Archive for the ‘UNRWA’ Category

Pierre Krähenbühl, Twitter champion

Posted: March 17, 2015 by Rex Brynen in UNRWA
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The Commission General of UNRWA is apparently something of a Twitter champion, according to this recent study by Twiplomacy:

In terms of average retweets per 100 followers Pierre Krähenbühl (@PKraehenbuehl), the Commissioner General of @UNRWA is by far the overall champion with 328 retweets per 100 followers thanks to a series of personal tweets he sent during the attack on Gaza in July 2014 which have been retweeted several thousand times.

They also note that “Very few leaders tweet themselves. Notable exceptions are Sir Suma Charkrabarti (@EBRDSuma), Rob Steele (@ISOSecGen) and UNRWA’s Pierre Krähenbühl (@Pkraehenbuehl) who tweet personal observations and are all worth following.”

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UNRWA has issued a useful infographic and update on the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria:

In February 2015, Yarmouk and its surrounding areas continue to experience high levels of armed violence, which prevented distribution of humanitarian assistance by UNRWA. The Agency has not been able to complete a successful distribution since 6 December 2014. In addition, UNRWA has been unable to operate its temporary health point or provide residents with clean water and basic non-food items. The Agency continues to advocate for full, safe and uninterrupted access to Yarmouk and other areas that remain hard to reach or fully inaccessible. On 9 February, the Agency was able to visit Husseiniyeh for the first time in over 18 months. The visit constitutes an important first step in restoring UNRWA services, rehabilitating UNRWA facilities and in making the area habitable for returning civilians.

You’ll find the original pdf here.

Winter storms hit Palestinian refugee camps

Posted: January 12, 2015 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, UNRWA, West Bank

It’s been a cold winter for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Read more about the current situation at the UNRWA website.

UNHCR, UNRWA, Palestinian statehood, and refugee status

Posted: December 30, 2014 by Rex Brynen in UNHCR, UNRWA

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Some of my recent comments regarding refugee status appear to have caused confusion among ideologues, so I thought it might be time for an end-of-year post to clear things up. Specifically, what would happen if UNHCR status rules were applied to Palestinian refugees?

1) It should be noted, for a start, that UNRWA only determines refugee status for service eligibility, not for the purposes of rights or protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. To some extent, therefore, it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Palestinian refugees under the care of UNRWA are excluded from the Convention under Article 1 D. However, that same Article notes that such persons would be eligible for Convention protections if their situation is not otherwise “definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.” In other words, the international community insisted on a multiple layers of protection for Palestinian refugees from the outset: UNRWA, the 1951 Convention in UNRWA’s absence, and a requirement that their situation be resolved in accordance with relevant UNGAR resolutions, meaning UNGAR 194 (1948).

2) It has been alleged that I claimed that “UNHCR and UNRWA definitions for refugees were virtually identical,” which is a (deliberate?) misreading of my position and the nuances of the international refugee regime. As I have argued many times before, it is my view that Palestinian citizens of Jordan—who are clearly able to avail themselves of the protection of a state—would not normally be eligible for UNHCR refugee status. (The Jordanians could, however, argue that the wording of the Convention rendered them eligible nonetheless under the terms of cessation clause of paragraph 2 of Article 1D.)

3) Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon are generally stateless, and would certainly be considered for multi-generational derivative refugee status in accordance with existing practice under UNHCR rules. Indeed, non-UNRWA, subsequent generation, stateless Palestinian refugees (i.e, those without citizenship and outside UNRWA’s area of operations) are quite regularly treated as Convention refugees by both UNHCR and Western countries. A case in point is Iraq, where UNHCR treated Palestinians there as refugees under the 1951 Convention:

Palestinian refugees in Iraq, being outside UNRWA’s area of operations fall within UNHCR’s competence by virtue of paragraph 2 of Art.1D of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

It should be noted that UNHCR also insisted that third country resettlement of such refugees should only be considered as an “exceptional humanitarian response and an option of last resort.” They urged that Palestinian refugees be permitted by Israel to repatriate to the West Bank and Gaza (Israel refused, while the PA was unenthusiastic). UNHCR also aserted that “resettlement should be seen as a temporary solution for Palestinians, without jeopardizing their right to return.”

4) Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are, de jure, citizens of the State of Palestine. Given this, do they therefore lose their refugee status or representation (or, more accurately, would they lose the former under UNHCR/Convention rules)? This concern was raised by some Palestinian refugee advocates at the time that Palestine applied to the UN for recognition as a state, and has also been raised by others as invalidating Palestinian refugee claims and status. However, despite UN recognition, in no way can Palestine be considered a de facto functioning state, able to provide protection for its citizens.

