For years, Israeli officials have claimed that civilian infrastructure in Gaza – including that funded and operated by the UN – was used by Hamas for military purposes: to store ammunition, protect combatants and launch attacks against Israel. UN officials – from local operatives to the Secretary General – always rejected such Israeli claims. Unfortunately for the ‘United’ Nations, facts have a way of speaking louder than the most assertive denials. At least three times times during the current Hamas-Israel conflagration, rockets were found stored in Gazan schools operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); the same schools that UNRWA turned into shelters for displaced Gazans and for which it demands (from Israel) the status of ‘sacred and inviolable sanctuary’. One can only wonder how many other schools and other such humanitarian enterprises were used for military purposes, without the fact being discovered and reported.
Confronted with the fact, UNRWA had to promise an investigation into how the rockets got there: after all, an obvious and undeniable war crime had been committed under their very noses. So far, however, no culprit was found. Which is strange: identifying the criminals should not – forgive the pun – be rocket science; such missiles cannot be smuggled into a school hidden in someone’s pocket; they are large, heavy tools of death, complete with detonator, fuel and explosive head, everything sheathed in a metal casing filled with shrapnel-generating steel balls. Transporting 20 such rockets to the site would have necessitated at least one lorry and the efforts of several adult men. This could not have been perpetrated without ‘inside help’, without the cooperation of at least some of UNRWA’s personnel.
Notably absent was any UNRWA corrective action aimed at ensuring non-recurrence. Instead, UNRWA issued a few short statements, consisting entirely of empty words and ‘assurances’.
The fact that UNRWA schools are used as weapon caches is bad enough; that the UN agency apparently does nothing to identify the perpetrators is worse. But wait until you hear the worst: what does UNRWA do, once the rockets were found? Does it confiscate them? Does it ask for international help to destroy or decommission them? Does it even leave them in place under UN supervision? No, none of the above; UNRWA simply hands the rockets to ‘the local Palestinian authorities’. Which, as we know, in Gaza means ‘Hamas’. At which point, UNRWA officially becomes not just a passive and negligent accessory, but a genuine accomplice to a war crime. After all, even the fervently anti-Israel ‘United’ Nations had to admit that Hamas’s indiscriminate launching of rockets against Israeli villages, towns and cities constitutes a war crime. It is not inconceivable that one of the rockets that caused casualties in Israel (including the recent death of a 4-years-old child) originated in the UNRWA school cache so graciously ‘returned’ by this ‘humanitarian agency’ into the hands of a terrorist organisation.
All this may be surprising news to some; it certainly should be disturbing news to USA and European taxpayers, who foot the bill for UNRWA’s activity, including the salaries of the agency’s extensive staff. But it comes as no surprise to Israel or to those of us who have followed UNRWA’s activity through the years. It is certainly no surprise that some or most of the agency’s local employees should collaborate with Hamas. After all, Peter Hansen, UNRWA’s former Commissioner-General (1996–2005), stated in an interview with CBC TV:
Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another. We demand of our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, that they behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality.
In addition to being ludicrous (in believing that his ‘demand’ carried more weight than the orders of the Hamas ‘political organisation’), Mr. Hansen’s statement was blatantly immoral: it whitewashed, using UN imprimatur, an organisation which was at the time busy blowing up Israeli buses and restaurants – and whose political’ leadership was on record praising such acts as ‘heroic’.
But, however indecent, Hansen’s statement was actually understating the problem: the truth is not that “there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll”; the truth is that they are the vast majority. The undeniable reality is that those who run every UNRWA school and kindergarten – from the janitor to the head teacher – are Hamas members. They are paid salaries by the ‘United’ Nations (and ultimately by American and European taxpayers, who fund the entire operation) to brainwash young, unsuspecting minds, ‘educating’ a new generation of suicide bombers.
Almost 40% of UNRWA’s total personnel are located in Gaza, nearly twice as many as in Syria and Lebanon taken together. In effect, UNRWA’s payroll provides a very welcome financial contribution to Hamas: the (currently cash-strapped) terrorist organisation can place its supporters in UNRWA positions, rather than having to pay their salaries itself. There is, of course, a more direct contribution to Hamas’s administration: Gaza Strip absorbed in 2013 30% of UNRWA’s budget; again, considerably more than was spent in Syria and Lebanon, despite the number of registered ‘refugees’ being roughly similar.
UNRWA’s local staff consists almost entirely of Gazans; but the ‘senior management’ includes ‘United’ Nations bureaucrats of Western origin. Typically, these are professional political activists masquerading as ‘humanitarian workers’, harbouring deep-seated ideological sympathies for ‘Palestinian cause’ and (although not as overtly) for Hamas. No wonder then, that rather than focusing on purely humanitarian issues, UNRWA is so active in anti-Israel advocacy.
But why is it that UNRWA exists, in the first place? Like any ethnic strife, the 1947-1949 Arab-Jewish war generated a host of refugees: both Jews and Arabs fled the areas occupied by the enemy; both populations viewed thatas bent on indiscriminate violence; since the Jewish State ultimately survived and emerged victorious, considerably more Arabs than Jews were displaced. But this ‘imbalance’ was soon corrected by a combination of official persecution and overt pogroms throughout the Arab world, which caused nearly one million Jews to flee, mostly to Israel, France, USA and UK.
UNRWA (the full name is United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was established in December 1949, though (with the efficiency that would make the ‘United’ Nations legendary) it only started to operate 16 months later.
