United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Photo: Flickr Commons
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has been accused of ethics violations. Photo: Flickr Commons

The decision by the Trump administration to “freeze for further consideration” US$65 million that it was planning to donate to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been met worldwide with a storm of censure.

Over the years the United States has been the largest single donor to UNRWA, contributing about 30% of the organization’s current $730 million core budget. How the shortfall created by the reduction of the US contribution will be addressed is as yet unknown, but countries including Sweden have already announced that they will increase their contribution to the world body to make up for part of the shortfall.

While it will take more than a suspension of US funding to bring about a shutdown of UNRWA, the reduction of American financial support has reignited a lingering debate that until now has been carefully ignored, namely whether the closing down of UNRWA is not long overdue.

In the wake of the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948, some 700,000 Arabs fled the areas controlled by the new state and sought refuge in neighboring Arab countries. Whether they left of their own free will, sought to escape the combat zones or were forcefully expelled, or a combination of all these is a moot point. What is not is the fact that they left their homes and that their flight resulted in a major humanitarian emergency.

To address the crisis, the United Nations in December 1949 created UNRWA, which was given the mandate of providing assistance to the Palestinian refugees

To address the crisis, the United Nations in December 1949 created UNRWA, which was given the mandate of providing assistance to the Palestinian refugees. The creation of UNRWA was a first and remains a first. It proved the first and only time when the UN member states created a specific agency tasked with assisting only one well-defined social group.

With the exception of the countries of the Soviet bloc, all the UN member states voted in favor of the creation of UNRWA. Many did so with no political afterthoughts but simply to give substance to what they felt was a moral obligation to alleviate a humanitarian crisis. For Israel, the creation of UNRWA meant that the Palestinian refugees were now taken care of and that there was no urgency to find a solution to their plight and even more so to accept a repatriation process to which it was not amenable. As for the Arab states, they had embarked on a policy regarding Israel that was later to be known as “the three nos”: no peace, no negotiation, no recognition.

In keeping with this policy, the Arab League decreed that the Palestinian refugees should be kept in camps and that under no circumstances should they be permitted either to resettle in or acquire the nationality of the countries that hosted them. This was in keeping with the UN resolution that created UNRWA and which underscored the fact that the refugees should be permitted to return home at the “earliest practical date.”

Not only did this provision formalize what became known as the “right of return,” it also specified that the patrilineal descendants of the original Palestinian refugees would enjoy the same status. In practice this meant that Palestinian refugee status would be passed on from one generation to another with no cutoff date and that the descendants of the original refugees would benefit from UNRWA assistance and also be entitled to exercise the “right of return.”

The decades that followed the creation of UNRWA were not kind to the Palestinians, and they in turn proved not particularly well disposed to the countries that received them. With no solution in sight to the Palestinian problem, the camps that over the years had become shantytowns became hothouses of despair before becoming breeding grounds for terrorism.

On September 10, 1970, Palestinians hijacked three civilian passenger aircraft that were made to land in Jordan, thus precipitating a crisis between the Jordanians and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The fighting that followed – Black September – saw the PLO expelled from Jordan and moving to southern Lebanon, where it set up a state within a state, which was instrumental in precipitating the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

During these turbulent years, UNRWA soldiered on, providing healthcare, education, social services and food aid to the Palestinian shantytowns.

Today, 80 years after the creation of UNRWA, it is estimated that at most 6% of the original 700,000 Palestinians that fled Israel in 1948, that is, about 40,000, are still alive. Conversely the total number of descendants of the original group is estimated at some 7.2 million, of whom some 4.3 million are registered by UNRWA and receive some assistance and currently reside in essence in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

With the exception of Jordan, which has successfully integrated a large component of its Palestinian refugee population, most of the Palestinians throughout the Middle East languish in various states of administrative limbo. In Jordan, many of those with Jordanian citizenship are simultaneously registered with UNRWA. Conversely the approximately 240,000 Palestinians living and working in Saudi Arabia are the only foreigners barred from applying for Saudi citizenship.

Languishing in shanytowns

And as for the approximately 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they are viewed with hostility by both the Shiites and the Christians and, prohibited from working, they survive in shantytowns with UNRWA assistance.

