Archive for the ‘factcheck’ Category

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.

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.

Review: Bedein, UNRWA Goes to War

Posted: October 29, 2014 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNRWA

Israeli-American political activist David Bedein—who has long been on a personal jihad against UNRWA—has released his latest video criticizing the Agency. The Agency need not worry, however. UNRWA Goes to War is so filled with transparent lies and distortions that no one in the donor community is likely to take it seriously. See for yourself:

  • At 2:32, it talks about rockets found in closed UN schools. The rockets shown, however, are those seized by the Israeli navy in March 2014—the original picture of which has been carefully cropped by Bedein in the video to make it appear otherwise. The video fails to note that it was UNRWA that found the rockets, complained, and arranged as best it could for their disposal.
  • At 2:42 it talks about a booby-trapped building with an UNRWA clinic sign. The video fails to note that the IDF later confirmed that the building was NOT an UNRWA building, and that the soldiers involved had misidentified it as such.
  • At 2:53, the video shows alleged “UNRWA supplies” used to construct Hamas tunnels. In fact, no such supplies were used–what is shown is simply a discarded food bag that has been used to carry dirt. Israel has NOT alleged any use of UNRWA supplies in tunnel construction.
  • The video raises the frequently disproved allegations of violent anti-Israel bias in the textbooks used by UNRWA, an allegation that has been found to be baseless in investigations by the US and other governments.
  • The video makes frequent use of images taken from non-UNRWA facilities in such a way as to imply they are actual UN locations.
  • The teacher interviewed at 8:48 is not an UNRWA teacher, and the school itself is not an UNRWA school but a PA school in Jenin. Several of the kids (perhaps most or all) shown in the video are clearly not UNRWA students, since the school uniforms are wrong.
  • The video discovers that Palestinian refugee kids—who variously live under occupation or are subject to periodic IDF attacks, and whose families were forced from their original homes within Israel in 1948—don’t particularly like Israel. This will come as a surprise to precisely no one. Interviews are conducted with such kids in front of UN facilities in an attempt to link the UN to their views. One could interview Bedein in front of a mosque or fast food restaurant too, but that would hardly mean that Islam or McDonald’s endorses his views.

Strangely, there is no mention whatsoever of UNRWA’s human rights curriculum (introduced despite objections from Hamas), which stresses peaceful conflict resolution and universal respect for human rights. Nor does it mention Israel’s repeated statements of support for the Agency’s humanitarian activities and its requests to donors that they increase their funding of the Agency. Indeed, the UN more broadly (and UNRWA in particular) is now playing a key role in the importation of cement into Gaza for reconstruction–something israel would hardly have agreed to if it thought the Agency had been taken over by Hamas as Bedein suggests.

factsOn Sunday Ashraq al-Awsat ran an article alleging that the United States had pressed both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes to surrender the Sinai so that it could be used to relocate Palestinian refugees and create a Palestinian state.

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Towards the end of his tenure, ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resisted pressures from Washington to cede Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula to help create a Palestinian state, former senior members of Mubarak’s ruling party told Asharq Al-Awsat.

A former official from the National Democratic Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that during the previous decade Washington pushed Cairo to allow large numbers of Palestinians to settle in the Sinai.

The official said Mubarak believed the move was the first step in a process designed to get Egypt to cede its own territory to create a Palestinian state. Egypt’s former president resisted the appeals, which he described as being “in the best interest of Israel,” the senior official maintained.

During a meeting chaired by Mubarak in 2007, the official quoted the former Egyptian president as saying: “Our main enemy is Israel, but we are fighting both the US and Israel. There is pressure on us to open the Rafah crossing for the Palestinians and grant them freedom of residence, particularly in Sinai.”

Mubarak claimed that the aim of the plan was to establish refugee camps on Egyptian territory to accommodate as many Palestinians as possible.

“In a year or two, the issue of Palestinian refugee camps in Sinai will be internationalized. Meanwhile, Israel will impose pressures on the West Bank in order to force large numbers of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt,” the source quoted Mubarak as saying.

Mubarak said that once the Palestinian refugees were on Egyptian soil the UN would have requested “a new Oslo [accord]” in order to establish a Palestinian state stretching from Gaza to Sinai to which Palestinians in diaspora would have been welcome to return.

