Archive for the ‘new items and opinion pieces’ Category

Humanitarian assistance is difficult work, especially in politically-charged environments. Both for ethical-philosophical reasons (namely, the belief that aid ought to be given on the basis of human need, and not on grounds of ethnicity, religion, or political views) and for practical ones (to avoid entanglement in political disputes that would imperil both personnel and their mission), humanitarian agencies often promote some version of impartiality or neutrality. Indeed, the concept(s) are implicitly or explicitly embedded in the code of conduct of the world’s largest humanitarian NGOs, as well as in the agreed principles of good humanitarian donorship. For UN agencies, operating on behalf of an international community that itself contains a diverse range of global viewpoints, the principle of humanitarian neutrality is particularly important.

But what is neutrality? Who decides? What is the intended audience , and how does the multiplicity of local, regional, and international audiences complicate things? Does neutrality require that one stay silent on the sources of injustice or deprivation (so as to avoid antagonizing key actors)? Does it require speaking out on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed (even at the cost of confrontation)? Can material resources ever be provided into a social environment—especially an environment characterized by latent or ongoing social and political conflict—without somehow having an effect on the course of events?

A great many books, articles, best-practices guides, and so forth have been written on the topic. They almost all boil down to some version of “it’s damn complicated, so pay attention” and “try your best to do no harm.”

The notion of the “strategic corporal,” by contrast, comes from a very differ point of origin: namely, the complexities of modern peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations. As coined by US Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak, it referred to the influence that even relatively low-level personnel could have on the strategic outcome of conflicts, whether by showing appropriate leadership and adaptability or by acting incorrectly in a way that antagonized local populations, generated adverse media coverage, and/or damaged the reputation and hence capacity of their larger organization.

The potential effects of the “strategic corporal” are further amplified by the modern information age. As I have argued elsewhere, the internet makes it possible reports of alleged deeds or misdeeds to reverberate internationally at an unparalleled rate.

All of which brings us to the latest controversy about UNRWA humanitarian operations, namely a charge (made in a blog that is often hostile to the agency) that refugee children “learn about Islam, Jihad, martyrdom – at UNRWA schools.”

There are two parts to this critique. The first—which is rather easy to dismiss—is the complaint that UNRWA schools (which largely follow host country curriculum) teach Islam, and that is somehow a nefarious thing to do. A great many countries teach an official, state, or majority religion as a compulsory class: I took very Protestant religious education courses as a school child in the UK, and Jewish religion and culture is a compulsory subject in Israeli state schools (indeed, a great many public schools in Israel are religious ones). Islam was even taught in Israeli-controlled Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza from 1967 to 1994. While (as a secularist) I find this model of religious education less than ideal, it is hardly uncommon. To complain that UNRWA students “learn about Islam,” therefore, seems to reveal more about the anti-Muslim bias of the accusers than the actual educational process for Palestinian refugees.

The more serious charge relates to the content of some official UNRWA school websites in Gaza. These indeed contain some posted material (extolling jihad, for example) that is problematic. It is hardly surprising, of course, that forum discussion in deeply religious and socially conservative Gaza contains particular religious views and representations, and it is certainly the case that postings appear to represent the personal views of individual staff rather than the official position of the Agency. However, much as the “strategic corporal” can take micro-actions on the battlefield that have much larger implications for policy, so too the “strategic teacher” can take actions that have broader impact on the Agency. In this case, a handful of inappropriate postings on a school web forum can echo around the internet for weeks, months and (likely) years—contributing to an inaccurate portrayal of the Agency as somehow in league with Hamas and an obstacle to peace.

How does one deal with this? Leaving aside the immediate issue of what UNRWA does or does not do in response to the recent accusations, there are issues of personal training and procedure that are relevant here—and not just for UNRWA but for all humanitarian agencies. Humanitarian agency personnel need to act as if their actions are under  microscope—as indeed they are in an increasingly wired world. If the parent organization indeed embraces  concepts of impartiality or neutrality, these need to be internalized by all personnel as a core service values, and not just something that senior staff will deal with. Staff also need to understand the complex prism through which different constituencies may judge their actions—including, that is, constituencies that may hold very different views and political goals, but which nonetheless may act to affect or impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

A new documentary on one aspect Palestinian dispossession will air soon on al-Jazeera English:

New Documentary Reveals Looting of 70,000 Palestinian Books During Israel’s Creation

May 7th, 2012 – The Great Book Robbery, a new film from director Benny Brunner that tells the story of the looting of 70,000 Palestinian books during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, will have its world premiere on Al Jazeera English’s WITNESS strand on May 9th.

Five years in the making, the 48-minute film interweaves various story lines in a structure that is dramatically compelling and emotionally unsettling. The film’s interviews center on eyewitness accounts and cultural critiques that place the book plunder affair in a larger historical cultural context.

