UNRWA: An Obstacle to Peace, Humanitarian Goals and Hate-Free Education

As the United States reviews its level of funding at the United Nations, President Trump has called attention to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He is considering withholding $125 million[1] in aid that was scheduled to be delivered on January 1, and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley views threats to funding as a way to leverage the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.[2] Given that the U.S. contributes close to $400 million, or about one-third, of UNRWA’s annual $1.2 billion budget, it is important to understand the history and conduct of the agency as it undergoes bright-light scrutiny.[3]

UNRWA is a refugee aid program that specifically and exclusively serves Palestinian refugees – a group that is broadly defined. The United Nations defined a “Palestinian refugee” in a manner different than all other refugee groups, as those who trace their patrilineal ancestry to persons living in Mandatory Palestine during 1946-1948 – the two-years preceding Israel’s Declaration of Independence.[4] This definition has permitted descendants to claim refugee status, thus bloating rolls, keeping entire families in limbo as refugees and ostensibly permitting Palestinian refugee status to be handed down to one’s children, grandchildren and future generations.

Notably, the definition of “refugee” that applies in other situations does not permit refugee status to be passed down to descendants. UNRWA has worked to expand this definition, thereby bestowing refugee status on many who were not entitled to it even under the UN’s expansive definition.  The result of this conduct has been to enable more people to obtain UNRWA’s financial benefits and to perpetuate the jobs of its employees. Moreover, a recent census in Lebanon revealed that only about one-third (175,000) of the reported 500,000 Palestinian refugees listed by UNRWA as living in Lebanon are really living there.[5] UNRWA’s expansive definition of who is a “Palestinian refugee” significantly deviates from the forward-looking, solution-oriented policy applied to all other displaced persons around the world and embedded in US law.

In UNRWA’s 65-plus years of existence, while it has disbursed aid, it has made no notable advancements towards a better future for the peoples of the region. To the contrary, it has taught hate in its schools and made life unnecessarily difficult for Palestinian Arabs, and, as a result, is an obstacle to peace. UNRWA’s allocation of resources has emboldened Palestinian Arab rejectionism of peace with Israel and has spawned terrorists committed to destruction rather than construction.[6]

The U.S. can reverse this situation, take steps to promote peace and enhance Palestinian welfare by applying the definition of a refugee embedded in US law to determine who shall benefit from the resources currently being directed to UNRWA. Indeed, the US may consider whether humanitarian assistance is best provided through UNRWA, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), or alternate channels where it may be more appropriately put to worthy use.

UNRWA Denies Rights and Diminishes the Welfare of Palestinian Arab Refugees.

UNRWA and its relationship with Palestinian Arabs are anomalies among relief organizations. Its definition of who qualifies as a refugee is distinct from the definitions of the U.S. and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of “a well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, political opinion, religion, national origin, or membership in a particular social group.[7] The UNHCR shares the same definition, and adds the pretext of “someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence.”[8] While certainly some Palestinian Arabs fled Mandatory Palestine due to the Arab war on the nascent Jewish state, many also left of their own accord, and were even encouraged to do so by the Arab League.[9] This definitional difference begs a legal and procedural question. Why does the United States and UNHCR apply to one particular group of people a different standard than that adopted by the UN as it relates particularly to Palestinian refugees? Perhaps more importantly, has it benefited those under UNRWA’s mandate greater than other refugees?

In 1948, the UN member countries adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[10], recognizing that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” In effect, this has enabled UNHCR to resettle millions of refugees into host nations, where they have become citizens and members of their new society. This came on the heels of World War II, when over ten million people, including survivors of the Holocaust, were displaced from, and many felt unsafe returning to, their countries of origin.