But the former president opposed the plan, insisting that “Egypt would remain a thorn in the project’s side.”

The same proposal was put forward when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, almost 18 months after the January 25 revolution that toppled Mubarak, a former security official told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Err, no—that  certainly didn’t happen. It is likely that the US pressed Egypt to relax restrictions at Rafah, and possibly even to treat Palestinian refugees better. The rest of it is one large fantasy. The only really interesting question is whether anyone in authority in Egypt ever believed it, or whether it is a more recent conspiracy theory born of the current levels of anti-American paranoia in the country (where many continue to believe that Obama is secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood).


The Jerusalem Post published an editorial yesterday critical of UNRWA for artificially keeping the Palestinian refugee issue alive by inflating the number of “real” refugees:

This becomes evident when we consider the different definitions for “refugee” to which UNHCR and UNRWA subscribe. 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 descendants are not refugees. Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.

The only exceptions are the Palestinians. 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 any itinerant foreign Arab laborer claim Palestinian refugee status, but UNRWA stipulates that the condition extends to “descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.” One refugee parent suffices to inherit the distinction – even when the inheritor is not “outside the country of one’s nationality.”

By UNHCR’s yardstick, more than 97 percent of those whom UNRWA regards as refugees are nothing of the sort. In 1948, there were some 600,000 self-styled Palestine refugees. UNRWA now boasts that it cares for 5,000,000 people.

One again, the editorial repeats the canard that UNHCR would not consider the descendants of (stateless) Palestinian refugees as refugees. This is simply not true: for UNHCR, refugee status ends when refugees are able to avail themselves of the protection of another state, usually through acquiring citizenship. Refugees who are unable to do so maintain their status, and their children are considered to have “derivative status.”

All of this is made amply clear in UNHCR’s  Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate, Section 5.1.1 of which notes:

  • Family members/dependants of a recognized refugee may apply for derivative refugee status in accordance with their right to family unity.
  • Family members/dependants who are determined to fall within the criteria for refugee status in their own right should be granted refugee status rather than derivative refugee status.
  • Individuals who obtain derivative refugee status enjoy the same rights and entitlements as other recognized refugees, and should retain this status notwithstanding the subsequent dissolution of the family through separation, divorce, death, or the fact that a child reaches the age of majority.

UNHCRmandatePalestinians who have acquired citizenship elsewhere (as is the case with most in Jordan) would not be considered UNHCR refugees, but those in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, as well as stateless refugees in Jordan and elsewhere, certainly would.

Having got its fundamental facts wrong, the Jerusalem Post goes one further with its bizarre comment that “Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are no longer considered homeless.” One assumes they mean refugees, not homeless, but the point is that Florida-born children of Cuban refugees are American citizens. The 2 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees because there is no Palestinian state—in other words, because of Israeli policy. Syria and Lebanon choose not to naturalize the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians resident there—which has nothing to do with UNRWA or its rules. Many of the former, of course, face new displacements as a consequence of civil war.

On a minor technical note, UNRWA’s refugee rules relate to service eligibility, which is somewhat different than UNHCR status determination. Also, UNHCR rules DO apply to Palestinians outside UNRWA’s fields of operation, but that error by the Jerusalem Post is rather secondary to its overall lack of comprehension of the refugee issue. Indeed, it is striking the extent to which this sort of misunderstanding continues, even though UNHCR procedures are easily accessible online. It is an perverse echo chamber effect of sorts, where loud and misinformed ideological positions drive out thoughtful and informed analysis if repeated often enough. Neither Israel nor Palestinian refugees nor the search for peace are well-served by any of this.

Finally, it is important to recognize that salience of the refugee issue in Palestinian political discourse has little relationship to UN rules, but is fundamentally rooted in the shared collective experience of dispossession and forced displacement. Jews maintained a yearning to “return” to their homeland for millennia in the diaspora, without an UNRWA or UNHCR. Why is it surprising that Palestinians do too, a mere 66 years after they too were driven into exile?

