remains in very much place; in November 2009, an Israeli representative confirmed a “continued commitment to the understandings” of the 1967 letters and support for “UNRWA’s important humanitarian mission.” He even promised to maintain “close coordination” with UNRWA.
ISRAELI OFFICIALS distinguish between UNRWA’s negative political role and its more positive role as a social service agency providing assistance, primarily medical and educational. They appreciate that UNRWA, with funds provided by foreign governments, helps onethird of the population in the West Bank and three-quarters in Gaza. Without these funds, Israel could face an explosive situation on its borders and international demands that it, depicted as the “occupying power,” assume the burden of care for these populations. In the extreme case, the Israel Defense Forces would have to enter hostile areas to oversee the running of schools and hospitals, for which the Israeli taxpayer would have to foot the bill – a most unattractive prospect.
As a well-informed Israeli official sums it up, UNRWA plays a “key role in supplying humanitarian assistance to the civilian Palestinian population” that must be sustained.
This explains why, when foreign friends of Israel try to defund UNRWA, Jerusalem urges caution or even obstructs these efforts. For example, in January 2010, Canada’s Harper government announced that it would redirect aid from UNRWA to the Palestinian Authority to “ensure accountability and foster democracy in the PA.” Although B’nai B’rith Canada proudly reported that “the government listened” to its advice, Canadian diplomats said that Jerusalem quietly requested the Canadians to resume funding UNRWA.
Another example: in December 2011, the Dutch foreign minister said that his government would “thoroughly review” its policy toward UNRWA, only later to tell confidants that Jerusalem had asked him to leave UNRWA’s funding alone.
This is a significantly different change in tone from attacks on the Agency over the last few years. It also more accurately reflects Israel’s somewhat bipolar attitude towards UNRWA and its activities: while it finds UNRWA status as an avatar of the refugee issue disquieting, it also recognizes that the alternatives (greater refugee poverty, radicalization, possible destabilization of Jordan, a strengthening of Hamas’ role in education and social service delivery in Gaza) would harm Israel’s political and security interests.
It is interesting to contemplate whether this shift in tone represents a slight shift in the position of Rosen and Pipes themselves, or whether the Israeli government has been sending quiet signals to some of the anti-UNRWA crowd to modify their rhetoric.