In 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) set out with a simple aim: to relocate, aid and integrate refugees created as a result of Israeli Arab war of 1947-48. When one looks at this organisation today, it is in a sorry state.
The highly publicised discovery of Hamas weapons in UNRWA schools on multiple occasions during the 2014 Gaza conflict greatly tarnished its public image, however, as if this were not enough, UNRWA then proceeded to hand the hoard of missiles over to the “local authorities”, thereby returning them to Hamas (who then proceeded to fire them at Israel’s civilian population centres in violation of international law).
More recently, a tirade of Antisemitic cartoons have appeared on Facebook accounts linked with UNRWA schools in Gaza. These revelations, brought to light by UN Watch, have unsurprisingly been ignored by the western media, however they did see a response from UN Aid Chief and one of UNRWA’s senior directors, Chris Gunness. In his reaction, Gunness typified everything UNRWA has become. Rather than condemn the vile Antisemitic material distributed in UNRWA’s name, Mr Gunness chose to attack UN Watch’s credibility.
The truth is that UNRWA has a long history of politicising the work that it does, with this having the effect of perpetuating and extending the intolerable stagnation that Palestinians and Israelis endure owing to the absence of peace. A prime example of this political manipulation can be found in the unique definition of Palestinian refugees. There is no doubt that there is a need for a just resolution to the refugee issue- Israel has acknowledged this and accepted proposals for a $30 billion settlement in previous rounds of peace talks, however UNRWA has decided to include second and third generation refugees in their total count. This is contrary to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and amounts what can only be seen as an attempt to strengthen the Palestinian’s hand at the negotiating table.
Moreover, many Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza – who are considered under a 2003 Palestinian law to be citizens living in their “homeland” – are counted as refugees by UNRWA regardless.
Through the distortion of the definition, the Palestinian refugee population has increased from 750,000 in 1950, to 5 million today. The United Nations High Commission of Refugees (the UN body responsible for all non-Palestinian refugees, including 3.5 million Kurds and 4 million Syrians) does not use this definition, for the very reason that it prevents a just solution such as resettlement being likely. It seems oddly coincidental that UNRWA would choose to define Palestinian refugees differently, in such a way that their demographics could pose a threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature.
UNRWA’s abuse of its role is saddening, and comes at the cost of Israeli and Palestinian peace and security. Any UN body that fails to condemn flagrant Antisemitism broadcast in its name, finds and hands over missiles found in its premises to internationally recognised terrorists who then fire them at civilians, and wilfully elongates a conflict for political gain must take a long hard look in the mirror.
I wonder how Chris Gunness can sleep at night.