Fact-checking “UNRWA has got to go”

Posted: October 28, 2015 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNRWA

factsToday’s Times of Israel has a piece by Ari Krauss entitle “UNRWA has got to go.” Unfortunately it is another example of the poorly-informed debate within Israel on the Agency and what it does (and doesn’t) do.

A few examples:

“It has, from the very beginning, been an organization that has had an interest in managing the problem of the Palestinian refugees rather than solving it.”

  • Not at all–UNRWA has been vociferous in calling for a resolution of the refugee issue that it would put it out of business. In the early, optimistic days of the Oslo process it began preliminary planning for service transfer/wind-down in the aftermath of a final status agreement, and it certainly took part in a range of quiet discussions on transitional issues (I know–I organized some of them). It also aligns its service delivery practices with host countries, in part, to make any eventual post-peace transfer of services easier.

“In contrast, the UN Refugee Agency, which deals with all refugees worldwide totaling approximately eleven million, employs sixty three hundred staffers…”

  • Only partly true. UNHCR subcontracts most of its actual service delivery, while UNRWA employs teachers, medical personnel directly. If you added employees of subcontracted NGOs to the UNHCR total it would be very much higher. (UNRWA also provides more extensive services.)

“The recent wave of violence has revealed a disturbing trend of calls to incitement of violence on social media. individuals identifying themselves as UNRWA employees in their profiles and even teachers at UNRWA schools have shared and posted images calling for violence against Jews and praising the stabbing attacks that had already taken place;

UNRWA has made no effort to curb these incidents and, as far as anyone can tell, makes no effort to investigate or fire such employees.”

  • The first part, regrettably, is true—and while it is hardly surprising that Palestinian employees of UNRWA (almost all from families that were ethnically cleansed from Palestine by Israel in 1948) might hate Israelis, there should be absolutely no tolerance for expressions of this within a UN agency.
  • The second part isn’t true. UNRWA does have active and ongoing measures against incitement or violation of political neutrality. UNRWA has taken disciplinary measures against some UNRWA employees, although in my view needs to do more, and to do it more publicly.

“UNRWA has made no effort ensure that it does not employ members of the many terror groups that operate within the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Refugee camps.”

  • Actually, the entire UNRWA employment roster is regularly transmitted to Israel for vetting (although they don’t talk about it a lot, since that’s hardly popular among Palestinians). It also checks its employee lists in other ways. Obviously, in some cases they’ll miss members of extremist groups, just as there are Israeli civil servants or military personnel who support the banned Kach/Kahane Chai Jewish terrorist organization.

“We don’t need to look further than last summer during Operation Protective Edge where UNRWA schools were offended found to be booby-trapped or storage sites for Hamas ordnance. In one shocking case, UNRWA officials claimed that they had turned over missiles found in one of their schools to “the local authorities” as per routine UN practice in these situations. Presumably that means Hamas, who, to the knowledge of counter terrorism experts and Western intelligence agencies, does not maintain an explosive ordnance disposal unit.”

  • No UNRWA school was found to be booby-trapped. The IDF did identify one “UNRWA clinic” as booby-trapped, but the claim was false as the IDF later admitted.
  • Weapons were found in a couple of UNRWA schools  that had been closed for the summer, which was a clear violation of UNRWA’s neutrality policy. It was UNRWA that found the weapons, UNRWA that denounced their presence, and tried to have them removed by liaising with Palestinian police personnel reporting to the Ramallah (not Gaza/Hamas) government. If Krauss had actually bothered to read the UN investigation report on the incident he would know that unknown persons removed the weapons before disposal could be arranged—UNRWA’s statements at the time got this wrong.
  • On a side note, the IDF has also made use of UN schools as military positions (even, in one case, as a temporary detention centre) in the past during operations in both the West Bank and Gaza. That too is a violation of UNRWA’s neutrality policy.

“The United Nations High Commissioner on Human rights states that the three primary solutions to refugee problems are “Voluntary repatriation, local integration, resettlement” these solutions only apply to original refugees; would that the Palestinians had not been allowed their special status of being able to pass down their status as refugees to their children than estimates put original Palestinian refugees today at anywhere between thirty and fifty thousand people, a much more manageable number which could have easily been granted the right of return in a peace agreement. Instead, we have a number that has ballooned into the millions and which would be impossible for Israel to absorb.”

  • Oh, where to begin
  • UNHCR has an even stronger position than UNRWA on refugees’ “right to return,” and clearly prioritizes the repatriation of refugees for 90%+ of refugees.
  • UNHCR recognizes the children of stateless refugees as refugees (“derived status”). Most UNRWA refugees would be refugees under UNHCR rules too. In cases where stateless subsequent-generation Palestinian refugees have been outside UNRWA’s area of operation (for example, Iraq), UNHCR has treated them as refugees.
  • Finally, the current Israeli government is not willing to accept the return of ANY Palestinian refugees, so it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that “thirty and fifty thousand people” would be “a much more manageable number which could have easily been granted the right of return in a peace agreement.”
  • I happen to agree that large-scale return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is not ever going to happen, and that clinging to an absolute right of return is an impediment to achieving peace. That being said, I’ve yet to meet a Palestinian negotiator who thinks very large numbers of refugees would return to 1948 areas either. The roots of the Palestinian yearning to return to their homeland are not to be found in UNRWA, however, but in forced displacement by Israel. Jews, after all, didn’t need a UN agency to wish to return to Eretz Israel, a yearning they sustained through centuries of diaspora… why think that Palestinians are incapable of that same desire?

There are certainly issues on which UNRWA practices and Israeli preferences (or the preferences of the current Israeli government) do not align. There are also issues on which UNRWA practices and those of the PA, or Hamas, or host countries, or even donors do not fully align. By all means, those are appropriate subjects for discussion.

It does help, however, to get your facts straight.

  1. Zohar Shorer says:

    I think it is disingenuous to separate the policies of UNWRA and the UNHCR, and indeed, from the rest of the UN institutions. There is an automatic majority of countries voting for resolutions antagonistic to Israel; a situation which de-legitimizes the role of the UN, and especially the UN Human Rights Council. It is quite fair for Israelis to view UNWRA as another tool against Israel by external influences, and the length of time for the existence of what should have been a temporary relief organization is unprecedented, even for other conflicts enduring as long as this one.

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