The Palestinian refugee problem lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But since the 1960s, the international institution charged with aiding the refugees...(UNRWA), has resisted their resettlement in the Arab host countries.
It has done so by shifting to an educational mission, devising expansive redefinitions of who a refugee is, and expanding its legal mandates to "protect" and represent refugees. As a result, a well-intended international relief effort has been progressively undone by the vagueness of its mandate, which allowed UNRWA to bend to the will of the U.N. General Assembly and be taken over by its own charges and by the bureaucratic imperative of institutional survival.
Reintegration: A Short History
The late Yasser Arafat (right) and South Africa's Nelson Mandela join hands in solidarity. U.N. General Assembly resolution 2649 of November 1970 took "inalienable rights" to another level and specifically named the "peoples of southern Africa and Palestine" as partners in a legitimate struggle for self-determination. UNRWA's activities cannot be viewed in isolation from an institutional environment that has linked the Palestinian issue to decolonization, regardless of its applicability.
...The formal articulation of repatriation and resettlement notwithstanding, as early as 1951, reintegration was understood in diplomatic circles exclusively as resettlement. Refugees shared that assessment, and, along with Arab host countries, resisted it in a variety of ways, so much so that by the late 1950s, reintegration, resettlement, and rehabilitation had reached a dead end. In the words of the 1957 UNRWA director's report:
in spite of the fact that many are establishing themselves in new lives, the refugees collectively remain opposed to certain types of self-support projects which they consider would mean permanent resettlement and the abandonment of hope of repatriation. They are, in general, supported in this stand by the Arab host Governments. ...
Shift to EducationIn his report for 1959, incoming UNRWA director John Davis noted that "the execution of the 'long-term task' of assisting refugees to become self-supporting requires certain conditions which so far have not prevailed." He added:
It is no exaggeration to state that every aspect of life and human endeavour in the Near East is conditioned and complicated by the Palestine refugee problem. Its psychological, political, and social repercussions are of no less significance than its economic and humanitarian aspects. Any solution of the Palestine refugee problem must take these aspects into account.Davis's remarkable statement ... by placing the refugee crisis at the heart of everything in the Middle East, ...implied that until the refugees themselves were satisfied, their plight would remain at the center of regional affairs. As such, his portentous assertion, an essential part of the Palestinian narrative, was perhaps the first high level official indication of UNRWA's intention to keep the refugees, and itself, at the center of Middle Eastern affairs.
Davis argued that UNRWA's mandate should be extended beyond June 30, 1960, when it was due to expire, calling for a reorientation of the agency's mission and an expanded emphasis on "providing general education, both elementary and secondary … teaching vocational skills, and awarding university scholarships; and … offering small loans and grants to individual refugees who have skills and want to become self-employed." This was a shrewd and successful adaptation and a fateful turning point in UNRWA's relationship with the refugees and the idea of resettlement.
Providing primary, secondary, and vocational training vastly expanded the agency's contact with refugees.
- In 1950, UNRWA operated sixty-four schools with 41,000 elementary pupils, employing approximately 800 teachers.
- By 1960, this had expanded to 382 schools, almost 124,000 pupils, and 3,500 teachers. By 1980, over 54 percent of UNRWA's resources were dedicated to education.
- In 2011-12, across its five fields of operation, UNRWA's education program comprised 699 schools, 19,217 educational staff, and 486,754 enrolled pupils.
Educational materials used in UNRWA schools come from the host countries but are taught by Palestinian teachers, many of whom are graduates of UNRWA schools. During the 1960s and 1970s, teaching Palestinian nationalism was a specific goal of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Schools, teachers' unions, and youth organizations were targets for the PLO and its competitors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which completely politicized these spaces. UNRWA and national governments also made funds available for scholarship for higher education, which took place in both Western and Soviet bloc institutions. Indeed, UNRWA's defenders praise the agency's position as a Palestinian national institution and emphasize the role of education.
UNRWA's educational emphasis during the 1970s coincided with the PLO's 1974 adoption of the "phased approach" for Israel's destruction, which included a commitment to the right of return—a euphemism for Israel's demographic subversion—as well as with the creation of the U.N. resolutions and infrastructure to support the "inalienable rights" of the Palestinian people. With the passage of time, textbooks in UNRWA, and later Palestinian Authority (PA) schools, have come under scathing criticism for articulating anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and anti-peace themes, alongside advocacy of the right of return.