The Great Book Robbery sheds new light on the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, also known as the Nakba (or “catastrophe”), when some 725,000 Palestinians were dispossessed to make way for a Jewish-majority Israeli state. In the intervening years, Israel has constructed a moralistic and heroic narrative of the 1948 war. The film aims to deconstruct this imperial history and to prevent this story from fading into oblivion by passing it on to future generations.

The Great Book Robbery was produced by 2911 Foundation and Xela Films in association with Al Jazeera English. The film’s teaser can be watched here.

For journalists wishing to preview the film, please contact 2911 Foundation at

Contact Information:
Karina Goulordava: T. 717-448-8970 (U.S.)
Benny Brunner: T. +31 6 15071167

——————Al Jazeera English Network Screening Times——————
Wednesday, May 9th:    15:00 EST (US)     20:00 GMT (Europe)
Thursday, May 10th:     07:00 EST (US)     12:00 GMT (Europe)
Friday, May 11th:          20:00 EST (US)     01:00 GMT (Europe)
Saturday, May 12th:      01:00 EST (US)     06:00 GMT (Europe)
Sunday, May 13th:        15:00 EST (US)     20:00 GMT (Europe)
Monday, May 14th:       07:00 EST (US)     12:00 GMT (Europe)
Tuesday, May 15th:      20:00 EST (US)     01:00 GMT (Europe)
Wednesday, May 16th: 01:00 EST (US)     06:00 GMT (Europe)

There’s been quite a bit of refugee-related news lately that we haven’t had a chance to comment on here at the PRRN blog, even if it has been circulated on FOFOGNET. I suspect that some of my comments will spur other comments, so feel free to weigh in.

Refugees and Border Protests

Amid the mass populist protests that have characterized the “Arab Spring,” and following from the protests on Israel’s borders on May 15 in commemoration of al-Nakba (picture, right), today saw similar protests marking the 44th anniversary of Israeli’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. In Lebanon, pressure from the Israel, the international community, the UN, and possibly even Hizbullah resulted in the demonstrations being called off in the border area. On the Golan Heights, however, a confrontation developed in which Israeli troops fired on demonstrators, reportedly killing at least four.

What do these refugee border protests mean, and what might be the implication if they become ever larger annual events? UNRWA Commissioner General Filipo Grandi has suggested that they underscored the importance of paying greater attention to the refugee issue:

“We should learn lessons from May 15. [Palestinians] are not going to stay quiet. They have rights that they want to talk about so we need to help them, otherwise they will not become a positive constituency, working toward peace, [but] they will become an element of instability,” Grandi told reporters at UNRWA’s Beirut headquarters.

“This shows how important it is not to forget the refugees. This is a political issue; clearly the responsibility of the parties to the conflict. It’s important that the issue is not delayed, because these demonstrations … are the proof that it is not resolved.”

Karma Nabulsi, writing in the Guardian shortly after the May 15 protests, saw the event as something even more transformative:

It was the moment for which we had all been holding our breath for decades – for 63 years to be precise. Palestinians everywhere watched the unfolding scene transfixed and awed. The camera followed the movements of a small group of people advancing from the mass of protesters. They were carefully making their way down a hill towards the high fence that closed off the mined field separating Syria from its own occupied territory of the Golan that borders historic Palestine, now Israel.

They were mostly young Palestinians, drawn from the 470,000-plus refugee community in Syria: from Yarmouk refugee camp inside Damascus, from Khan el-Sheikh camp outside it, from Deraa and Homs refugee camps in the south, from Palestinian gatherings all over the country.

Slowly, and in spite of the shouted warnings from the villagers from Majdal Shams about the lethal landmines installed by the Israeli military right up to the fence, these remarkable ordinary young people – Palestinian refugees – began to both climb and push at the fence. We were going home.

It was a profoundly revolutionary moment, for these hundreds of young people entering Majdal Shams last Sunday made public the private heart of every Palestinian citizen, who has lived each day since 1948 in the emergency crisis of a catastrophe. Waiting, and struggling, and organising for only two things: liberation and return.

What made this moment and others like it across the region so radical in gesture, democratic in purpose, and universal in intent? It brought the entire world suddenly face to face with the intimate and immediate in the very human struggle for freedom of each Palestinian, whether refugee or not. Sixty-three years ago the entire body politic of the people of Palestine was violently destroyed and dispersed. All Palestinians, whether refugee or not, share that terrible history – it is what unites us.

While there is no doubting the drama or symbolism of the protests, I do think there are some broader questions about what their longer term political and policy impact is likely to be.

Within Palestinian politics, an intensification of diaspora protests such as these will certainly encourage the Palestinian leadership (especially within Fateh) to step up their rhetorical advocacy of refugee rights. There’s little downside to doing so, given that—despite a current French initiative—meaningful peace negotiations seem a very long way off at present. Whether its rhetorical position is realistic, or simply misleading, is another question.

