Monday, December 12, 2005

The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem

This brilliant article from the Shalem Center's Azure magazine, Autumn 5766 / 2005, No. 22, by ARLENE KUSHNER, is a "must read". We're posting exerpts (with our own emphasis added). Follow the link for the full article.

In the aftermath of World War II, when it became apparent that millions of destitute refugees were not going to be attended to by existing organizations, the United Nations saw fit to establish an agency–the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)–to coordinate assistance to them....

.... the UNHCR takes as its ultimate goal the attainment of long-term or “durable” solutions to refugee crises, such as voluntary repatriation or resettlement in countries of asylum or “third” countries. To date, the UNHCR has helped over 25 million people successfully restart their lives.
There is one group of refugees, however, for whom no durable solution has been found in the more than fifty years since their problems began: Palestinian Arabs who fled Israel in the period 1948-1949 as a result of its War of Independence...

...Whereas the rest of the world’s refugees are the concern of the UNHCR, the Palestinians are the sole group of refugees with a UN agency dedicated exclusively to their care: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates independently of the Convention on refugees. The differences between the two agencies are striking: In addition to classifying Palestinian refugees by a distinct set of criteria...UNRWA has declined to entertain any permanent solution for the Palestinian refugees, insisting instead on a politically unfeasible “return” to pre-1967 Israel.

... UNRWA has succeeded in perpetuating a growing refugee problem. ... UNRWA not only has failed to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue, but has also lost sight of its original humanitarian goals, subordinating them instead to the political aims of the Arab world.

...In the final analysis, UNRWA’s handling of the Palestinian refugee issue is both antagonistic to the achievement of peace in the Middle East and detrimental to the plight of the refugees themselves.

Given these failings, and in light of the existence of an entirely separate and far more successful UN strategy for dealing with refugees under the aegis of UNHCR, a serious reconsideration of the value of UNRWA’s continued existence seems in order.

UNRWA... described “Palestinian refugees” as persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

...Contrast this with the definition provided by the UNHCR.... a refugee is someone who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.

By emphasizing “country of nationality or habitual residence,” the UNHCR clearly intends to exclude the kind of transients– for example, a new arrival to the area in question for the purpose of employment–embraced by UNRWA’s definition.

This is not the only way in which the two definitions differ. The UNRWA definition also encompasses many other persons who would otherwise be excluded by the UNHCR. The latter, for example, outlines in detail the conditions under which the status of “refugee” no longer applies, stating that formal refugee status shall cease to apply to any person who has
voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality; or having lost his nationality, he has voluntarily re-acquired it; or, he has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality; or… he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.

By excluding people who have found legal protection from established states, or who have refused to do so when offered, UNHCR has sought to prevent expansion of the definition in ways that would encourage the improper use of UNHCR’s services for political ends.

UNRWA, however, has done just the opposite: Not only has it declined to remove the status of refugee from those persons who no longer fit the original description, such as the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been granted full citizenship by Jordan, but it confers indefinitely the status of refugee upon a Palestinian refugee’s descendants, now entering the fourth generation. ....

..... Without a country to call their own, refugees are denied the basic social, economic, and political rights that most civilians take for granted, and without which a citizen’s ability to lead a productive and fulfilling life is nearly impossible. For this reason, the UN has always sought to end a person’s status as refugee as quickly as possible.

UNRWA’s handling of the Palestinian refugee issue, by contrast, has done just the opposite. For implicit in UNRWA’s decision to expand its already problematic definition of a Palestinian refugee to include a mounting number of descendants is the guarantee that the problem remains an ongoing, ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening one...for Palestinian Arabs who have remained refugees for decades, and for their children, brought into the circle of dependence, the fact of UNRWA’s granting special refugee status has for the most part made their situation only worse.

...the General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA intend its mandate to be temporary: It sought “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestinian refugees” with “a view to the termination of international assistance for relief” at an early date. The provision of direct relief was originally set to end no later than December 1950; yet its mandate has been renewed by the General Assembly every few years, and its current term now runs through June 2008. This begs the question: If UNRWA was set up as a temporary agency, why is it still operating more than half a century later?

One reason, again, lies in its singular definition of a refugee: By conferring the status of refugee on descendants, UNRWA has ensured an ever-growing population in need of its services. Yet a more significant reason has to do with its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: UNRWA refuses to consider any resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue other than that demanded by the Arab world–the “right of return” to Israel....

....by encouraging the expectation of and desire for a “return” to Israel that is in all likelihood impossible, UNRWA has done a grave disservice to the refugees themselves–in effect, subordinating the humanitarian aims of refugee assistance to the political aims of Arab leaders. Unlike other refugees, who have been helped to regain some measure of autonomy, the Palestinian refugees remain mired in a sense of helplessness and frustration, condemned to an existence as stateless, displaced persons.

Of all the problems inherent in UNRWA’s policies, however, the practice of hiring from within its own client population is perhaps the thorniest. Of the approximately 24,000 persons in its employ, all but the roughly 100 “internationals” in executive positions are Palestinian Arabs... there is a general rule of thumb that it is not appropriate for an agency to do large-scale hiring of staff from the population it serves. No other UN agency does this; the UNHCR, for example, maintains by design a certain distance from its client base. The reason for this distance is clear: Employers who share the situation of their clients are vulnerable to conflicts of interest. UNRWA staff naturally share the passions and perceptions of their fellow refugees, and can easily be led to act on them inappropriately. In some cases, this means turning a blind eye to beneficiaries of UNRWA services engaged in terrorism; in others, it means outright involvement in terrorist activity itself.