Last but not least, with some 1.3 million Palestinian refugees registered and assisted by UNRWA out of a total population of some 1.8 million, Gaza under Hamas is a management conundrum beyond definition.

The creation of UNRWA 70 years ago corresponded to a real humanitarian need. However, inbuilt in the fulfillment of that need were two political considerations, the so-called “right of return” and the fact that Palestinian refugee status would be handed down from generation to generation. Both these notions were predicated on what was at the time the core of Arab policy as regards Palestine, namely the obliteration of the State of Israel.

Not only did this not happen but with the recognition of Israel by Jordan and Egypt and the de facto rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, what started off as a political expedient is today a major handicap, and the Palestinian refugee issue is one that both the Arab states and Israel could well do without.

While addressing it is a major political issue that continues to bedevil the Middle East, UNRWA, which started off as a solution, is now part of the problem. And, perversely, while it continues to discharge its assistance mandate, doing so has created among many of its wards as well as among several Arab governments a dependency, not to say a premium for inaction, of which Gaza is a prime example.

With half the population density of Singapore, and given its geographical location, Gaza over the years could have become a major manufacturing hub for European markets. However, not only was the political incentive for such a development absent but the economic incentive was also lacking because of UNRWA’s ongoing assistance. The same, to a large extent, applies to Lebanon, where the authorities are content to see the Palestinians kept in shantytowns decade after decade rather than envisaging more sophisticated solutions.

Mindlesss distribution system

Within this long-lasting all-inclusive aberration, UNRWA is in essence a mindless distribution system. With a staff of some 30,000, of whom some 95% are Palestinians, it soldiers on, providing assistance, education and medical services to its wards and registering as refugees the descendants of the original refugees or those Palestinians who have acquired valid national status.

Assessing that the whole concept has become a self-generating aberration is not either in its mindset or, even more, in its mandate. That is a the responsibility of the UN member states that finance UNRWA and one that they have studiously avoided addressing, finding it easier to mindlessly continue spending their taxpayers’ money than addressing a problem that, until now, had been on the back burner. But maybe no more.

The partial suspension of the US contribution to UNRWA is not significant enough to cripple the organization seriously. Likewise, it does not seem to be part of an in-depth, well-thought-out reassessment of the Palestinian refugee issue and appears more like an erratic, one-shot reaction to a complex political equation that Washington fails to grasp in its full complexity.

However, it might induce some of the other donor governments to move beyond their business-as-usual approach and look at UNRWA and its long-term prospects from a more realistic perspective.

Clearly, in the long term the organization must be done away with, and its remaining functions, if any, entrusted to the UN Refugee Agency. This, however, can only result from a well-planned, cautious, step-by-step approach, which would take into account both political realities and humanitarian concerns.

The first step would be the setting up a cutoff date beyond which UNRWA would no longer register as refugees second- and third-generation descendants of the original refugees. This alone would ensure that the total number of registered refugees would start decreasing rather than increasing.

Second, the Arab states should be encouraged to grant citizenship to the Palestinians, especially Saudi Arabia, which has a population of some 250,000 Palestinians who are employed and are well integrated. This is the only population group in Saudi Arabia that, at the request of the Arab League, is denied the right to apply for citizenship.

By and large, throughout the Middle East, the Palestinians represent one of the more educated groups and should be seen as an asset for the region when not used and abused for political ends.

Fostering self-sufficiency

UNRWA assistance should be phased out and slowly replaced by micro-credit schemes or economic development projects aimed at fostering self-sufficiency.

Last but not least, the notion of the “right of return” remains a dream, albeit one that they are not willing to give up. But times are changing, and a 2003 survey indicated that 54% of respondents would be willing to give it up in exchange for some compensation. Ultimately, the issue is still psychologically charged and should be gently sidelined rather than being made into a dogma.

Seventy years after its creation, and with no end of its responsibilities as currently conceived in sight, it is doubtful whether enough UN members will have the sagacity to look at UNWRA in the light of the future. Clearly none are willing to consider what could have been achieved with the total contributions spent over the past 70 years had they been more wisely disbursed.

That the doings of the Trump administration would bring about such a rethinking appears to be the least improbable. But not completely so.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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