The protests might encourage the international community to pay a little more attention to how deep-seated and real refugee grievances are. There might even be somewhat greater acknowledgement of past wrongs. However, the protests are unlikely to have any impact on the broad international consensus that the refugee issue will ultimately need to be resolved primarily through repatriation to a Palestinian state, coupled with compensation for property losses suffered in 1948. As evidenced in President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East and North Africa (and endorsed by both the Quartet and the G8) there is a growing view among the key international players that the refugee issue is so difficult that it is better to start with borders and security first, and move on to other issues later:

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear:  a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.  The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.  We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.  The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.  The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.  I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.  But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. (emphasis added)

Moreover, even if the recent protests highlight the salience of the refugee issue, what does that actually mean? If, as the UNRWA Commissioner General suggests, it is important that refugees be enabled to effectively articulate their interests, demands, and perceived rights, does that also mean that the international community should be equally forthright (“sorry, we don’t think you have a achievable right of return to 1948 areas”)? Certainly UNRWA isn’t in a position to be frank with refugees as to likely future political realities, as we know from Andrew Whitley’s controversial effort at truth-telling last year. A frank discussion of the issue with all stakeholders could be valuable, but its not an issue on which anyone is lining up to be frank.

A final dimension of all this is the effect of the protests within Israel, since shifting Israeli public opinion will be an important factor both in achieving meaningful peace negotiations and in securing the best possible future deal for refugees. Certainly, there are those Israelis who will see in the refugee border protests a valuable reminder of the injustices of 1948 and the need to address them. However, I suspect the general impact will be to strengthen the Israeli right, which will have little difficulty weaving the border clashes into a “hordes of refugee proto-terrorists waiting to destroy the besieged Jewish state” theme.

Update: Syrian TV is now reporting up to 20 killed in the Naksa Day protests. (Syrian TV isn’t, obviously, isn’t reporting on the “dozens” reportedly killed by Syrian security forces today in suppressing pro-reform demonstrations in Syria.) As predicted in my earlier comments above, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arguing that the whole thing shows that the Palestinians are out to destroy Israel:

The violent clashes on the border with Syria prove that the Palestinians are not interested in a solution based on 1967 borders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.

Rather, they are interested in a solution based on 1948 borders, Netanyahu said during a special closed meeting held with the Defense Minister and Israel Defense Forces chief in order to discuss the situation on the border with Syria.

Netanyahu said that Palestinians are trying to “flood Israel with refugees.”

“At the same time, the small Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in 1948. Arab countries have not done a thing in order to absorb and help Palestinians.”

In the interests of historical accuracy it should be noted, of course, that the Golan Heights aren’t part of Israel’s 1948 borders at all—they too are territories that were occupied in 1967.

Rafah Opened—Kind Of

With much fanfare, Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing last week, in a move that some hailed as an end to the siege of Gaza. The reality has soon sunk in, however.

  • The Egyptians are only allowing passenger traffic through Rafah (as before, and in keeping with past agreements) rather than commercial traffic. While there will undoubtedly be some cash-and-carry entrepreneurism that will facilitate the flow of smaller consumer goods into Gaza, there won’t be any large-scale movement of building materials coming in, and no Palestinian exports going out. The Egyptians are clearly worried that were they to fully open Rafah to commercial traffic, Israel would move to permanently close its own crossings—effectively throwing the issue of Gaza into Egypt’s economic and political lap.
  • The Egyptians are only allowing some Palestinians in. Men aged 18-40 will still require Egyptian visas, and as many as 5,000 persons may be on a “no travel” list and unable to enter.
  • The Egyptians are, so far, willing to play hardball on the issue. The closure of Rafah to bus traffic on June 4 caused Palestinian anger and some protests. Egypt claimed it was all because of needed infrastructure repairs. In the absence of more information, I’m doubtful—if the Egyptians wanted to maintain the flow of passengers they could easily have done so. It looks more like a tit-for-tat warning to Hamas to me. (Then again, as a former resident of Cairo I know one should never underestimate the inefficiencies of Egyptian infrastructure repairs.)

It remains to be seen how long these policies will be maintained. If the Muslim Brotherhood does very well in Egypt’s forthcoming (September) elections, there could be greater willingness in Cairo to relax border restrictions further. On the other hand, Egypt’s strategic concern at having the Gaza issue offloaded onto them will remain. I think the most likely outcome, therefore, is a limited relaxation on the rules as to who can cross and what they can carry, but no fundamental redesignation of the crossing as a commercial one. While that certainly certainly makes things a little better in the giant prison camp that is Gaza, it won’t fundamentally improve economic conditions there.