Why ‘Palestine refugees’? Because the intention was to care for ALL refugees from the former British Mandate of Palestine – Arabs AND Jews. But the newly formed body quickly decided that the Jews (600,000 lived in Israel at the time) could take care of their own. The circa 100 million Arabs also could, but were much less inclined to. So the agency set out to take care exclusively of the circa 650,000 Arab refugees. Most people today (including, it seems, UNRWA’s leadership) believe that ‘Palestine refugee’ means ‘Palestinian refugee’, although the term ‘Palestinian’ with its current meaning hadn’t been invented yet.
The Agency’s mandate, as established by UN General Assembly Resolution 302, was double:
(a) To carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programmes as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission;
(b) To consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available;
Of course, nowhere did that mandate include any sort of political activism; UN member states voting in favour of the resolution (including Israel) envisaged UNRWA as an apolitical organisation, charged to deliver temporary humanitarian assistance, as well as help bring about a situation in which the refugees would no longer need such assistance.
But that mandate was a far cry from what the Agency actually did. Like any bureaucracy, UNRWA generated work for itself and concerned itself much more with its own preservation and growth, than with rendering itself redundant by ‘weaning’ the refugees off the international hand-outs. Thus, rather than tending for the refugees’ short term humanitarian needs, as per the mandate, the Agency took over long-term needs such as general healthcare and education – which are the duties of states.
Not only that; the original UNGA Resolution neglected to define who actually may be considered a ‘Palestine refugee’. Rather than requesting clarifications from the member states which approved the Resolution, UNRWA crafted a definition of its own. This ‘white elephant’ of a definition establishes that Palestine refugees are
persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.
The British authorities had of course maintained a register of the mandate’s population – but the Agency decided to ignore such simple test. Less than 2 years of residence – legal or illegal – were thus deemed sufficient to qualify for Palestine refugee-dom. And, of course, since hard evidence was never required – either for residence or for the loss of home and means of livelihood – the number of refugees swelled. With ‘Palestine refugee’ status a passport to financial and material support, plus free education and healthcare, there was (and is) plenty of incentive to achieve and maintain that status – and no incentive at all (either by the refugees themselves or the host state) for integration.
But UNRWA went one step further: incredibly, it expanded its already super-liberal definition and did so by adopting – lock, stock and barrel –laws and policies reeking of racism and gender discrimination. According to this shameless expansion
The descendants of Palestine refugee males [but not females], including adopted children, are also eligible for registration [as refugees].
Thus, a UN agency placed its seal of approval on one of the most shameful practices: that of denial of citizenship. In Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and throughout the Arab Middle East (except for Jordan), children born (often for 3 generations!) in the country are denied citizenship because of their ancestors’ origin – although they are indistinguishable ethnically, culturally and linguistically from the rest of the population. A classic example of apartheid regime – if ever there was one! But one UNRWA is quite happy to work with.
The insistence on the ‘male line’ in the definition above is, of course, a shameful surrender to the local gender-discriminatory culture; but it also serves a practical purpose: many of the original refugees and their male descendants married local non-Palestinian women. Needless to explain, these women are in no way refugees; they are normal citizens of their countries (insofar, of course, as women are citizens in Arab countries). UNRWA’s definition turns these women and their children into ‘refugees’, sanctioning their deprivation of citizenship in their own country!
The self-sustaining bureaucracy has thus increased the number of ‘wards’ in need of assistance from the original 650,000 to more than 5 million. Needless to say, UNRWA, has never demanded from any of the Arab countries to award citizen rights to these Arab people born, educated and paying taxes on their territory, people who know no other country. Given UNRWA’s policies, in 30-40 years the Agency will deliver ‘humanitarian assistance’ to 50 million ‘Palestine refugees’.
But UNRWA is not just ludicrous in its (mis)management of its mandate; it is also an anachronism. Because almost exactly one year after its inception, in December 1950, the ‘United’ Nations suddenly discovered that the phenomenon of refugees is considerably vaster and not confined to ‘Palestine’. As a result, it decided to establish an agency charged with assisting refugees in general, wherever and whoever they are. But, following the ‘bureaucracy conservation law’, it forgot to merge the already established UNRWA with the newly established Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Which created the weird situation in which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees cares for all refugees anywhere in the world EXCEPT ‘Palestine refugees’. Two distinct budgets; two separate bureaucracies; two different modes of action; and all of the above funded primarily by US and European taxpayers.
If you are a Syrian (Syria?) refugee to Jordan, UNHCR will hopefully provide your family with a tent and food. Except, that is, if you happen to be a ‘Palestine refugee’ from Syria. If the latter, both you and your father may have been born in Syria; your mother may have been a Syrian national; and you may have lived 200 yards from the ‘Syrian refugee’. But since Assad’s regime has refused to grant you Syrian citizenship, your family is not entitled to an UNHCR tent and food, like the Syrian family; but it is entitled to an UNRWA tent, food, cash, education, healthcare and political advocacy – forever and ever.
Although the current conflagration between Hamas and Israel is raging on, there is little doubt that eventually – through sheer exhaustion if nothing else – fighting will subside. And when it does, chances are that some sort of international effort will take place, aimed at improving the Gazans’ quality of life. Projects will be undertaken and funds will be spent. It is imperative, however (and Israel will no doubt insist on this point), that these projects and funds benefit Gaza’s innocent population – not Hamas. Which means that they need to be kept well away from UNRWA and channelled through a different organisation. One that will do away with the status of ‘refugee’ that UNRWA is so keen to preserve.
As for UNRWA itself, it is high time for this anachronistic and politicised bureaucracy to be disbanded and for the definition of ‘Palestine refugee’ to be reviewed. The original refugees may perforce still need assistance, which they can receive from UNHCR, like all other refugees. But refugee-dom should not be viewed as an inheritable status; a child born on a state’s territory should not be forever denied citizenship and rights in that state. Western taxpayers want to help true refugees; they surely have better things to do with their money than underwrite for decades a situation dictated by cynical political interests.