Gaza’s mythical bags of UN “terror cement”

Posted: August 9, 2014 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, Gaza, Hamas, Israel

One of the common features of politics in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, is the way in which rumour and misinformation are constantly transmitted within incestuous circles of like-minded partisans until they becomes accepted as fact by those who want to believe. In the intelligence community the various elements of this vicious circle of inaccuracy are known as RUMINT (“rumour intelligence”), circular reporting (whereby stories gain apparently credibility as they circulate, ultimately being used to “confirm” their own veracity), and confirmation bias (when analysts prioritize information that fits their own preconceptions).

The refugee issue is no exception. We’ve already seen the case of the booby-trapped UNRWA clinic that turned out to not be an UNRWA clinic at all. Now, courtesy of the never-very-reliable Algemeiner, we have the accusation that bags of  “UNRWA cement” are being found in Hamas “terror tunnels”:

…the UN group also ignored one finding this week, where bags of cement marked UNRWA, the UN arm that manages schools and other institutions in Gaza, inside a terror tunnel.

It has also reported that “Hamas in Gaza is using UNRWA equipment to dig its longest tunnels under Israeli territory.” There is even a photo to prove the accusation (left). These claims have now been repeated on dozens of partisan websites, and circulated even more widely on social media.

Alleged "UNRWA bags of cement found in Gaza terror tunnels." via The Algemeiner, 30 July 2014.

Alleged “UNRWA bags of cement found in Gaza terror tunnels.” via The Algemeiner, 30 July 2014.There is even a photo to prove the accusation (left). This claim has now been repeated on dozens of partisan websites, and circulated even more widely on social media.

The problem, of course, is that the sacks in question are not bags of UN cement, nor did the IDF (who first circulated the picture) ever claim that they were. Rather, they are bags that once contained rice or flour, which someone has reused to carry dirt during tunnel construction. And what about the “UNRWA equipment”? Well, it turns out those are empty bags too.

With almost half the population of Gaza receiving some form supplementary or emergency food from UNRWA and WFP, these kinds of bags are ubiquitous in Gaza. As you might expect in a besieged economy, Gaza is also a place where pretty much everything is recycled.

There have been other efforts to somehow link UNRWA to Hamas tunnels. Some have suggested that the limited amounts of cement sent into Gaza for UN aid projects was diverted by Hamas. This is unlikely, however. Until 2013 up to 90% of Gaza’s cement supply came in from Egypt through smuggling tunnels, with the price dropping as low as $140/ton. Hamas’ requirements for the construction of military fortifications would have been only a small proportion of total imports into Gaza for civilian purposes and would have been easily purchased locally. Indeed, cement for UN projects was probably the least likely to be diverted since its importation and use was controlled and audited—a point apparently lost on critics.

The massive damage caused to Palestinian homes and other civilian infrastructure by Israeli military action during the current conflict will require substantial reconstruction efforts. As UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness has noted:

It will also require cement. And here the picture is now bleaker than ever.

Since 2013, the closure of tunnels by Egypt has made smuggling much more difficult, especially for high-bulk, low-cost items like cement. Israel has been alarmed by Hamas’ effective use of tunnels in the current conflict, and has indicated that it will link future cement supplies via Israel to the disarmament of Hamas. In doing so it will deliberately hold the civilian population hostage to the behaviour of combatants they cannot control. Hamas, for its part, will not voluntarily disarm, thereby also placing its military strategy ahead of the needs of Gaza’s people.

And, throughout all this, the myth of UN “terror cement” will live on in the partisan echo-chambers of the internet.


UPDATE – 16 September 2014

In its latest report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (representing the international donor community), the office of the UN Special Coordinator addresses the issue (emphasis added):

41)  The network of physical structures for civilian life in the Gaza Strip was already inadequate before the conflict. There was for example an estimated shortfall of 71,000 housing units and 250 schools. Israeli restrictions on the import of construction material were reintroduced in October 2013 after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) uncovered a mile-long tunnel from the Gaza Strip into Israel constructed with slabs of concrete.68 After this incident, virtually all construction projects, including UN projects, were suspended – even though materials imported under UN auspices have not been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. Subsequently, all but $11.6 million worth of previously approved UN works have resumed. A further $105 million worth of new UN works are awaiting approval by the Israeli authorities. Preliminary assessments of war destruction suggest that 26 schools were totally destroyed, and 223 schools and 11 higher education facilities were damaged, while 75 hospitals, clinics and health centres also suffered damage. In addition, 13 per cent of the housing stock was affected, with 18,000 housing units totally destroyed or severely damaged and 14,000 partially damaged. While temporary housing solutions need to be found for the estimated more than 108,000 internally displaced persons who have been left homeless, reconstruction is the main longer-term priority.69

