Gregg M. Mashberg

UNRWA: Keeping 1948 alive

The Trump Administration’s decision to reduce funding to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for financing the Palestinian refugee project for 70 years, is long overdue. Ultimately, it is necessary to phase out UNRWA if Palestinians are ever to emerge from their victimhood mentality and accept the existence of the Jewish state, the first step on a path to a state of their own.  UNRWA, the only UN agency dedicated to a single refugee population, has never been operated to end Palestinian statelessness; it has only perpetuated it.

As gleaned from the New York Times archive, recounted below, the open wound of hundreds of thousands – now millions – of stateless Palestinians was intended to keep the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 alive, and UNWRA has been used, with undeniable success, to achieve that end.

After rejecting the UN partition plan in 1947 and failing to crush the nascent Jewish state, the Arabs had no intention of creating an Arab state on the West Bank and Gaza (which they controlled). Instead, the Arab leadership sought to ensure that approximately 700,000 Arab refugees (only later referred to as Palestinians) who either had left or been forced from their homes as a result of the 1948 war, as well as their descendants, remained stateless.  As long as Palestinian lives were in limbo, the war against the Jewish state would never be over.

Context is critical. In the wake of World War II, there were tens of millions of refugees and stateless persons around the world.  Under the auspices of the UN and other organizations, these people, all of whom surely had tortured experiences and deep grievances, were resettled into host countries and began new lives.  Not surprisingly, the international community long ago put aside their wrenching stories of displacement and expulsion.

The exception is the Palestinians.  In 1949, the UN established UNRWA as a standalone relief agency for Palestinian refugees.  Unlike the other post-World War II refugees, the Palestinians, under UNRWA auspices, remained refugees despite their common language, religion, and cultural heritage with their Arab hosts.  Today, according to UNRWA and its uniquely expansive definition of “refugees,” Palestinian refugees – the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original population – now number over five million.

The Arab and Palestinian leadership, with the UN’s help, was brilliant in ensuring that the world would never forget Palestinian refugee story, and indeed, it is virtually as fresh today as it was in 1948.

Thanks to the New York Times archive, we can read all about it.  A story from April 9, 1959, provides a startling insight into this grotesque public relations stunt, and how UNRWA has been vital to its success.

Ten years after UNRWA’s founding, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold proposed a massive international development project to integrate Palestinian refugees into their host countries.  As the Times reported, Hammarskjold suggested that $1.5 – $2 billion (approximately $13-$17 billion in 2018 dollars) be spent over the next five years to “make productive jobs for the 1,000,000 refugees in Arab lands.”

It was not to be.  According to the Times, the Arab League, supported by Palestinian refugee leaders, opposed the UN plan.  They not only rejected the development concept, they demanded that UNRWA “drop all of its resettlement operations and become exclusively a relief agency.”  Echoing what we hear from today’s Palestinian leadership, the Arabs insisted that refugees be permitted to return to homes in Israel or receive compensation if they chose not to.

The Times reported exactly why the Arab and Palestinian leadership said no to giving their people a future:

Their objection to proposals for economic development for refugees is that such development would make permanent the refugees’ present homes.  The Arabs feel this would prejudice refugees’ claims to their old homes.

Although the Hammarskjold plan was dead, the callous demands of the Palestinian leadership became a reality. UNRWA would have no role in resettling Palestinians but would function solely as a relief agency. Palestinians under UNRWA would remain stateless and dependent on the international dole indefinitely, “in the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem.” (Quotation from the UNRWA Web site).

Seventy years and five million refugees later, UNRWA is still in business, and generations of Palestinians remain in stateless limbo.

UNRWA has been an accomplice to Palestinian rejectionism and dysfunction. Its singular role as a “relief agency” has ensured that Palestinians would remain rooted in 1948.  The anti-Israel incitement documented in its schools promotes another generation of conflict.

It is high time that UNRWA’s legitimate functions be assumed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN agency that serves all of the worlds other refugees, and whose stated “ultimate goal is to find solutions that allow [refugees] to rebuild their lives.”  It would, of course, be naïve to expect miracles from another UN agency.  But history shows that UNRWA cannot play a constructive role.  It never has.  Rather, it has spent decades ensuring that Palestinians remain trapped in their Nabka (catastrophe) – the establishment of Israel in 1948.

The author has adapted portions of this article from his August 30, 2014 blog post, “Gaza: The Proto-Palestinian State – That Wasn’t”

About the Author
Gregg M. Mashberg is a lawyer in private practice in New York City, and has been involved in Israel advocacy
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