UNRWA, Eternal Source of All Things Evil

Once again, UNRWA’s fundamental threat to all things good and nice has been unmasked by Asaf Romirowsky, this time in a op ed in the New York Daily News entitled “UN refugee agency poisons the push for Mideast peace: UNRWA only furthers Palestinians’ suffering.” Romirowsky, who is to sensible discussion of Palestinian refugee issues what Donald Trump was to the debate on Obama’s place of birth, trots out all the usual canards and exaggerations regarding the Agency:

To an outsider, UNRWA may appear to be a humanitarian group providing education, social services and other aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In reality, it helps destroy the chances of Arab-Israeli peace, promotes terrorism and holds Palestinians back from rebuilding their lives(emphasis added)

UNRWA’s job is to keep Palestinian refugees in suspended animation – and at low living standards, and in camps – until a formal peace settlement is reached and recognized by the General Assembly.

The suffering and anger of these millions is maintained as a weapon to encourage them toward terrorism and intransigence. That stymies the peace process rather than furthering it.

For decades, UNRWA schools have bred anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Semitic indoctrination. Agency-operated – and, by extension, America-funded – schools decorate their classrooms with flags and banners celebrating terrorist groups. All this must stop if we ever want to see any kind of true progress toward peace.

The vast majority of UNRWA’s employees are Palestinian, and many local offices are dominated by radicals. UNWRA facilities have been documented as being used to store and transport weapons, and even serving as military bases.

As is typically the case, the piece either mischaracterizes what UNRWA does (it certainly doesn’t keep refugees in camps, for example—which is why 61% of refugees don’t live in them), or it takes isolated incidents and implies that they are the norm rather than the exception.

Of course, this is nothing entirely new to readers of the PRRN blog. We’ve previously discussed before UNRWA’s diabolical plot to perpetuate Middle East conflict (picture, right: the UNRWA Advisory Committee plots mayhem—UNRWA Commissioner General Filipo Grand can be seen on the right, with hook), apparently in conjunction with host countries, the United States, the European Union, other members of the international community, and Israel.

However, it comes at an interesting time. The November midterm elections in the US raised the possibility of a Congress more hostile to UNRWA. However, in the months since then, things have shifted somewhat. Briefings on Capitol Hill have assuaged some concerns. The Obama Administration continues to see UNRWA as an important element of stability in the region, as do the Europeans. The Israeli intelligence establishment have hinted that they too view UNRWA as having played a very useful role in Gaza as an ideological and service counterweight to Hamas. The Israeli government itself has privately urged donors to increase (not decrease) their contributions to the Agency. Finally, in the wake of the Palestinian national reconciliation agreement and the possibility of a new Palestinian national unity cabinet, some donors may see UNRWA as a possible conduit for future aid in a way that avoids the legal and political complications of having to work through Hamas-controlled institutions or ministries.

This doesn’t mean that the anti-UNRWA campaign won’t continue to threaten the Agency. It is hard to see it having much substantial effect (beyond the Canadian example) in the short term, however, given that even the Israeli government seems to find UNRWA necessary. Heck, these days the IDF website even features an interview with UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness.

UNRWA, Human Rights, and the Holocaust

The issue of UNRWA addressing the Holocaust in the context of its broader human rights education programme raised its head again earlier in this spring, with Hamas and others criticizing the agency for daring to mention the H-word. This is a sensitive issue for the Agency, about which it would probably prefer not to talk: if it moves ahead with examining the Holocaust in the context of its broader curriculum it is accused by some Palestinians of covert Zionism, and if it doesn’t do so it is accused by some Zionists of covert anti-Semitism.

Both claims are, of course, manifestly stupid (“stupid” being a technical social science term that the PRRN blog reserves for things that really can’t be described any other way). The Holocaust was a critical global turning point in thinking and international law regarding human rights and mass atrocity. It also has had profound implications for Palestinians, both in shaping the events of 1947-48 and in explaining some of Israel’s continued preoccupation with issues of security thereafter. On the other side, it seems to be a bit odd attacking UNRWA insufficiently addressing the issue in its schools when Israel refrained from ever even raising the topic during the 37 years it controlled the education system in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian Support for “Right of Return” Grows — in Israel

I’ve long argued that Palestinian support for refugee rights is not the product of UNRWA or the the educational system, but rather a lived historical experience of forced displacement, coupled with other contextual political and social factors. More evidence of that has come from a survey conducted by the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa, which found that “the percentage of Arab Israelis who believe cash compensation and settlement in a Palestinian state are an alternative solution to the right of return dropped from 72.2% in 2003 to 40% in 2010.”

Note that these are Israeli citizens going to Israeli schools—so the growing support for refugee rights can hardly be attributed to anything UNRWA or the PA has done or said. Partly it might be due to refugee mobilization in the disapora. However, I think the shift has far more to do with a profound feelings of Palestinian alienation from the Israeli polity, rejection of the policies of the Netanyahu government, and anger at growing “Nakba denial” and legal measures that seek to delegitimize refugee experiences and obfuscate the historical record.