42)  During the conflict, the IDF uncovered and destroyed an extensive tunnel network extending from the Gaza Strip into several points in Israel, constructed by Hamas with materials smuggled into the Gaza Strip. No party has claimed, and there is no evidence, that materials imported under UN auspices have been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. It must also be said that the effort and resources devoted by Hamas to construct this network in order to launch attacks against Israel is unacceptable.

At his Council of Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams warns that recent comments by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas signal a continuing Palestinian intransigence on the “right of return” that will wreck current US mediation efforts:

So Abbas’s maneuver here, as we approach the Kerry deadline in April, makes a genuine peace agreement unrealistic and in fact impossible. The terms he has just set forth will never be met. Rather than preparing for peace, he is not only making it impossible for himself to sign a deal, but also setting out terms that will make it impossible for his successors  to sign a deal.

In particular he cites recent comments made by Abbas to Fateh activists:

The Right of Return is a personal right. If you are a refugee, your son is a refugee as well. Perhaps you will decide to relinquish this right while your son decides not to, or vice versa. Your son is free to do so. When we say that this is a personal choice, it means that he can decide for himself.

This, he suggests, makes agreement impossible:

By making the “right of return” a personal right for each Palestinian, Abbas is saying the PLO has no right to negotiate over it and no right to sign an agreement that defeats or even limits that “right.” If that’s really the PLO position, there will never be an agreement.

What is interesting about Abram’s piece is the extent to which it misunderstands refugee rights (and, for that matter, all other internationally-recognized rights) altogether.

Put simply, such rights are always individual rights. On this point there is broad consensus among both refugee and international law experts. They cannot be eliminated or withdrawn by states on behalf of their citizens, for if they could do so it would undermine the whole purpose of rights in the first place. In other words, all that Abbas is stating here is almost universally recognized principle of international law. Palestinian negotiators can no more give away Palestinian refugees’ right of return that Israeli negotiators could give away the rights of Israelis (or diaspora Jews) to life, liberty and security of person.

Rather than Abbas’ statement being a position of intransigence, it is probably better seen as an effort to remove the pressure on Palestinian negotiators to obtain explicit recognition of such a right in a permanent status agreement. Implicitly his comments suggest that such recognition is irrelevant, since it exists independently of whatever treaty text Israel and the Palestinians might agree. Of course, this runs counter to Israeli’s oft-expressed interest that any  agreement be an end of all claims against Israel by the Palestinians. However, there is broad agreement here too among experts that while an agreement can substantially narrow the scope and weight of such claims, it cannot prevent all individuals making such claims. After all, why would a Palestinian citizen of the US (for example) somehow be bound by what Palestinian leaders in Ramallah agree to? I doubt very much that Abrams would favour a future Palestinian state be given this sort of extra-territorial power over Americans.

That the “right” might still exist even after an agreement does not mean, however, that significant number of Palestinians would thereby gain access to residence in Israel. I’ve argued before that the “right of return” is a much more ambiguous and contingent right in international law than many Palestinians believe it to be. It is doubtful that it applies to refugees with citizenship, and it certainly fades slowly over succeeding generations. It is also not at all clear that it applies to original homes (in Israel) rather than homeland or “country”—both of much might be reasonably understood to refer to the future Palestinian state. Finally, no Israeli court is ever going top force an Israeli government to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, and no other court would have jurisdiction. While Israeli might accept some symbolic number of refugees (as it proposed in the 2001 Taba negotiations, and again in the 2007-08 Annapolis negotiations), in practice acceptance would likely remain a matter of sovereign discretion (as expressed in the December 2000 Clinton Parameters).