UNRWA's educational turn also had unanticipated and ironic consequences. The Palestinians' educational advantage aided their entry into the professional classes of Arab states, which should have facilitated their reintegration and resettlement. But these educational advantages were mitigated by growing Arab investments in their own educational systems. Rising educational standards in some Arab states, and the PLO's support for Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, also resulted in Palestinian marginalization and mass expulsion. Educated Palestinians returning to the West Bank and Gaza relied yet again on UNRWA's relief services. During and after the years following the Oslo accords, UNRWA and UNRWA-educated Palestinians took the lead in opposing the PLO's negotiations with Israel under the aegis of the "rights-based approach" and preserving the right of return.
Who Is a Refugee?One significant means of UNRWA's permanent institutionalization and resistance to resettlement has been the expansion of its client base through redefinitions of who is a refugee.
The agency's founding resolution 302 (IV) used the term refugee without offering any definition. But the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees that established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began to set parameters for the Palestine Arab refugees and for UNRWA: "This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection and assistance."
The politics behind this decision were a result of pressure from both Western and Arab states. France, for example, had moved to exclude the Palestinian refugees from the UNHCR mandate on the grounds that a number of U.N. organizations were already active in that arena. Arab delegates supported the exclusion, arguing that a universal definition of refugees would "submerge in the general mass of refugees of certain groups which were the particular concern of the General Assembly and the right of which to repatriation had been recognized by General Assembly resolutions."
Without a formal definition set by a supervisory body, UNRWA established its own series of operational definitions for refugees. In 1950, the following definition was offered:
For working purposes, the Agency has decided that a refugee is a needy person, who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood. … In some circumstances, a family may have lost part or all of its land from which its living was secured, but it may still have a house to live in. Others may have lived on one side of the boundary but worked in what is now Israel most of the year. Others, such as Bedouins, normally moved from one area of the country to another, and some escaped with part or all of their goods but cannot return to the area where they formerly resided the greater part of the time.In 1954 a temporal qualification was introduced:
The definition of a person eligible for relief, as used by the Agency for some years, is one whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum period of two years preceding the outbreak of the conflict in 1948 and who, as a result of this conflict, has lost both his home and means of livelihood.The 1955 report of the UNRWA commissioner-general introduced an informal rationale for including other claimants, namely Palestine Arabs who were not displaced in 1948 but who lost some or all of their livelihoods:
There is only a difference of degree between, on the one hand, the situation of the man whose home was on the Jordan side of the demarcation line but whose land is now cut off in Israel, or who worked in what is now Israel[i] Jerusalem, or who sold his produce in the coastal towns or exported it through Palestinian ports, and, on the other hand, the situation of the man who has lost his home as well as his means of livelihood. All of these have lost, in varying degrees, a place in which to work and a way of life. They have that in common. Yet in some cases, the family which continues to reside in its former home, but whose nearby fields are no longer in its possession, may be in a more serious plight. The very proximity of its former possessions—the situation in which the original inhabitants must watch newcomers till their former fields and harvest crops from their former groves—increases the tensions and the psychological strain.This decision followed up on observations made since 1948 regarding the impoverished state of those claimants. It also acknowledged the difficulty of both distinguishing them from true refugees as well as the moral and practical difficulties in refusing aid. Incorporating border villages into UNRWA's purview expanded its economic role in Gaza and Jordan and articulated a sociopsychological or therapeutic element that would become an important part of UNRWA's mission in the coming decades.
Throughout the 1950s, efforts were made to rectify refugee roles. Fraud, duplicate enrollments, non-counting of deaths, and the holding of ration cards by merchants were all well-known by UNRWA and the Western governments from 1949 onward, but little was or could be done. Riots by refugees, threats by merchants, and lack of cooperation from host countries, who were economically dependent on UNRWA, undermined efforts to reduce refugee rolls. Threats to reduce U.S. contributions to UNRWA amounted to little.
In 1965, the definition was again revised:
Recently a new problem of eligibility has arisen with the appearance of a third generation of refugees (i.e., the children of persons who were themselves born after 14 May 1948). On a literal interpretation of the definition of eligibility as it now stands, there may be some doubt whether these persons are eligible for UNRWA assistance. Under the proposals set out … they would clearly be eligible … subject to their being in need, and this would apply to subsequent generations also.This new, expansive definition, which extended UNRWA's services to a third generation of refugees, was apparently offered as part of a deal between UNRWA director Laurence Michelmore and the Arab states, in exchange for new refugee surveys that mollified Western pressures.