Therefore, no country—not even Israel—has seriously claimed that recognition of Palestine invalidates the refugee status of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, UNGAR 67/19 (2012) on the “Status of Palestine in the United Nations” explicitly invokes prior UN resolutions  (including UNGAR 194). The Israeli government in particular has no interest in pursuing this, since this would result in a termination of UNRWA services in these areas, severely destabilizing the PA while enabling Hamas to assume full control over the Gaza education system—something it has been anxious to avoid. Indeed, Israeli officials continue to urge donor countries to increase, not reduce, their financial support for the Agency in these areas.

Finally, it should be noted that debates over UNHCR vs UNRWA refugee eligibility are largely an irrelevant red herring. The refugee issue does not derive from UNRWA service eligibility rules, and Palestinian concern with return, repatriation, and refugee rights would not end even if the Agency were to disappear in a puff of blue smoke tomorrow. Moreover, if somehow—perhaps due to intervention by a herd of magical, fluffy flying unicorns, since there is no other imaginable way it would occur otherwise—UNRWA were dissolved, UNHCR would almost certainly treat most Palestinian refugees as refugees. Furthermore, the General Assembly would, with absolutely certainty, direct it to do so. Indeed, some years ago some Palestinian refugee activists favoured a shift of the Palestinian case from UNRWA to UNHCR for precisely that reason, feeling the latter had a much stronger protection mandate, was far more activist, and would more explicitly press for the refugees’ “right of return.”

And with that, best wishes to everyone from PRRN for a happy, peaceful, and rights-based New Year!

On December 1, the Jerusalem Post published a op ed by Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid regarding UNRWA. Eid, who made a brief reputation years ago as a critic of the Palestinian Authority, has not been considered much of a credible or influential figure in the human rights community for some time.

His op ed was very critical of the Agency:

I live in Jerusalem and was brought up in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) refugee camp in Shuafat, a refugee camp like 58 other UNRWA refugee camps created for the sole purpose of keep Palestinian Arab people in “temporary” conditions, for 65 years, under the false pretense and specious promise of the “right of return” to pre-1948 villages that do not exist.

As a proud Palestinian, I must take responsible for what will happen to our people.

We can no longer deny our responsibility for the future of our people.

UNRWA, to continue its operation, depends on death and the visual suffering of five million Palestinians who continue to wallow in and around UNRWA facilities.

The more Palestinians suffer, the more power goes to UNRWA, which allows it to raise unchecked humanitarian funds and purchase munitions.

As you can see already, it isn’t a very well-informed piece. Take, for example, the bizarre claim that UNRWA uses donor money to “purchase munitions”—how on earth did that piece of extreme silliness get past a Jerusalem Post editor? It is also not the case that UNRWA promises a “right of return” to refugees. Such a promise, to the extent that it exists, is rooted in international human rights law and UN General Assembly resolutions.

One could go on picking holes in the Eid op ed for some considerable time. However, what was also striking was the extent to which his piece seemed to simply paraphrase points that were made back in October by perennial anti-UNRWA gadfly David Bedein in the right-wing Arutz Sheva news service.

  • Bedein, for example, called upon donors to “predicate assistance to UNRWA on 4 reasonable conditions”—which in the Eid op ed becomes “predicate future aid to UNRWA on reasonable conditions.”
  • Bedein called for donors to “[a]udit all funds which flow to UNRWA, which operates on a 1.2 billion USD budget.’ Eid repeats this almost verbatim: “[a]udit all funds allocated to UNRWA, which operates with a $1.2b. budget.”
  • Bedein proposes to “[i]ntroduce UNHCR standards to UNRWA, to encourage refugee resettlement.” Similarly, Eid proposes to “[i]ntroduce UN High Commissioner for Refugees standards to UNRWA, to encourage permanent refugee resettlement.”
  • Bedein calls upon UNRWA to “[c]ancel the current UNRWA curriculum, which now incorporates principles of Jihad, martyrdom and the right of return.” Sure enough, Eid does the same, calling for the Agency to “[c]ancel the UNRWA war curriculum, based on principles of jihad, martyrdom and right of return by force of arms.”
  • Bedein demands that the Agency “[d]ismiss UNRWA employees affiliated with Hamas, in accordance with laws on the books in the US, the EU, Canada, Australia and the UK.” Eid changes a few words, so this becomes “[d]ismiss UNRWA employees affiliated with Hamas, defined by the donor nations to UNRWA as a terrorist entity.

