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Defund UNRWA

by Asaf Romirowsky
Washington Times
May 19, 2008


A few days ago an Israeli air strike killed a member of a Palestinian missile team that had been firing rockets from Gaza. Now the United Nations has come out with an unusual statement of bewilderment and utter shock as the truth has come out. The dead man, Awad al-Qiq, was a U.N. employee and headmaster of a top prep school in Gaza. He was also the chief rocket-maker for Islamic Jihad.

Mr. Al-Qiq — not surprisingly, a science teacher — worked for one of the schools run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Now that he is out of the rocket business, the employment of such a "respectable" individual by the sole U.N. agency devoted to Palestinian refugees deserves an explanation.

In a new report by the Global Research in International Affairs Center by this author and Professor Barry Rubin, "UNRWA: Refuge of Rejectionism," the case is made that this group is a major cause of the continued Arab-Israeli conflict, the incitement of a whole generation of Palestinians to terrorist violence and even the suffering of the refugees themselves.

The report's recommendation is simple and workable: UNRWA should be dissolved and its functions divided between the far more effective and depoliticized U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since Hamas came to power in 2006, Palestinians in the new Islamic state of Gaza have been crying out for more and more UNRWA aid. Historically, UNRWA has been the main vehicle for the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the United Nations. Where once it was charged with resettling Palestinians, its explicit mandate in recent decades has been to maintain them in the camps where Arab states left them some 60 years ago. Education, health and limited vocational training are provided, just enough to keep Palestinians as "refugees." UNRWA is an apparatus that maintains the status quo — a huge bureaucracy with no incentive to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. This arrangement is ripe for abuse.

As one of the largest employers in the host countries with Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA is staffed mainly by local Palestinians — more than 23,000 of them, with only about 100 international U.N. professionals. The pattern of hiring within the served population is unique in the U.N. system. By contrast, UNICEF (to cite one example) avoids employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, considering it a conflict of interest. UNRWA bureaucracy has created an infrastructure for Palestinian dependency. Refugees, now in their third generation, rely on the services UNRWA provides and have no incentives to plan or implement solutions that may endanger their livelihood by rendering UNRWA's services obsolete.

It was under the leadership of former UNRWA Commissioner Peter Hansen that the organization's complicity with terror was openly exposed. In a statement to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Hansen admitted: "I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll " and I don't see that as a crime."

As Hamas' genocidal agenda has become impossible to cover up, UNRWA has now resorted to professions of shock and promises of "zero tolerance." For some UNRWA's affiliation with terrorism is not a detraction but an added value that shows "diversity." As Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, notes, "humanitarian and charitable institutions throughout Palestine employ personnel regardless of sectarian or political affiliation and offer services on a similar basis. Thus, UNRWA, NGO-run institutions [and] public hospitals and clinics, for example, employ members of different political groups such as Fatah, the [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group."

As we look for ways to crack down on terrorism and terrorist activity, looking at UNRWA is a good start. American taxpayer dollars fund approximately one-third of UNRWA's operating budget. UNRWA provides food, medicine, economic aid, jobs, radical education, political opportunities, and even logistical assistance to Hamas and other extremist groups. UNRWA's budget, which exceeds $365 million, is funded by many nations, but the United States and other Western nations are the largest contributors.

Cutting off UNRWA's budget would be detrimental to Hamas in Gaza, which would be forced to either provide services to Palestinians or admit it has no intention of doing so. It would also send an important message to the United Nations, which perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and lends legitimacy to groups like Hamas through UNRWA's continued existence.

Transferring UNRWA's services to other agencies, notably the High Commission for Refugees, which has a long and productive experience, would be another important move. And lastly, actually having the Palestinian Authority take responsibility for the social services if it is to truly govern the Palestinian people would send a signal to all parties that a future state of Palestine would be prepared to live in peace with its neighbors and itself.

Asaf Romirowsky, an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum, is manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.  

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