The Evils of UNRWA?

Posted: April 4, 2015 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNHCR, UNRWA

Well, David Bedein is at it again with his latest bizarre video, Children’s Army of Hamas. This time, however, he scores something of an own-goal, and accidentally provides a rather powerful argument for supporting UNRWA.

The most of the video shows a troubling phenomenon–the military training and indoctrination of Gazan children by Hamas.

However, Bedein then goes on to try to link these activities to UNRWA by interspersing clips from the training camps (which take place under Hamas auspices in Hamas-controlled facilities) with clips of Hamas officials saying positive things about UNRWA (which have nothing to do with military training camps whatsoever). Hamas statements, of course, will come as no surprise to either Israel or to donors—everyone is aware that the Agency needs a practical working relationship with Hamas to provide humanitarian services in Gaza, much as it needs a practical working relationship with the IDF to function in areas of the West Bank, or with the Syrian government and Syrian rebels to operate in Syria. Indeed, it is pretty much humanitarian assistance 101, and fully consistent with why the international community funds the Agency. Hamas also has to be careful about criticizing UNRWA, since the Agency enjoys a higher degree of social trust than does Hamas itself.

What is striking in all this is that Bedein’s video also implicitly highlights that while Hamas attempts to recruit children as combatants, UNRWA does not permit such activities at all—which is why he has to film non-UNRWA events and then try to smear the Agency with ludicrous guilt-through-association. Paramilitary activities and support for violence are prohibited by UNRWA in both its educational curriculum and in its facilities. UNRWA summer camps, which focus on issues of fun and human rights, have been regarded as a direct challenge to Hamas in this regard, since they attract children who might otherwise attend Hamas-linked activities. In short, were funding for UNRWA educational and youth activities to be ended and Hamas to take over all education, some 225,000 pupils would be subject to potential paramilitary indoctrination in Gaza schools. Given this, it is no wonder Israel has been asking donors to increase their support for UNRWA activities in Gaza.

In contrast to Bedein’s latest bizarre antics, some more serious criticisms of UNRWA are levelled by contributors to a special issue of Justice 55 (Winter 2014/15), the magazine of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. These vary widely in quality. The magazine reproduces a couple of pieces by Bassem Eid that are simply so factually wrong that they further shred whatever residual credibility he might have once had.  Shabtai Shavit’s “A Tale of Two “Refugee” Organizations: UNRWA vs. UNHCR” is far more rhetoric than analysis. Articles by Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky reflect their well-known positions, but are at least sustained by some knowledge of the topic (even if I would disagree with most of their conclusions). James Lindsay, once again, emerges as one of the most thoughtful critics of the Agency.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of the lot is by Steven Rosen, who highlights the extent to which the government of Israel—despite its periodic complaints about aspects of UNRWA—continues to strongly support the Agency’s activities:

Deeply flawed as the agency is, Israel depends on UNRWA as an element promoting stability in the West Bank and Gaza, a vital strategic objective for the Jewish State.

The epicenter of Israel’s cooperation with UNRWA is Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the IDF, and specifically the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which has the day-to-day task of coordinating civil and security affairs in the West Bank and Gaza. COGAT attempts to maintain a good working relationship with UNRWA, mainly to help the agency perform its task of providing vital services to the Palestinian Arabs, services that the IDF might have to provide if UNRWA were suddenly removed

The Congressional Research Service reports that “Israeli officials … assert that UNRWA plays a valuable role by providing stability and serving as the eyes and ears of the international community in Gaza. They generally characterize UNRWA’s continued presence as preferable to the uncertain alternative that might emerge if UNRWA were removed from the picture.”

Israel’s dependence on UNRWA makes it leery of anti-UNRWA activity by its friends in Western countries. In January 2010, the president of Canada’s Treasury Board announced that the Harper government would redirect its Palestinian aid away from UNRWA and toward specific projects of the Palestinian Authority, much to the satisfaction of pro-Israel organizations in the country.[12] But six months later, in August 2010, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) reported that, “In discussions with … Israel …, Canada has been asked to resume funding the [UNRWA] General Fund.” A critic of the pro-Israel groups sneered, “The lobby is working in a vacuum with very poor information, pushing for actions that the Israeli government feels is not in its interest.”

On a final note, it is striking that none of the pieces in the magazine make any attempt whatsoever to assess Israel’s responsibilities in the refugee issue. After all, it was not UNRWA that forcibly displaced most of the non-Jews resident from within what became Israel in 1948, nor was it UNRWA that seized their properties and prevented them from returning (with lethal force, if necessary) on ethno-religious grounds. While most of the articles suggest that refugees be absorbed or resettled, there is almost no attention to the way 90% of all refugee situations are resolved in the modern era, namely through repatriation. Here again, it has not been UNRWA that has prevented return of refugees to Israel, nor their repatriation to the West Bank or Gaza—including hundreds of thousands of 1967 displaced persons whose repatriation has been agreed three times (in the 1978 Camp David Accords, the 1993 Oslo Agreement, and the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty) but never implemented. Israel has also indicated that it will not permit the current repatriation of Palestinians in Iraq and Syria who face severe threats of violence and deprivation.

For their part, neither Syria nor Lebanon have been willing to extend citizenship to Palestinian refugees resident there, while Jordan has been particularly anxious to keep additional Palestinians out of the country. (The PA/PLO hasn’t been enthusiastic about this either, a stance that I strongly disagree with. Hamas has welcomed refugees, but few can get to Gaza, or wish to do so.)

In short, the lack of durable solutions for these populations really can’t be laid at the Agency’s door, whatever its shortcomings.

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