Since then, alleviating displaced persons and their children from the burdens of refugee status has become a primary objective of the global community.  In 1950, the UNHCR was created to protect the right of a displaced person to a nationality. Under UNHCR policy, a refugee’s offspring does not inherent this status, which forces the agency to pursue “durable solutions” to facilitate an expeditious transition for the refugees under its jurisdiction. This approach has “helped well over 50 million refugees successfully restart their lives,”[11] some by becoming citizens of new countries where they can “contribute socially and economically.”[12] Today, the UNHCR agency’s staff of 10,800 in 128 countries seeks to help 16.1 million refugees “live their lives in dignity and peace.”

However, because UNRWA had already been put in place at the time UNHCR was formed, Palestinian refugees were exclusively, specifically and intentionally excluded from UNHCR’s services. When UNRWA was formed in 1949, the Palestinian population accounted for less than 8% of the world’s refugee population. That number has grown to around 25% today because, unlike UNHCR, UNRWA arbitrarily denies the Palestinian people their right to a nationality, and does not pursue durable solutions. For comparison, UNRWA is responsible for a true refugee population one-third of those under UNHCR’s mandate, yet, at 30,000 employees, requires three times the manpower.[13]

Moreover, the Palestinian Arabs are the only refugee population today that suffers from being served by an inferior, defective and blatantly hateful program.[14] In contrast to UNHCR’s objectives of helping refugees resettle and restart their lives in “dignity and peace,” usually in new countries, UNRWA’s goals for Palestinian Arabs are notably less ambitious and indeed restrictive: to “[a]chieve decent standards of living” and to “[e]njoy human rights to the fullest possible extent,” but not to help move them out of refugee status.

In addition, it is not even clear that UNRWA achieves these inferior benchmarks. Of its $1.2 billion budget, UNRWA spends less than half on health care (17%) and infrastructure (4%), both of which are priorities under UNHCR. Consequently, Palestinian Arabs experience high levels of unemployment and poverty; a World Bank study of “The West Bank and Gaza” notes that unemployment rates have reached as high as 27%.[15]

Palestinian Arabs also often fare much worse in neighboring Arab countries. In Lebanon, unemployment is at 56% because those of Palestinian Arab descent are only allowed to practice one of “36 liberal or syndicated professions,” a list enforced by the Lebanese government.[16] These work restrictions have left the refugees “highly marginalized, with two-thirds considered poor or extremely poor,” living in camps that “suffer from serious overcrowding, poor housing conditions and insufficient infrastructure.” In Syria, over 95% of those classified as Palestinian refugees “are in critical need of sustained humanitarian assistance in order to survive.”[17]

Why UNRWA Hampers Peace and has no Incentive to Change

 In 2016, UNRWA spent $668 million on education programs it claims “encourage a tolerant and empowered Palestinian population who can serve as partners in peace.”[18] Conservatively estimated, salaries[19] for the teachers[20] and staff[21] appears to account for less than a quarter of this annual budget,[22] which leaves an annual influx of more than a half-billion dollars (or $750,000 per school and $1,000 per student) to invest in encouraging tolerance and peace.

With these vast resources and simple goals, UNRWA might be expected to have invested in printing school books and developing curricula acknowledging Israel’s lawful existence as the historic and rightful home of the Jewish people, a requisite condition for “tolerance and peace.” However, in almost 70 years of providing education for Palestinian Arabs, it has not done so. Instead, UNRWA uses the school books provided by the host “governmental authority” in power— presently the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and HAMAS in Gaza[23]—which deny Israel’s connection to the Jewish people and promote incitement to violence and anti-Semitism.[24] A Hebrew University study published in April 2017 found that  vicious anti-Semitic, anti-Israel statements extend to PA textbooks at every grade level and for every subject,[25]  teaching “a strategy of violence and pressure and … [s]ystematic hatred of all things Jewish/Israeli…” Even math problems in the PA’s textbooks reportedly have examples that use numbers of “martyrs” to teach Palestinian Arab children to “martyr” themselves to kill Jews. Some books[26] refer to Tel-Aviv as Tel Al Rabiah (a Palestinian city that never existed), and omit Hebrew from official international documents dating to periods prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. While others[27] include and legitimize the Nazi’s anti-Jewish propaganda, describe Jews in the ugliest of terms and images, and blame the Palestinians’ domestic problems on Israel’s existence.  In Gaza, UNRWA’s teachers’ union[28] is under the control of HAMAS, a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and school children are taught to hate Israelis and Jews, and to praise the “glory” death of Islamic martyrdom.[29]