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence of such involvement. Incidents like the one on July 6, 2001 are not uncommon: The terrorist organization Hamas convened a conference in an UNRWA school in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza with the full participation of school administrators and faculty. Students were addressed by Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who spoke about the “liberation of Jerusalem.” He was then joined by Saheil Alhinadi, UNRWA’s representative from the teachers’ sector, who praised the Hamas students who had carried out suicide attacks against Israelis in recent months. “The road to Palestine,” he orated, “passes through the blood of the fallen.”

....The full extent of the terrorist infiltration in Palestinian refugee camps was revealed during the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield, mounted in the spring of 2002 in response to an unprecedented wave of terror attacks inside Israel. The evidence gleaned from that operation is both irrefutable and damning: Hardly innocent residential areas, the UNRWA-run camps which the army entered were riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, Kassam-2 rocket manufacturing plants, and suicide-bombing cells. The camp in Jenin, site of the most intense fighting, provides the most dramatic example of the terrorist takeovers of UNRWA camps. .... The refugee camp is rightly considered to be the center of events and the operational headquarters of all the factions in the Jenin area–it is, as the other side calls it, a hornets’ nest. The Jenin refugee camp is remarkable for the large number of fighting men taking initiatives in the cause of our people. Nothing will defeat them, and nothing fazes them. They are prepared to fight with everything they have. It is little wonder, therefore, that Jenin is known as the capital of the suicide martyrs.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the IDF found a number of wanted terrorists hiding inside UNRWA schools; that a large number of youth clubs operated by UNRWA in the camps were discovered to be meeting places for terrorists; and that an official bureau of the Tanzim, or Fatah-affiliated, militia was established inside a building owned by UNRWA. UNRWA’s donors might be surprised to learn that funds intended for humanitarian relief sometimes end up serving the goals of Palestinian terror....

...UNRWA’s role in the terrorist activity of the Palestinian refugees is not only a passive one. Rather, UNRWA employees themselves sometimes engage in terrorism. According to the 2003 report by the United States General Accounting Office, for example, UNRWA employees were arrested and convicted by Israeli military courts of throwing firebombs at an Israeli public bus; possession of materials that could be used for explosives; and transferring chemicals to assist in bomb-making. Also, the IDF demonstrated that UNRWA ambulances have been used to transport terrorists and firearms in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, himself saw shahid (martyr) posters on the walls in the homes of UNRWA workers during a visit to Jenin in April 2002. “It was clear,” he said in a December 2003 interview, “that UNRWA workers were doubling as Hamas operatives.”

Rather than confronting these problems, however, UNRWA has stonewalled. UNRWA’s then-deputy commissioner general Karen AbuZayd (she has since been promoted to commissioner-general), in response to the charge of terrorism in the camps, told The Jerusalem Report in August 2002 that “We just don’t see anything like this. These things are not visible to us.”

And when recently retired commissioner general Peter Hansen submitted to the General Assembly his mandated annual report for the period of July 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002...he failed to mention, even in passing, what had been exposed regarding the terrorist apparatus in the Jenin camp. ....He did, however, admit in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll,” but added, “I don’t see that as a crime.”.....

Whether UNRWA is afraid to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps, or has become so entrenched in the terrorist infrastructure as to be effectively indistinguishable from it, the evidence is clear that an agency mandated to serve a humanitarian purpose has been drafted to further a militant political agenda. Yet complicity in terrorist activity is only the worst element of an entire UNRWA regime structurally aimed at advancing the Palestinian cause rather than relieving Palestinian suffering.

As its original, noble objectives have been lost, and its policies are now geared to perpetuating rather than solving the problem, one might rightfully wonder what positive value UNRWA’s continued existence may serve. The present situation, indeed, benefits no one: Not the UN, whose reputation as the guardian of international law and guarantor of international peace and security is tarnished by UNRWA’s links to terror; not Israel, whose hopes for peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors are thwarted by UNRWA’s unswerving promotion of the “right of return”; and finally, not the Palestinian refugees themselves, who have been denied the opportunity to create new lives, and thus to break the cycle of dependence, frustrated hopes, and perpetual victimhood. In light of these facts, it seems clear that if one is to take seriously the standards of international law set out by the United Nations with respect to refugees, and the aims of its agencies in helping refugees around the world, one must also conclude that UNRWA is not only unhelpful to the Palestinian refugee issue, but in fact detrimental to it.

UNRWA has failed the Palestinian refugees. This failure is the product of half a century of overwhelming politicization of a humanitarian effort. Fortunately, another UN agency exists to deal with the problem of refugees, one with a successful record of resolving their problems around the world. Those nations interested in finding a genuine, viable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem–a sine qua non for peace in the Middle East–should be encouraged to support the end of UNRWA’s regime and the application of the policies of the UNHCR to the Palestinian refugee issue.

1 comment:

Gavriel said...

Great article. Lot's of research and details. And by great I mean infuriating. (disclosure: Arlene Kushner is my mother-in-law, but it's still a good article).