Elsewhere in his blog post, Abrams also expresses concern about Palestinian plans for a referendum on any peace deal that would include the diaspora, worrying that refugees might find the package unacceptable. That is indeed a risk, although the countervailing benefit is that an endorsement would force Hamas to accept a deal too. Abrams is also criticizes Abbas’ position on refugee compensation:

Abbas has every one of those people receiving compensation. Those who move to Palestine get compensation; those who “return” to Israel get compensation; those who move to Canada or stay in Canada get compensation, and so on. So, the young man or woman born in Jordan or Canada and having full citizenship there, and staying there, gets compensation. It’s a nice fantasy for a politician to describe—every Palestinian takes part in this bonanza—but it is just that: a fantasy. Once again, it has nothing to do with actually making the choices peace will require nor with preparing Palestinians for the real future.

This is slightly odd, since the general position Abbas expresses has been the (pre-Netanyahu) Israeli position on compensation too, as evidenced by the Israeli negotiating position at Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis. Compensation may be very difficult to do, and there may be questions about who pays how much to exactly whom, but in the past decade and a half of negotiations there has never been any serious controversy (yet) over whether it should be part of a deal.

Bedein’s imaginary UNRWA “Camp Jihad”

Posted: August 23, 2013 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, Gaza, UNRWA, West Bank

In the last couple of weeks a documentary alleging anti-Semitic indoctrination at UNRWA summer camps has received wide circulation and comment (such as here and here). The video was produced by David Bedein, who has a remarkable history of producing rather fraudulent accounts of alleged UNRWA misdeeds.

UNRWA has now conducted an investigation, and found the allegations of incitement in the video to be “baseless”.

UNRWA Rejects Allegations of Incitement as Baseless: Statement by UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness

22 August 2013
East Jerusalem

In recent days, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been attacked after an Israeli film-maker released a film, “Camp Jihad,” alleging that UNRWA promoted anti-Semitism and incitement to violence in its ‘summer camps’. These false accusations have been repeated in various media outlets.

UNRWA has conducted a lengthy and detailed investigation into the film and we categorically reject the allegations it contains. The film is grossly misleading and we regret the damage it has caused to UNRWA and the United Nations.

The film-maker concerned has a history of making baseless claims about UNRWA, all of which we have investigated and demonstrated to be patently false.  It has long been the practice of the film-maker to show non-UNRWA activities and portray them as activities of UNRWA. He has done this again and we again reject his allegations. Our repeated rejection of his falsehoods is a matter of public record.

The main accusation in the film is that incitement is promoted during UNRWA ‘summer camps’. The ‘summer camp’ shown in the West Bank was not affiliated with or organized by UNRWA. The only UNRWA summer activities actually depicted are those shot in Gaza. However, our investigation of the film has revealed that absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or inflammatory was done or said in the scenes filmed in Gaza.

In addition, those interviewed in the film are presented with captions that identify them as UNRWA staff members. However, only one of those interviewed is an UNRWA staff member. The comment she makes does not violate UNRWA’s neutrality policy.

Some of the interviews filmed in the West Bank took place during the course of a third party’s activities inside what is indeed an UNRWA installation. However, UNRWA did not organize or manage these activities, and – here, too – none of the interviewees were UNRWA staff members. In addition, the interviews were organized by the film-maker and conducted with children, without parental consent, in an unethical, highly ‘leading’ manner, by a media organization he contracted.

We firmly condemn the anti-Semitic and inflammatory statements made during some of the interviews filmed in the West Bank, and we have suspended our relationship with the third-party organization, pending a review. However, we reject in no uncertain terms the allegations that UNRWA promotes incitement and the notion that UNRWA is responsible for the views expressed in the film.

UNRWA is committed to fostering human rights and tolerance, and teaches these values through the curriculum in its schools. UNRWA is one of the few organizations that has implemented human rights and conflict resolution training for millions of Palestine refugee children in the complex political environment of the Middle East for over 12 years.