Though UNRWA occasionally responds to international pressure by making incremental changes, the agency’s incentives are simply not aligned with promoting peace. Moreover, UNRWA has been accused of complicity[30] in terrorist attacks launched from Gaza, which have murdered and maimed countless of innocent civilians including rocket attacks, kidnappings and other operations. HAMAS arsenals of rockets have been found to have been stored in UNRWA schools, and UNRWA employees are reportedly under investigation by Israeli authorities for having provided material support to HAMAS (the Islamic Resistance Movement) for its terror operations. Our law firm, Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, P.C. represents numerous American victims of terror who have suffered the loss of life and loved ones as a result of attacks in or from Gaza and by HAMAS and other Foreign Terror Organizations. A US District Court jury, and various US Courts have found that HAMAS has committed numerous acts of heinous international terror.

Practical Considerations of The U.S. Government Defunding UNRWA

American taxpayers deserve to know how our money is being spent. UNRWA has proven that its raison d’etre, as distinct from the UNHCR, has and will not yield the outcome the U.S. government seeks, namely peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Threatening to cut UNRWA’s $1.2 billion budget may indeed serve as the wake-up call needed to engender reform, particularly in UNRWA’s hateful teachings and terror-promoting conduct.

The U.S. $380 million allocation alone could be sufficient to cover vital operations, such as health and infrastructure programs, and leave an annual surplus of $240 million. These surplus funds could be allocated towards enhancing these programs, or used to actually assist in building a tolerant Palestinian Arab civil society, promote peace and improve Palestinian welfare.

A U.S. decision to cease funding UNRWA could also foretell reducing or eventually eliminating the organization and reallocating its mandate and funding towards UNHCR. This would remove the growing population of Palestinians from their permanent refugee status, and accelerate the envisioned peaceful outcome for the peoples of the region. Even partial defunding of UNRWA and reallocation of humanitarian resources may well reduce terror, and enhance rather than diminish the prospects of peace, with the goal of meeting the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian Arabs who have unfortunately been kept in refugee status for too many decades by UNRWA.

The U.S., committed to achieving a better day for both Palestinians and Israelis alike, can indeed be the catalyst for change needed to hold the UN system accountable for how it expends resources and, in the case of UNRWA, unacceptably continues as an obstacle to peace and tolerance.

[1] Josh Rogin, “Trump administration split on cutting aid to Palestinian refugees,” Washington Post (January 9, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2018/01/09/trump-administration-split-on-cutting-aid-to-palestinian-refugees/?utm_term=.d3ad983f8c3d

[2] Alexander Fulbright, “US warns it won’t fund UN refugee agency if Palestinians reject talks,” The Times of Israel (January 2, 2018), https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-warns-it-wont-fund-refugee-agency-if-palestinians-reject-talks/

[3]See “Pledges to UNRWA (Cash and In-kind) for 2015 – Overall Donor Ranking in USD as of 31 December 2015,” https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/2015_donors_ranking_overall.pdf.

[4] “Who We Are,” United Nations Relief and Work Agency, https://www.unrwa.org/who-we-are

[5] “Lebanon census turns up two-thirds fewer Palestinians than expected,” The Times of Israel, December 22, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/lebanon-census-turns-up-two-thirds-fewer-palestinians-than-expected/

[6] Richard D. Heideman, “Terrorism and rejectionism: twin threats to peace and security,” JNS.org, January 14, 2018

[7] Act 101(a)15P of Immigration and Nationality Act, US CIS, https://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/SLB/HTML/SLB/0-0-0-1/0-0-0-29/0-0-0-101/0-0-0-195.html