I suspect that Bedein would be quite flattered by this sort of quasi-plagiarism, since it clearly serves his political purposes. It raises the question, however, of whether there is some sort of deeper relationship between Eid and Bedein, and whether the former has been assisting the latter in his various fraudulent video documentaries about UNRWA (like this one and this one). If so, UNRWA may actually owe the pair of them a paradoxical “thank you,” since the evident malicious distortions in these reports have actually won UNRWA greater sympathy in some donor agencies.

Unfortunately, attention to Eid’s mistakes was temporarily derailed when UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responded to his piece by appearing to call for a boycott of the Jerusalem Post:

I don’t think that the United Nations ought to get involved in twitter-fights, since they rarely make look you look objective, professional, or neutral. This was no exception, with the tweet causing a prompt, angry response in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere in the Israeli and Jewish media:

What Gunness should not be doing… is launching an attack on a media outlet that supports free and open debate as well as a diversity of expression. Perhaps Gunness thinks that by singling out the Post for censure, he will endear himself to Palestinian extremists. He should know, though, that by calling for a boycott against the paper, he is betraying the basic principle of free expression and in the process undermining the very moral foundations that his own organization – UNRWA – is supposed to honor.

The Israeli government and local media should send an unequivocal message that Gunness’s boycott call is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate a reputable newspaper.

A precedent must not be set whereby critique is met with boycott.

Also riding to Eid’s defence was, of course, was none other than David Bedein.

Also, rather lost in the exchange was Gunness’ observation that the Jerusalem Post had hired as one of its journalists an alleged supporter of the banned Kahane Chai (Kach) terrorist group (and, incidentally, a former Bedein writing partner):

..although, once again, I don’t think that is a fight that ought to be waged by a UN official.

Today things come full circle, with an op ed by Chris Gunness himself in the Jerusalem Post (and kudos to the newspaper for offering him an opportunity to reply). Gunness doesn’t address the “boycott” controversy, but does do an excellent job of refuting some of the accusations levelled at the Agency:

One such criticism focuses on the notion that UNRWA in some sense endorses extremism.

This is an accusation we reject in the strongest possible terms. During the latest Gaza hostilities, it was UNRWA that came out proactively condemning militant groups that had placed rockets in our schools and which we had discovered during our own neutrality inspections. It is little reported, but our staff on the ground has received threats of abductions and violent retribution. As the conflict raged, UNRWA’s commissioner- general condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, not from the comfort of his office in Jerusalem, but from the battle zone itself, inside Gaza.

There is a related argument that UNRWA is in some sense anti-Israel. This is a notion we reject as groundless. Many of our stakeholders support us precisely because we oppose intolerance and discrimination and speak out against them as appropriate. No doubt in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid the appalling violence in Syria and in light of the wholesale denial of rights to Palestinians in Lebanon, maintaining staff neutrality is challenging, yet we take direct ownership of this issue. We have a plethora of procedures and systems in place for ensuring our staff understands why it is important to remain impartial.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that we pay a heavy price for working in such environments. Eleven UNRWA colleagues lost their lives during the conflict in Gaza, in addition to 14 in Syria since 2011, and one in the West Bank in 2013.

Meanwhile, you hear almost nothing in the media about our proactive programs to promote UN neutrality in the context of an increasingly radicalized Middle East. You rarely hear about thousands of UNRWA education staff members teaching human rights and conflict resolution as part of a discrete curriculum which we developed, promoting values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A related comment is that we allegedly promote the right of return for Palestine refugees in “UNRWA textbooks.” The fact is that we do not promote or prescribe specific political solutions and in reaffirming that the refugees have rights, we stipulate that the only solution to the conflict can be one acceptable to all the parties. As for text books, according to long accepted practice, we use the same books as host governments and local authorities.

This includes the schools administered by the State of Israel in east Jerusalem.

It is also alleged that UNRWA prevents people leaving refugee camps and somehow intentionally perpetuates the problem through the generations, unlike UNHCR, which, as our critics would have it, has a mandate to resettle refugees and never registers through generations. This is erroneous.

UNRWA does not run refugee camps, neither do we prevent people leaving them.

Our human development programs offer an escape from the grind of the camps, and incidentally only one-third of the refugees live in camps, a proportion declining over time thanks in no small part to social mobility nurtured by UNRWA. Moreover, UNHCR also registers children of refugees as refugees where their political plight remains unresolved.

UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition [for refugee status], his dependents are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.”

UNHCR’s Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination makes the same point.

These attacks are based on the notion that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees. The logic of this runs contrary to international law and refugee best practice.

What perpetuates the refugees as an issue is the political failure to address their plight based on international law and the precepts of justice, in the context of a just and lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict. That is one reason why UNRWA constantly calls on the political players to take meaningful political action. We seek nothing more than our own closure, which will come when the political parties finally resolve the issue for which we were created.

Let us recognize UNRWA for what it is: a UN human development organization providing essential services to an increasingly desperate and perpetually displaced population that lingers in a state of political uncertainty. The United Nations General Assembly, which represents the international community as a whole, established UNRWA for a particular reason, namely to address the needs of Palestine refugees, and the General Assembly continues to renew our mandate in the absence of a just and durable solution of their plight.

Meanwhile, we continue to ask the political actors and the international community to address the future of this population through a just and lasting resolution that provides the dignity and sense of peace that all people deserve. Until that occurs, we will continue in our mission as defined and mandated by the UN General Assembly.

Hopefully that will now serve as the point of departure for a better-informed, less vitriolic, and more productive dialogue on UNRWA, donors, Israel, and the Palestinian refugee issue.

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.

UNRWA’s performance during the 2014 Gaza war

Posted: September 17, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, UNRWA
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15172098332_5867e977cbThe Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion (#49) on 11-13 September 2014, in the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza. It contains some interesting findings regarding the performance of UNRWA and others during the conflict:

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Amongst Gazans who actually experienced the conflict, and who may have used UNRWA shelters or received UN assistance, the approval ratings are high (73.8%), although a significant minority has a negative view. They are also higher in Gaza than for any other actor (unfortunately, no question is asked about the the de facto Hamas government, and it isn’t clear if Gazan respondents understood the “unity government” to include Hamas officials there or the technocratic cabinet in Ramallah).

Interestingly, approval ratings for UNRWA in the West Bank are much lower–possibly indicating a lack of familiarity with what the Agency was doing during the crisis, and/or frustration at the UN’s broader political impotence.

The survey also shows:

  • Most Palestinians (76%), including most Gazans (69%), support rocket fire against Israel if it fails to abide by the terms of the recent ceasefire. The poll also shows that Palestinians view Israel as having initiated the conflict, and are relatively optimistic that the ceasefire agreement will result in some relaxation of the restrictions on Gaza.
  • Weak majority support (56%) for a two state solution. By contrast, there is very little support (26%) for a one state solution in which “Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal rights.”
  • Almost 30% of Palestinians (including over 45% of Gazans) would consider emigrating.
  • Politically, Hamas and Fateh seem to be tied in terms of popular support.

You’ll find the full poll results here. The al-Najah University polling unit is fairly reliable, although (in my view) by far the best polling continues to be done by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion also did a survey that included a question on UNRWA’s performance back in late August that showed the Agency enjoyed a 71% approval rating. That being said, I generally don’t find PCPO polling to be very reliable (although in this case their findings accord with those of al-Najah).

hrw logo.svgOn September 11 Human Right Watch issued a detailed report on three incidents of Israeli attacks against UNRWA shelters during the recent Gaza war, at Beit Hanoun, Jabaliya, and Rafah. According to HRW:

Three Israeli attacks that damaged Gaza schools housing displaced people caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. In the first in-depth documentation of the violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, and killed 45 people, including 17 children.

“The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”

Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.

Asked about the report, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was critical of the attacks on the UN schools. According to the Jerusalem Post:

“We were horrified by the strikes that hit UNRWA facilities,” Harf said. She emphasized that UNRWA facilities must not be used for military purposes, as some were by Hamas, and that they should not use civilians to shield fighters.

“But also at the same time,” Harf continued, “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. Israeli authorities say they’re investigating. We expect these to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and we’ll continue pushing them to do so.”

Israel has opened an investigation into one of the three attacks, according to the Times of Israel.

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IDF retracts claims mortar fired from UNRWA shelter

Posted: August 23, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

The IDF today initially claimed that a Hamas mortar round that killed an Israeli child was fired from an UNRWA shelter.

UNRWA strongly denied the claim:

…which was later retracted by the IDF.

The Commissioner-General of UNRWA later commented:

Humanitarian conditions in Gaza remain severe, with more than a quarter of a million people unable to return to damaged or destroyed homes. Most of these are crowded into UN schools serving as temporary emergency shelters.

UNRWA has also released a short video highlighting the devastation: