The Jerusalem Post on UNRWA’s 65th birthday

Posted: June 7, 2015 by Rex Brynen in Israel, UNRWA
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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency recent celebrated—if that is the right word—its 65th birthday. The occasion was notable for some quite strong criticism from Israel Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador David Roet.

The statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl on UNRWA@65 can be found here.

UNRWA’s 65th also sparked a critical commentary from the Jerusalem Post. Among other things, the editorial is notable for how much erroneous information it contains—highlighting once again how poorly understood the Agency is, especially within Israel.

PRRN reproduces the editorial at length below, with some comments inserted.

LogoAppJpost

UNRWA’s birthday
OPINION

By JPOST EDITORIAL \ 06/06/2015 20:55

There’s no other UN organ in which so many layers of unabashed hypocrisy overlap and contribute so cynically to the perpetuation of misery instead of assisting the cause of peace and prosperity.

Staging another of its surreal spectacles, the UN last week marked the 65th birthday of one of its most deformed, misbegotten offspring – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to cater exclusively to those deemed to be Palestinian refugees. All other refugees, regardless of degree of plight and objective hardship, are looked after by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while the privileged Palestinian category is singularly aided by UNRWA.

It is probably worth noting that UNHCR didn’t exist when UNRWA was established in December 1950. Moreover, UNRWA only deals with Palestinian refugees in its areas of operation—others outside this area (for example, in Iraq) do fall under its auspices.

The defect was already implanted in UNRWA’s genome.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that UNRWA was never meant to live this long, but he contended that “it exists because of political failure.” Doubtless, as per the UN’s dishonorable tradition, Israel is blamed for this failure.

The Jewish state is habitually painted as the villain of any piece and its bogus villainy is exasperatingly accepted as an axiomatic premise.

Given that Israel forcibly displaced Palestinians in the first place, seized their property, and prevented them from returning to their homes, it is hardly surprising that many attach blame to Israel for the refugee issue.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl plaintively bewails refugee statistics, which he characteristically presents as unassailable facts – even though there is plenty to assail. According to Krahenbuhl, there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in today’s Middle East, because that is the number registered with UNRWA – never mind the fact that there may be personal incentives to register and political profit in inflating refugee rolls.

There is little evidence at all that current UNRWA rolls are inflated, in the sense that they inaccurately reflect the number of eligible persons under UNRWA’s mandate.

UNRWA’s own self-serving interests rule out neutrality and fairness to begin with, lest these actually lead to improvements that might obviate the sham pretext for keeping UNRWA around. Perversely, UNRWA’s continued existence hinges on never alleviating this region’s woes.

Put differently, it’s in UNRWA’s distinct interest to keep the flames of conflict burning high.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of UNRWA employees–who are refugees themselves–would like to see their status resolved in a just way. The leadership of the Agency has repeatedly noted that they look forward to UNRWA going out of business. Donors find it invaluable, and even Israel—despite its complaints—sees little alternative, and has called upon donors to increase their UNRWA contributions.

UNRWA’s numbers do undeniably point to the embedded problem, but not in the way Ban or Krahenbuhl portray things. True, UNRWA is kept alive because of a political failure, but not one that is of Israel’s making.

The Arab states, among them unimaginably wealthy oil-glutted monarchies and fiefdoms (quite niggardly in their handouts to UNRWA), utilize that very agency to calculatingly prevent refugee descendents from losing their refugee status. They thereby create the greatest obstacle to the peace they ostensibly seek.

It isn’t clear how a handful of Arab oil states would do this, given that UNRWA’s mandate is determined by the entire UN General Assembly. Moreover, around 2 million of the 3 million UNRWA-registered refugees outside of Palestine have been granted full citizenship in their host country or another. With the exception of Lebanon, refugees have also been economically integrated, with social and economic indicators largely comparable to host populations.

Regarding those refugees currently in the West Bank and Gaza, it is the Israeli occupation that prevents them from becoming full citizens of a functioning state of Palestine.