[8] “What is a Refugee,” UNHCR, https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/

[9] See Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, Chapter 12

[10] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[11] “History of UNHCR,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/history-of-unhcr.html

[12] “Solutions,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/solutions.html

[13] See “UNRWA in Figures,” http://web.archive.org/web/20090811175024/http://www.un.org/unrwa/publications/pdf/uif-june04.pdf

[14] “Solutions”

[15] “The World Bank in West Bank and Gaza,” The World Bank, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/westbankandgaza/overview

[16] See “The Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, February 2016,” http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/56cc95484.pdf

[17] “The Syria Crisis,” UNRWA, https://www.unrwa.org/syria-crisis#Syria-Crisis-and-Palestine-refugees

[18] “Frequently Asked Questions, “UNRWA USA National Committee, https://www.unrwausa.org/faqs

[19] See “West Bank & GAZA”, SABER Country Report 2010, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/17695/799630WP0SABER0Box0379797B00PUBLIC0.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[20] “UNRWA Salaries in Jordan,” Glassdoor, Accessed 14 January 2018, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/UNRWA-Jordan-Salaries-EI_IE449085.0,5_IL.6,12_IN127.htm

[21] “UNRWA Salaries in Syria,” Glassdoor, Accessed 14 January 2018, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/UNRWA-Syria-Salaries-EI_IE449085.0,5_IL.6,11_IN225.htm

[22] According to the World Bank, UNRWA employs more than 17,000 teachers and support staff, and pay fairly low salaries: around $800 per month in Jordan and about $144 in Syria.

[23] James G. Lindsay, Fixing UNRWA- Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees, The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Policy Focus #91 (Jan. 2009) p. 6, 27

[24] See Dr. Arnon Gross, SPECIAL REPORT: Israel and the Jews in the Newest Palestinian Authority (PA) Schoolbooks taught in PA and UNRWA Schools: De-legitimization, Demonization, Advocacy of Violent Struggle rather than Peace, Jihad, Martyrdom and the ‘Right of Return’ (Jan, 2016)

[25] See Eldad J. Pardo, Palestinian Elementary School Curriculum 2016-17: Radicalization and Revival of the PLO Program”, IMPACT-se (April 2017)

[26] Elior Levy & Eitan Goldstein, “Israel erased in UN schools,” YNetNews.com (January 3, 2017), https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4902567,00.html

[27] Ishai Freedman, “The Palestinian Incitement, How to Teach Math in an Anti-Semitic Manner,” Mida.org.il, November 2015, https://mida.org.il/2015/11/09/ההסתה-הפלסטינית-איך-ללמד-מתמטיקה-בצור/

[28] David Bedin, “Hamas Continues to Operate Freely in UNRWA’s Institutions in the Gaza Strip, Center for Near East Policy Research (January 3, 2017), http://www.cfnepr.com/תנועת-חמאס-ממשיכה-לפעול-באופן-חופשי-במוסדות-אונר-א-ברצועת-עזה.html

[29] Ibid.

[30] Claudia Rosett, “The U.N.: Clueless or Complicit in Gaza?” National Review (September 4, 2014), http://www.nationalreview.com/article/387022/un-clueless-or-complicit-gaza-claudia-rosett

Richard D. Heideman is Senior Counsel of Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, P.C., the Washington law firm that represents American Victims of Terror, has testified before the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on behalf of American victims of Iranian and Palestinian Terror, is the author of The Hague Odyssey: Israel’s Struggle for Security on the frontlines of Terrorism and her Battle for Justice at the United Nations (Bartleby Press) and is the President of the American Zionist Movement. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and not attributable to any organization.  He can be contacted at rdheideman@hnklaw.com.

About the Author
Richard D. Heideman serves as Senior Counsel of the Washington,DC law firm Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, PC, representing victims of terrorism and international human rights violations and is the author of The Hague Odyssey: Israel’s Struggle for Security on the Front Lines of Terrorism and Her Battle for Justice at the United Nations.
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