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 does not promise 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.