In this regard, the survey has some other interesting findings:

 Among Arabs, 71% said they blamed Jews for the hardships suffered by Palestinians during and after the “Nakba” in 1948. The survey also found that the percentage of Arabs taking part in “Nakba Day” commemorations rose from 12.9% in 2003 to 36.1% in 2010. In addition,37.8% of Arabs polled in the survey said they didn’t believe that millions of Jews had been the victims of a campaign of genocide waged by Nazi Germany.

Among Jewish respondents, 57.7% said they didn’t believe that a disaster of any sort happened to the Palestinians in 1948, and 68.1% expressed their opposition to public Nakba commemorations.

Also, 66.8% said the Palestinians bore the blunt of the blame for the continued conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Among Jewish respondents, 32.6% said they supported a cancellation of the voting rights of Arab citizens, and 16.5% said they were against the rights of an Arab minority to live in Israel.

I haven’t yet seen the original, only the press account—so if anyone has a copy, please feel free to send it on.

JPS on the refugee issue

Posted: January 5, 2011 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, new publications

The latest issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies (Autumn 2010) has several pieces that might be of interest to PRRN blog readers:

UNRWA and the Refugees: A Difficult but Lasting Marriage

By Jalal Al Husseini

Over the last sixty years, UNRWA’s relationship to the Palestinian refugees it serves has undergone profound changes. Faced with the difficult task of adapting a humanitarian regime to a highly politicized environment, the agency has had to thread its way through the diverse and sometimes conflicting expectations of the international donor states, the Arab host countries, and the refugees themselves, who from the start were deeply suspicious of UNRWA’s mandate as inimical to the right of return. Against this background, the article traces the evolution of the agency’s role from service and relief provider to virtual mouthpiece for the refugees on the international stage and, on an administrative level, from a disciplinary regime to emphasis on community participation and finally to the embrace of a developmental agenda. Although UNRWA’s presence, originally seen as temporary, seems likely to endure, the article argues that financial and political constraints are likely to thwart its new agenda.

(In)Security and Reconstruction in Post-conflict Nahr al-Barid Refugee Camp

By Ismael Sheikh Hassan and Sari Hanafi

This article examines the intersection of the Lebanese state’s post-conflict security policy in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp and the reconstruction of the camp, which was destroyed in a battle between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam. The significance of the government’s security focus derives from its intention to make Nahr al-Barid a “model” for all the other camps in the country. After discussing the Lebanese security context, the characteristics of the pre-conflict camp, the arrival of Fatah al-Islam, and the ensuing battle, the authors focus on the urban planning process for a reconstructed Nahr al-Barid, highlighting both the state’s militarization of the process and the local grassroots planning initiative which, in partnership with UNRWA, managed to secure some concessions. Also analyzed is the government plan submitted to donors, which conceives of “governance” as community policing without addressing the status of the Palestinians in Lebanon.

In the Ruins of Nahr al-Barid: Understanding the Meaning of the Camp

By Adam Ramadan

The destruction of Nahr al-Barid camp in Lebanon in 2007 was a disaster for the 35,000 people for whom it had become home. To understand what was lost, this article explores what the refugee camp is and what it does, materially and imaginatively, for its residents. Drawing on the words of ordinary Palestinians from Nahr al-Barid and Rashidiyya camps, it describes how the camps are social, cultural, and political refuges from marginalization in exile. While the camps draw meaning from a particular Palestinian time-space that emphasizes displacement and transience, they have also become meaningful places in themselves. Consequently, the loss of Nahr al-Barid and the displacement of its society have been understood as a repetition of the foundational experience of the modern Palestinian nation: the Nakba.

You can access previews here, but you’ll need a subscription to read the entire articles.

In the past the PRRN blog has revealed startling evidence of misdeeds by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In our intrepid search for the truth, we revealed that the Agency is headed by an apparent clone of Dr. Evil, and that its real headquarters is a secret underground missile base. We blithely reported accusations that the Agency behaves like the KGB. This is on top of all the routine accusations that UNRWA is somehow responsible for Palestinian refugees being a little miffed about being forcibly dispossessed and displaced in 1948.

It is now apparent, however, that we’ve failed to adequately appreciate the truly perfidious evil that is UNRWA. Instead, it has fallen to Hoover Institution research fellow Michael Bernstam to reveal the true scope of the conspiracy. As he claims in a recent article in Commentary Magazine, “UNRWA has been one of the most inhuman experiments in human history.” (For those of you who guessed slavery, sexual oppression, Belgian colonial administration of the Congo, Nazism, Stalinism, or the killing fields of Cambodia or Rwanda, I’m sorry—you really don’t seem to understand how truly evil the provision of basic health and education services to refugees is).

UNRWA staff meet to plot their next fiendish education/primary health care/microfinance project.

But wait, there’s more! As Bernstam also reveals, UNRWA runs a “welfare-warfare state,” and “has become a terror-sponsoring organization.” He also claims that, through a process of natural selection, “the staff of UNRWA must ultimately converge with the terrorist paramilitary organizations”—a situation fully evident in the picture of an UNRWA staff meeting shown here (OK, so that’s not a real UNRWA staff meeting, but you would never know it from reading Bernstam’s piece).

Because of all this, Bernstam argues that phasing out the Agency is a prerequisite for peace:

The end of UNRWA would automatically nullify the pernicious issue of the right of return-cum-retake. It is unsolvable in the presence of UNRWA, because it implies the repopulation of Israel with millions of perennial paramilitary refugees. But once UNRWA is discarded, the refugee status expires instantaneously or after a transition period, and the right of return becomes a non-issue due to immediate and actually pressing needs.

Having read the piece, one might well come to the conclusion that UNRWA actually stands for “Underhanded Nogooders for Really Wicked Activities.” If that’s the case, the Agency really needs to get rid of that feel-good blue UNRWA logo and go for something darker and more conspiratorial. Faintly Cold War East European uniforms would be good too, for the Commissioner-General’s minions (any large evil conspiracy worth its name must have minions, of course). And for goodness sake, “Peace Starts Here” has got to go too! “KAOS starts here,” perhaps?

At the risk of once more retreading very familiar ground on this blog, let’s review the actual facts:

  1. Displacement and dispossession are central to the Palestinian national narrative because some 80% of the prewar Arab population of Israel was forced into involuntary exile by a nascent Israeli state claiming as its own justification a prior forced displacement some two millennia earlier. Had Arab host countries wished to integrate the refugees, and had the refugees wished to be integrated, perhaps some of that grievance and refugee identity would have faded. However, they didn’t—indeed, refugee resistance made early UNRWA integration efforts untenable—and Palestinian identity in the diaspora is firmly established. Even if UNRWA vanished tomorrow, that’s not going to change.
  2. UNRWA services have little or nothing to do with attitudes to the refugee issue, as evidenced by the fact that refugees who don’t receive Agency services, Palestinians who aren’t refugees, and even Palestinian citizens of Israel (who receive Israeli services) all have comparable views.
  3. UNRWA largely provides basic health and education services, none of which are associated with dependency—indeed, quite the opposite. The Agency’s Special Hardship programme supports those families who lack a primary income earner. Its microfinance program works on a repayment/cost recovery basis. Neither of these create dependency either—indeed, the latter programme is explicitly intended to reduce it. While many refugee shelters in camps might have originally been provided by UNRWA, most camps have evolved into vibrant if overcrowded urban spaces, where the overwhelming majority of housing activity is carried out through construction and improvements by the refugees themselves. Refugees are, with the partial and regrettable exception of Lebanon, free to move outside the camps—and most do.
  4. UNRWA does give one major form of welfare hand-out: emergency food aid in Gaza. This is entirely due to Israeli economic restrictions on the area, depressed refugee incomes caused by this, and consequent problems of food insecurity. The only other options would be i) for Israel to lift its restrictions, or ii) for Israel and the international community to allow growing malnutrition. I’m not sure which Bernstam would prefer, although the latter has a sort of Malthusian aspect to it that might appeal.

The issue of UNRWA and terrorism is more complex, and I’ll leave it to another blog post when I can give it more serious attention. Interestingly, however, Israeli officials increasingly see UNRWA as an important bulwark against the growth of Islamist radicalism in Gaza, and I’m told that they have been quietly urging some Western donors to increase their funding for that reason. The government of Jordan (no slouches when it comes to the fight against terrorism) certainly see UNRWA in the same role. So too does the government of Lebanon, which fought a violent and destructive battle against al-Qa’ida wannabes Fateh al-Islam in 2007, and which have also made it very clear to donors that they see UNRWA as an important part of their counterterrorism strategy.

Michael Fischbach’s book The Peace Process and Palestinian Refugee Claims: Addressing Claims for Property Compensation and Restitution (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006) has just been published in Arabic by Philadelphia University in Amman as `Amaliyyat al-Salam wa Mutalibat al-Laji’in al-Filastiniyyin: Dirasa fi Mutalibat Ta`wid al-Mulkiyya wa I`adat al-Mumtalikat. What’s more, it is apparently available for free (in the Middle East only).

For more information, you could try contacting either Philadelphia University, or the book’s distributor, Dar al-Baraka.


Posted: December 17, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces

FOFOGNET is Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet‘s pretty-much-daily email compendium of news on the Palestinian refugee question. While decidedly low tech (plain text, no attachments), it provides a useful way of keeping up on what is happening on the issue.

Subscriptions are free, but are limited to those with professional involvement in the issue (foreign ministries, aid agencies, other government departments, NGOs, refugee community organizations, UN and other international organizations, journalists, and academic researchers). If you wish to subscribe, drop us an email with a few lines of self-description. If you don’t qualify, you can still access the FOFOGNET archives online here.

PRRN also maintains a similar email list on Palestinian development issues in the West Bank and Gaza, PALDEV.

As for the name, it has its origins in the distant past of the multilateral component of the Middle East peace process, in the days of the old Refugee Working Group. The chair of the RWG was  known as the “gavel.” The group of Canadian diplomats who assisted was known as the “friends of the gavel.” The international group of researchers who sometimes provided policy advice were known as the “Friends Of the Friends Of the Gavel”—hence FOFOGNET.


Posted: November 20, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, UNRWA

UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, John Ging, has been in the US talking to various groups about Palestinian refugees and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. The trip, partly supported by the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group J-Street, has certainly attracted attention.

Ging’s speech at Columbia University last Sunday was marked by one of the original sponsoring student groups, Just Peace, reluctantly withdrawing its endorsement of the event after it came under pressure from the campus chapter of Hillel. According to the Columbia Spectator:

“There was a lot of back-and-forth. … Discussions went on for about a week,” said Abby Backer, BC ’13 and president of Just Peace. “There just wasn’t time to find a solution. We dissociated ourselves from the event so we wouldn’t have to dissociate ourselves from Hillel.”

Jonah Liben, GS and Israel coordinator for Hillel, said that he would have supported the event if Hillel could control the format, but representatives from Just Peace said they wanted Ging to have the opportunity to deliver an uncensored speech. Backer said she also heard concerns that the conversation might spiral out of control in an unproductive way.

“It’s unfortunate that this event couldn’t happen with Hillel’s name on it,” Liben said—and both he and Backer said that time constraints, and not fundamental disagreements, prevented the two groups from reaching a compromise. Referring to the national Jewish organization that supported Ging’s trip to the United States, where he is visiting a number of campuses, Liben added, “We know that J Street isn’t bringing Ging in to bash Israel, and he tried to contextualize his statements … [but] Ging is a controversial speaker.”

Meanwhile, Ging also gave an interview with Israeli freelance journalist Adi Schwartz, which has popped up in a lot of places in the blogosphere in the last few days:

“We shouldn’t exist after so many years”, says Ging, “and I perfectly understand the Israeli negative view towards my organization, because it is the manifestation of the political failure of the international community to resolve the conflict. Our 60th anniversary was not a moment of celebration but a commemoration of failure because we should not have had to exist after 60 years”.

Why don’t you resettle the refugees?

“This is not our mandate. I am by mandate given for action, not to resolve the conflict. The question of the refugees is an issue that should be decided upon in the negotiations between the parties themselves”.

Gaza is under Palestinian control. Have you tried to initiate a resettlement project there together with Hamas?

“Why would I do that? You are asking me to solve one of the protracted issues of the conflict. This is not our mandate”.

Every reasonable person understands that Israel will never let into its territory 4.8 million Palestinians, because it will stop being the State of the Jewish People. Not settling the refugees is not a neutral act: You thus perpetuate the conflict, and even make it worse, since every day the number of refugees increases.

“UNRWA gets its mandate from the General Assembly. Our mandate is to act, not to solve the conflict”.

Ging also discusses James Lindsey’s 2009 Washington Institute report on UNRWA (which he criticizes), points to UNRWA’s own initiatives in the area of human rights education, and defends UNRWA’s record against charges that it employs known Hamas cadres.

On Tuesday, Ging spoke with Congressional staffers in Washington, and addressed many of the same themes. He is also quoted in the Jerusalem Post as criticizing UNRWA’s New York representative, Andrew Whitley, for comments he recently made on the political feasibility of implementing the refugees’ right of return to Israel:

[Ging] said it was important for those involved in the issue to “embrace some difficult truths,” though he added that didn’t mean UNRWA should weigh in on political issues. He strongly criticized another UNRWA official, Andrew Whitley, outgoing head of UNRWA’s New York Representative Office, for recently saying that rather than vainly waiting to fulfill their “right of return,” Palestinians must start acknowledging that the refugees will almost certainly not be returning to Israel so that they can improve their situation.

“Andrew betrayed his responsibility as a UN official to stay within the parameters of his mandate, which is entirely regretted and regrettable,” Ging said of Whitley’s comments, though he commended him for his “courageous” admission that he erred.

In an interview with The Jewish Week (New York), Ging emphasized that he was no enemy of Israel:

Do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and how do you feel about the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement?

