After Israel’s War of Independence ended, UN General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) founded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on December 8, 1949. UNRWA began operations in May 1950, with 860,000 registered refugees. UNRWA’s mandate was to carry out relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees, including education, health, relief and social services.
The agency was defined as a temporary one, but the UN has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, which is currently extended until June 30, 2011. UNRWA claims to currently serve 4.6 million refugees. Its major donors are the United States, which has donated $187 million in 2008, and the European Union, which donated $177 million in 2008.
UNRWA has its own definition of “refugee,” which it allows it to provide humanitarian assistance. Beneficiaries of UNRWA’s aid had to have lived in the British Mandate of Palestine for at least two years before fleeing, and must have lost their home and their livelihood as a result of the 1948 War of Independence. This refugee status is also given to the descendants of those who meet these criteria. This definition differs from that used by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which deals with all other refugees in the world.
This is not the only discrepancy between the way UNRWA and UNHCR deal with refugees. First, UNRWA only takes care of the Palestinians. It also registers descendants of refugees, and leaves refugees that have found new homes and employment in its registry. Most important is that UNRWA does not rehabilitate its beneficiaries: It has no mandate to reduce the number of refugees, help them gain citizenship in the countries and areas where they are currently residing, or to recommend that they become citizens in other countries.
As opposed to other UN agencies, UNRWA is a huge organization that employs tens of thousands of refugees in its extensive bureaucratic framework, which serves one objective: to maintain the refugee camps and ensure that the Palestinian refugee problem remains intact.
Although UNRWA claims to be a neutral agency, providing only basic humanitarian services, it is an essential part of the Palestinian national movement. By providing education and healthcare and serving as a major employer, UNRWA has become an integral part of the Palestinian society and has aided its use of terror. This UN-based organization, which enjoys international funding, is in several aspects a Palestinian national organization – and an anti-Israeli one.
Recently, there have been a number of scandals in which UNRWA showed its dangerous political nature. During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF reported that Hamas rockets were launched from UNRWA properties. Hamas had also been elected by UNRWA refugees to manage UNRWA camps. In addition, the Holocaust is not taught in UNRWA schools’ “Human Rights Curriculum,” but anti-Semitism and glorification of terror are.
Recently, Congressmen like Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Steve Rothman (D-NJ) have proposed the UNRWA Accountability Bill, demanding transparency and responsibility from UNRWA. Despite these efforts, UNRWA has only committed to general, long-term plans to include the Holocaust in their curriculum, and continues to employ thousands of refugees, many with connections to Hamas. UNRWA officials also planned to meet with Hamas to discuss these possible curriculum changes.
As long as UNRWA maintains its current mandate and international support, it will continue to be an obstacle to solving the Palestinian refugee issue, and an impediment in attaining true peace in the Middle East.
Yoav Sorek is manager of The Israeli Initiative. Find out more: www.israelinitiative.com