Another look at UNRWA

Nikki Haley’s threat to cut US funding to UNRWA, which was backed by a few threatening tweets from President Trump, makes this a good point to reexamine this UN organ. A quick analysis should be enough to see that such a US move would not only be historically just, but will be beneficial in the long run for all sides, even if it might cause initial negative shocks.

UNRWA (UN relief works agency) was established in 1949 by the UN specifically to aid Palestinian refugees of the Israeli-Arab war. Since then, its official goal is to provide humanitarian aid and education to Palestinian refugees, and today over 5 million Palestinians receive aid from the organization. Some will argue, sincerely, that cutting their funding will deteriorate the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, exacerbating tensions and leading to escalating violence. Though their concerns are justifiable, UNRWA is not the correct tool for the job.

This is because UNRWA also serves a political goal: perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis, and maintaining the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Palestine. Israelis, of course, can never accept the right of return – allowing 5 million Palestinian into Israel would mean the end of the Zionist project.

According to UNRWA publications, 45% of its regular budget goes to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. As only registered Palestinian refugees are eligible to UNRWA services, this provides a financial incentive (which is added to the political one) to maintain Palestinian differentiation from the general populations. UNRWA denies refugee status to descendants of Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon that acquire local citizenships, and a clear majority of Palestinian do not intermarry with locals in Syria and Lebanon, partly in fear of losing the benefits of their status.

The UNRWA concept was unjust from the start. An estimated 0.6-1.2 million Palestinians became refugees in 1948-49, while around the same time 14 million people became refugees in India and Pakistan, 40 million were refugees in post-war Europe, and 850,000 Jews from were expelled from Muslim countries. While most refugees were settled during the 1950s in their host countries, Palestinian refugees remained distinct, them and their descendants continuing to receive preferential treatment financially. This continued even as 1.5-3 million Kurds were displaced by Turkey in 1993-95, and as the number of Syrian refugees reached over 5 million during the Syrian civil war. During this time, Palestinian were not living how you would expect a refugee to live – in Syria, for example, over 90% live in apartments or private homes.

There are different tools to improve the Palestinian living standards. Apart from other NGOs, there is the Palestinian Authority, which should bear responsibility for the services provided by UNRWA (predominantly health and education). A collapse of UNRWA in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, together with natural integration of Palestinians there through citizenship and intermarriage, will force local governments to take responsibility for the population which had been there for 70 years. Eventually, this will lead to a gradual divorce of the Palestinian refugee issue from negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Cutting UNRWA funding will probably cause an initial negative shock, as well as provide fuel for anti-Zionist and anti-American propaganda, displaying empty UN schools and clinics. This can be countered through direct funding of the Palestinian education and health systems, while those in Lebanon and Syria will be rightly seen as the responsibility of their host countries. In the long run, ending UNRWA will bring us closer to peace, ending one of the larger farces of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About the Author
Ariel Paz-Sawicki is head of research in Lobby 99, a crowd-funded lobby dedicated to promoting the public interest focusing on economic issues. American-Israeli, 10 years in the IDF, and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
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