Also, it is not really true that Arab oil states are niggardly in their donations to the Agency. In 2014, the top ten donors to the Agency were (in absolute terms):

  1. US
  2. EU
  3. Saudi Arabia
  4. United Kingdom
  5. Sweden
  6. UAE Red Crescent
  7. Norway
  8. Japan
  9. Australia
  10. Netherlands

However, Arab economies–even those of the oil states, are much smaller than those of European countries. A fairer comparison (relative to real GDP) would thus be:

  1. UAE (government + Red Crescent)
  2. Netherlands
  3. Saudi Arabia
  4. Sweden
  5. Kuwait
  6. Norway
  7. Denmark
  8. Ireland
  9. Finland
  10. Switzerland

Obviously, if services provided to refugees outside of UNRWA were included, the Palestine Authority, Jordan, and pre-civil war Syria would be on these lists too. (Israel, might be noted, does not appear on the list no matter how one calculates it.)

They deliberately keep alive and fan the ambition to inundate Israel with millions of hostile Palestinians, while paying lip-service to a two-state solution. Had these same stingy states counseled refugee descendents to drop their “right-of-return” demands, they would make a colossal contribution both to refugee welfare and to peace.

I agree that greater clarity is needed from the entire international community on what sorts of durable solutions to the Palestinian refugee issue are plausible. Clearly, full-scale return of refugees to Israel is not going to happen.

That being said, Arab states have implicitly made this clear by offering israel a veto over any future refugee arrangements in the 2002 Arab Peace initiative. At no point since 1994 have Palestinian negotiators envisaged that Israel would accept and fully implement an unlimited “right of return,” although they have sought some acknowledgement that such a right exists as part of a compromise solution.

By unnaturally perpetuating a problem for generations, they give the lie to their own claims to promote a peaceful two-state solution. The same goes for UNRWA itself, an organization whose raison d’être is fraudulent and whose self-preservation hinges on making sure the problem entrusted to it is never solved.

This becomes self-evident when we consider the different definitions for “refugee” to which UNHCR and UNRWA resort. UNHCR’s refugee is one who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted… is outside the country of his nationality.” By this definition the refugee’s descendents aren’t refugees. Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.

…however, stateless descendants of refugees are considered refugees (“derived status”) by UNHCR.

The only exceptions are the Palestinians.

Not at all. Afghan refugees born in Pakistan are, for example, considered refugees by UNHCR. UNHCR has also been very, very clear that the stateless descendants of Palestinian refugees born in Iraq should be considered refugees too.

UNRWA classifies as refugees any Arabs, native or not, who sojourned “in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, and lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Not only could an itinerant foreign Arab laborer claim Palestinian refugee status, but UNRWA stipulates that the right extends to “descendents of persons who became refugees in 1948.” Indeed one refugee great-grandparent suffices for inheriting the distinction – even when not “outside the country of one’s nationality.”

By UNHCR’s yardsticks, over 97% of those whom UNRWA regards as refugees are nothing of the sort.

This is simply not true at all, and—assuming that the Jerusalem Post is not being deliberately disingenuous—shows a remarkable lack of understanding. Under UNHCR rules, Palestinian citizens of Jordan would not, it is true, be considered refugees. However, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon would almost certainly be considered refugees under UNHCR rules, just as UNHCR treats stateless Palestinian refugee descendants as refugees in Iraq and elsewhere.

There’s no other UN organ in which so many layers of unabashed hypocrisy overlap and contribute so cynically to the perpetuation of misery instead of assisting the cause of peace and prosperity.

It’s time to regard UNRWA as a problem in and of itself.

It’s time to cease shelling out millions that only impede peace and artificially sustain an insidious travesty. This region would be better off without UNRWA. It’s time to transfer its responsibilities to UNHCR.

Given the Jerusalem Post‘s earlier objection to the right of return, this is a strange proposal. UNHCR—far more clearly and frequently than UNRWA—asserts that all refugees indeed have a right of return, noting that “The right of refugees to return to their country of origin is fully recognized in international law” (UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation: International Protection, Chapter 2.1). In practice, UNHCR generally prioritizes return/repatriation over other types of durable solution (local integration, resettlement) for refugees.

In any case, any such transfer would require a decision by the UN General Assembly—something, it is clear, won’t happen.

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