– Ends –

Background information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some five million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency’s General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 54.3 million.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: +972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: +972 (0)2 589 0267
Adnan Abu-Hasna
UNRWA Media Advisor
Mobile: +972 (0)59 942 8061
Office: +972 (0)8 288 7531
Frederick Swinnen
Special Assistant to the Commissioner-General
UNRWA Executive Office
+972 2 589 0775 (office)
+972 54 240 2734 (mobile)
+962 77 676 0082 (mobile)

factsThere are certainly some neutrality issues arising from the videos  that UNRWA needs to examine, including access to its facilities. This is a difficult challenge, however, since the Agency understandably wants its facilities to be of community service, and monitoring everything that everyone ever says inside an UN building is clearly impossible. UNRWA staff may also need to be more aware of the risks of having their statements or social media use distorted by those seeking to harm the Agency or the refugees it serves.

Interestingly, when FOX News covered the story (somehow missing UNRWA’s disavowal), the Israeli government offered an indirect defence of the Agency (emphasis added):

 “UNRWA is not perfect, but the truth of the matter is we don’t have a conflict with UNRWA; we have a conflict with the Arab world,” Paul Hirschson, of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told…

This almost certainly won’t be the first time Bedein distorts the facts as part of his crusade against UNRWA. Such efforts certainly resonate among those predisposed to dislike Palestinians, refugees, or the UN. They have rather less effect on most international donors, however—while none welcome the adverse publicity (donors are nothing if not negative-publicity-shy), they have come to know his  mendacious track record only too well.


As of July 8, UNRWA estimated that 235,000 Palestinians in Syria had been internally displaced. Others have fled to Lebanon (63,100), Jordan (7937) or further afield. The Agency currently provides direct assistance to 420,000 refugees, in addition trying to maintain its regular health and education services.

An op ed in today’s Jerusalem Post by Leviah Landau criticizes UNRWA for focusing on the emergency humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees who are in, or who have fled from, Syria.

Any kind of planning for long-term solutions for refugees outside of the territories has not been and is not within the purview of UNRWA. The organization’s six-month budget is dedicated to cash assistance, food and non-food items, emergency health, education, rehabilitation and capacity and management support. Concrete aid items such as bedding, kitchenware, garbage services and emergency medicine constitute a large chunk of where the money goes.

While all of this is necessary, comparatively, UNRWA’s budget requirement for Syria in the past six months was $75,087,733, a whopping 90.44 percent of the required budget requested by the UNHCR’s Syria budget – charged with all other Syrian refugees (approximately 1,250,000).

UNRWA issues a few reports each week that address the current situation on the ground in Syria. However, the organization fails to address the actual concerns of the population it serves.

Meanwhile, UNRWA receives hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency relief and short-term aid, which only continues the cycle of Palestinian suffering. The UNHCR, by contrast, addresses permanent resettlement of refugees in distress. Why an opportunity for relocation has not been emphasized for Palestinian refugees is a serious question. [emphasis added]

The article goes on to cite the third-party resettlement of Palestinians fleeing Iraq as a model for what UNRWA should be doing.


A few observations are in order.

First, it isn’t accurate to say there has been no effort to find a destination for Palestinian refugees from Syria. According to press reports, the Palestinian Authority requested that Israel permit the refugees to relocate to the West Bank and Gaza. After all, they are Palestinian refugees, so repatriating them to Palestine would be the logical thing to do, right?

Israel, however, refused—unless, that is,  refugees agreed to waive their future rights and claims. Israel outright refused to accept Palestinian refugees from Iraq after 2003, despite a similar request. It has also reneged previous commitments to allow the “admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 to return to these areas,” a commitment it made both in the 1978 Camp David Accords and in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

It should be underscored that in none of these cases was it proposed that the refugees return to Israel proper. Rather, it was proposed that they repatriate to areas that are supposed to become part of a future Palestinian state.

Since Israel has foreclosed the most logical and legally sound option—namely the return of refugees to their own country, as called for in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—what about the sort of mass third country resettlement called for by Landau?

It isn’t something that even UNHCR  does much of these days. As UNHCR’s website notes, “of the 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, only about 1 per cent are submitted by the agency for resettlement.” Even fewer are actually resettled.