The last time I was in the States I attended a celebration for Israel’s independence day with the Israelis at the UN. They know I’m pro-Israel. I celebrate Israel’s independence … It’s a concern that those representing themselves as pro-Palestinian are now linking that to anti-Israel sentiment and policies like divestment and boycott. I oppose that … The people of Israel need efforts to rebuild confidence that peace can be brought about. Talking about sanctions and boycotts is not going to bring about anything positive …

Of course, Ging’s comments on the current BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) campaign were probably outside the parameters of his mandate as a UN official—tricky thing, that particular political tightrope—and soon attracted criticism. Prominent  scholar and commentator As’ad AbuKhalil noted on his widely-read Angry Arab blog that “I have always believed that UNRWA is an enemy of the Palestinian people: here is another evidence.”

One thing that John Ging has been emphasizing throughout his various interviews and talks is that UNRWA is an international agency which needs to operate within a context set by its formal mandate, the available resources, and the practical situation on the ground. It is a point that both critics and supporters of the Agency would do well to remember.

Difficulties ahead for US aid?

Posted: November 19, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, UNRWA, US

A few days ago, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick published a piece attacking US funding for both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA. As with most of her writing, the piece is unintentionally amusing in its ideological extremes: in her world-view, an illegal Israeli settlement becomes an “Israeli community located beyond the 1949 armistice lines,” while “Fayyad’s rejection of free trade principles” is Glickian for the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to collaborate in illegal Israeli settlement construction (universally considered by the international community as an obstacle to peace) through the purchase of settlement products.

Glick’s main point in this piece, however, was to argue for the curtailment of US assistant to both the PA and UNRWA:

The US provided the PA with $500.9 million in 2009 and, before Clinton’s announcement, was scheduled to provide it with $550 million in 2011. This assistance does not include US financial support for UNRWA, an agency devoted exclusively to providing welfare benefits to Palestinians while subordinating itself to a Palestinian political agenda. The US is the single largest donor to UNRWA. Last year the $268 million US taxpayers gave the UN agency constituted 27 percent of UNRWA’s budget.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is expected to become the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, responded negatively to Clinton’s announced expansion of US aid to the PA. In a statement released by her office last Thursday, Ros-Lehtinen derided the assistance as a “bailout.”

She further commented, “It is deeply disturbing that the administration is continuing to bail out the Palestinian leadership when they continue to fail to meet their commitments, under international agreements and requirements outlined in US law, including dismantling the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, combating corruption, stopping anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement and recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”

Ros-Lehtinen authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which conditioned US assistance to the PA on, among other things, “publicly acknowledge[ing] the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist.”

While on the mark, Ros-Lehtinen’s statement only scratches the surface of how contrary to US law and the goals of Palestinian economic development and peace US financial assistance to the Palestinians truly is.

Expect more of this in the future. Glick’s attack highlights the potentially greater problems that aid to the Palestinians and to UNRWA may encounter in the new US Congress, which is likely to be more critical of theWhite House’s current Middle East policy (whatever that might be). US assistance could be an easy target that also resonantes with a Republican base that favours sharp reductions in federal spending.  Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in particular has been a vehement opponent of UNRWA, proposing restrictions that would effectively prevent the agency from performing many of its key functions. As Josh Rogin has noted over at Foreign Policy Magazine blog, her accession to the Chair of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs could have substantial implications for the Obama Administration.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is currently preparing a web documentary on the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon. While it isn’t due to be completed until January, the daily blogs of CBC reporters working on the issue can now be found online here (or click the banner above).

The website contains background materials, photos, an intractive audio map, and daily blog entries for the reporting team in English and French. In also contains a link where readers can pass on suggestions.

Palestinians in Lebanon: What do you want to know?

November 5, 2010 3:52 PM

By Your Voice

The French and English services of CBC have teamed up to produce a web documentary about Palestinians in Lebanon. CBC News correspondent Nahlah Ayed and her Radio-Canada colleagues Ahmed Kouaou and Danny Braün have travelled to Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. They will spend 10 days in the camp, one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps that have existed in Lebanon for decades.

They will introduce you to some of the roughly 12,000 people who live in the camp, which is known to the outside world mainly for the brutal massacre that occurred there and in neighbouring Sabra camp in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war.

Stateless and without access to the same rights and services as Lebanese citizens or other foreigners living in the country, the residents of Shatila and other camps like it live in a kind of permanent limbo.

CBC aims to bring you the most comprehensive online news coverage possible, and that means listening to your voice and to your suggestions as we report on the issues.

How to participate:

Suggest a question: What should we be asking? What do you think is important to know?

Suggest a focus: What aspect of the story should we pay more attention to (i.e. human rights, community challenges, positive developments?) Who or what groups do you wish to hear from? Is there an angle we haven’t seen yet?

Email your news coverage suggestions to