Any discussion about the future of the Gaza strip after the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas must include a consideration of whether UNRWA should play a role in it. The firing of some of its staff for taking part in the Hamas October 7, 2024 massacre is only one of several reasons for recommending that it terminates its mandate in the Gaza strip.
Ever since UNGA resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 established UNRWA, it has pursued a strategy radically at odds with the principles of impartiality and neutrality, which it claims to adhere to. These principles are originally intended to ascertain that humanitarian aid is not used as a smokescreen from behind which an agency promotes a partisan political agenda. Unfortunately, UNRWA has done just that.
UNRWA has ingeniously manipulated the more commonly accepted International Humanitarian Law and the 1951 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) definitions of refugee, to accommodate more permanent provisions to its original temporary mandate. In the process, it has succeeded in turning its original temporary relief mandate into a quasi-governmental and permanent political fixture in the West Bank and Gaza.
More importantly, the UNRWA definition ensures that the number of refugees will continue to grow exponentially, and that they will remain under the auspices of UNRWA, and not the UNHCR. This situation has led the then US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to state that UNRWA’s business model and fiscal practices were an “irredeemably flawed operation” and that the agency’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable.”
By manipulating the definition of refugee, UNRWA has succeeded in preserving its mission and making the refugee issue practically impossible to be solved by UNRWA alone. Today, many of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants do not even live in refugee camps. Yet they continue to be counted as refugees by UNRWA and are receiving benefits including free health care and education.
In contrast to the UNHCR definition of a refugee, UNRWA’s Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions (CERI) leave the definition of who is a refugee vague. This allows UNRWA to decide on certain criteria that, if met, entitle a person to be registered in UNRWA’s Registration System and/or to receive the Agency’s services. The CERI state that the standards and criteria are intended to facilitate the Agency’s operations (that is not to determine who is a refugee under international law).
So even though the Agency keeps records of over five million Palestinians whom it “refers to” as Registered Refugees, does not mean that under international law there actually are 5.9 million Palestine refugees.
Strikingly. the Palestinian refugees enjoy a significantly disproportionate allocation of international funding. Consider that UNRWA represents less than 18% of the total number of refugees in the world, and that it spends a third of all the resources donated to refugees internationally. Per capita annual support for a Palestinian refugee is more than twice the amount of support allocated by the UNHCR, which supports all the world’s refugees.
The main reason that UNRWA has been able to manipulate the definition of who is a refugee, and the fact that it has morphed into a permanent impartial and political fixture in Gaza, is because it is an ideal political platform from which the Arab and African majority at the UN guarantees that the Palestinian question of the right of return remains a priority on the international political agenda. Moreover, this automatic majority use the demise of the Palestinians to generate political capital by lambasting Israel for its subjugation of the Palestinians, and for instigating a “humanitarian disaster” in the Gaza strip.
In the “day after” the Gaza war, UNRWA should not play any role. It has for too long exacerbated the Palestinian situation in the Gaza strip through its manipulation of the definition of who is a refugee, a definition which has allowed it, and the UN, to pursue a politically biased agenda against Israel.