It is costly, further breaks up the social fabric of displaced societies, and—most critical of all—relies on the diminishing will of the international community to resettle refugees. As UNHCR explains, the current number of requests is limited by the ability of receiving countries to process these requests, as well as their willingness to accept refugees. There’s simply no room in the system for large numbers of additional claimants. Resettlement can also be seen as facilitating ethnic cleansing, by implicitly accepting the decision of a party responsible for forced displacement to exclude people based on their ethnic origins or religious beliefs. After all, while Israel won’t allow Palestinians to repatriate to the Palestinian territories, it will allow Jews (from anywhere in the world) to live there, in settlements in the occupied territories that themselves are clearly illegal under international law.

Thus, even if there were support for it by the refugees (there isn’t), large-scale third country resettlement is impractical for almost half a million Palestinians who were registered with UNRWA in Syria. No country will take them. Indeed, the extended delay and cost involved in finding asylum for a relatively small number of Palestinians fleeing Iraq after 2003 provides overwhelming evidence why this isn’t a feasible option for a very much larger number of Palestinians fleeing Syria now.

Certainly, I believe that persons fleeing Syria, whether Syrian or Palestinian, ought to be able to apply for third country resettlement. I favour countries expanding their acceptance of refugees, in this case and others. However, to blame UNRWA for not pursuing a completely unfeasible policy—and at the same time, completely ignore Israel’s continuing refusal to allow Palestinians to repatriate to the Palestinian territories—isn’t just poor analysis. It is deliberate obfuscation.

Toyotas, Hondas, and Palestinian refugee education

Posted: February 5, 2012 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, UNRWA, US

Last week, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights, cosponsored a meeting on UNRWA with the virulently anti-UNRWA Center for Near East Policy Research. The session featured attacks on UNRWA by Arnon Groiss (who highlighted problems with PA textbooks used by UNRWA—although apparently he’s never ever been to a UNRWA school) and David Bedein’s infamous propaganda video about indoctrination in UNRWA summer camps (which, on further investigation, turns out not to be UNRWA summer camps at all).

Matthew Reynolds, head of the UNRWA representative office in Washington DC, labelled the testimony “pretty much a farce,” likening it to claiming problems with Toyota vehicles—but then showing pictures of Hondas to make your point.

A few quick thoughts on the issue:

1) Yes, Palestinian Authority textbooks are imperfect, and there is significant room for improvement. However, they are also a very substantial improvement on the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks that were in use in the West Bank and Gaza before the establishment of the PA, and which were used (albeit often in censored versions) in the schools of the then Israeli-controlled Civil Administration. It also seems a bit unrealistic to expect that a population driven into exile, under foreign military occupation, and denied self-determination will have textbooks full of positive references to their occupiers. there’s also very little evidence that the Palestinian educational system plays a significant role in encouraging Palestinian hostility to the Israeli occupation—rather, the evidence suggests that Israeli actions (occupation, checkpoints, dispossession, illegal settlement construction, military actions, arrests) are the primary determinant of this. As we have noted before, Palestinians who go to Israeli schools (in East Jerusalem, or within Israel proper) have broadly similar attitudes to the refugee issue as do Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

2) UNRWA is somewhat limited to using host country curriculum, although with modifications and supplements (such as its human rights curriculum). None of the press coverage of the event I have seen so far seems to have mentioned this, or the UNRWA-Hamas tensions in Gaza (and Lebanon). Instead, much of the coverage has actually distorted the testimony still further, like this gem in Washington Jewish Week:

Groiss said that in UNRWA schools in Saudi Arabia, the curriculum “professes the hope for the elimination of all Jews.” In Egypt, there is material “which expresses hatred towards Jews.”

As most PRRN blog readers will know, UNRWA doesn’t have schools in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

3) Criticizing UNRWA by having David Bedein show a fraudulent video that falsely identifies non-UNRWA schools and activities as belonging to the Agency pretty much implies that either one doesn’t know what they are talking about, or one doesn’t much care what the facts are.

4) Sadly, however, distorted and even demonstrably false accusations reverberate in the echo chamber that is the internet, to be cited by those looking for confirmation of their preexisting biases. Thus you find the recent testimony on UNRWA being echoed being covered by the right-wing Cybercast News Service  (“The Right News. Right Now.”), and showing on at least two hundred other blogs and internet sources in the last week.