The 1967 Six-Day War and the influx of more refugees into the UNRWA system from the West Bank offered the opportunity to establish a new baseline, and by 1971, the refugee definition had been expanded again with specifications regarding the inheritability of refugee status:
A Palestine refugee, by UNRWA's working definition, is a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the conflict in 1948 and who, as a result of this conflict, lost both his home and means of livelihood and took refuge, in 1948, in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief. Refugees within this definition or the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA's operations, and (c) in need.By 1994, this operational definition had been further extended:
Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestine refugees are people 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.This version is still operative today. There are no qualifications regarding a refugee having been displaced to a country where UNRWA operates or whether they have obtained another nationality. Nor does UNRWA require individual applicants to have either endured all three criteria (residence, loss of homes, and loss of livelihood), or provide documentation of these statuses. UNRWA requires only a self-declaration from applicants. The mandate is effectively global and the agency views itself as the "global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees." This generates a total client base of almost 5 million.
Mandates and the Question of ProtectionsConcurrent with the expansion of the definition of a Palestine refugee has been the vast expansion of UNRWA's mandate from the original, concise role of "direct relief and works programmes" to the ambitious endeavor
to contribute to the human development of Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Syrian Arab Republic until a durable and just solution is found to the refugee issue. … The Agency's vision is for every Palestine refugee to enjoy the best possible standards of human development, including attaining his or her full potential individually and as a family and community member; being an active and productive participant in socioeconomic and cultural life; and feeling assured that his or her rights are being defended, protected, and preserved.The agency's imperative to maintain this standard of living indefinitely for an ever-expanding client base is perhaps the single greatest self-imposed impediment to resettlement.
Another form of mission creep has been the use of international law to expand organizational mandates to such fields as "education, health and relief, and social services, microfinance, infrastructure and camp improvement, and emergency assistance including food aid." Moreover, by the early 1980s, UNRWA's mandate had expanded to include protection of the refugees' legal and human rights. In December 1982, for example, U.N. Secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar asked UNRWA to consider "measures to guarantee the safety and security and the legal and human rights of the Palestinian refugees in the [Israeli] occupied territories."
Six years later he explicitly articulated these guarantees:
(a) "Protection" can mean physical protection, i.e., the provision of armed forces to deter, and if necessary fight, any threats to the safety of the protected persons;UNRWA's protection mandate was amplified in 2007 by the General Assembly, which stated that it was aware "of the valuable work done by the Agency in providing protection to the Palestinian people, in particular Palestine refugees." This was further extended in 2008 with a General Assembly direction to UNRWA regarding the rights of women and children. Likewise, in 2007, the General Assembly approved the commissioner-general's report that included the assertion that "UNRWA is a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees," and the organization established a senior protection policy advisor position. The influential 2008 "Morris report," compiled by a retired UNHCR staff member, also recommended that it use the U.N.'s human rights system to expand UNRWA's protection for refugees and that the agency's operations support officers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip act as "roving international protection officers."
(b) "Protection" can mean legal protection, i.e., intervention with the security and judicial authorities, as well as the political instances, of the occupying Power, by an outside agency, in order to ensure just treatment of an individual or group of individuals;
(c) "Protection" can also take a less well-defined form, called in this report "general assistance," in which an outside agency intervenes with the authorities of the occupying Power to help individuals or groups of individuals to resist violations of their rights (e.g., land confiscations) and to cope with the day-to-day difficulties of life under occupation, such as security restrictions, curfews, harassment, bureaucratic difficulties and so on;
(d) Finally, there is the somewhat intangible "protection" afforded by outside agencies, including especially the international media, whose mere presence and readiness to publish what they observe may have a beneficial effect for all concerned; in this report this type of protection is called "protection by publicity."
The scope of protections is potentially limitless as illustrated by the demand that the refugees be given a voice in the quest for "a just and durable solution" and be protected from the use of "disproportionate force" during this process. Indeed, the "Morris report" recommended that the commissioner-general "should engage with those drawing up negotiating papers and proposing positions and policies in order to ensure to the extent possible that these take proper account of the rights and interests of the refugees and of UNRWA's experience and knowledge." That is: UNRWA should be directly involved in the political process as representative of the Palestinian refugees, their rights, interests and desires, in direct competition with other Palestinian entities—hardly an inducement to resettlement....
ConclusionsUNRWA's ever-expanding mandates, operations and responsibilities, rhetoric, and institutional culture all work against resettlement. ...This ...represents another impediment to ...peace as a whole.
*Alex Joffe is a Shillman/Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a New York-based writer on history and international affairs. His website is www.alexanderjoffe.net.