[T]he reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement, is essential in preparation for the timewhen international assistance is no longer available, and for the realization ofconditions of peace and stability in the areaUnited Nations General Assembly Resolution 393 (V), December 2, 1950
The goal and purpose of UNRWA is simple and straightforward — if not immensely challenging: to either repatriate Palestine refugees into what is now Israel or to resettle them elsewhere, while recognizing the obvious reality that there will come a time “when international assistance is no longer available.”
Yet here we are, 67 years later. Those Palestine refugees have not been either repatriated nor resettled.
And that international assistance? Lo and behold: its being offered and provided. So what happened to the whole purpose of UNRWA?
First of all — in case you didn’t get the memo — UNRWA is no longer dedicating its resources towards reintegrating those Palestine refugees. Just ask the people who should know:
- Former UNRWA general counsel James G. Lindsay: “neither the donors nor the General Assembly has pressed UNRWA on ‘reintegration’ in quite some time.”
- Lance Bartholomeusz, former head of the International Law Division of UNRWA: “Thispart of the mandate probably ended by 1960 when reference to ‘reintegration’ wasdropped from General Assembly resolutions relating to UNRWA, reflecting some acknowledgment that this objective had been defeated.”
- Peter Hansen, former commissioner-general of UNRWA: “The agency’s mandate has repeatedly been refined andshaped by other General Assembly resolutions, which have allowed it to shift itsfocus from reintegration efforts in its early years to human development projects through to this very day.”
Basically, there was an admission that UNRWA failed in its mandate to find hosts for the Palestine refugees. But instead of replacing UNRWA with an agency that would deal with the new reality, UNRWA just replaced its mandate instead.It was able to do this because of its much-vaunted flexibility.In his article, The Mandate of UNRWA at Sixty Lance Bartholomeusz writes
As stated at the outset, in broad terms, UNRWA’s “mandate” means what the Agency may or must do. We have seen that UNRWA’s mandate is rarely expressed in terms of what UNRWA may not do. Even though the language used in some resolutions such as “directs”, “instructs”, “essential”, and “necessary” might indicate a compulsory nature, considering the context – in particular that UNRWA is almost entirely voluntarily funded and its actual income has generally fallen far short of budgeted income – most of the Agency’s operational mandate can be seen to be permissive, albeit strongly encouraged in parts….For almost sixty years, in response to developments in the region, the General Assembly has mandated the Agency to engage in a rich and evolving variety of activities, for many purposes and for several classes of beneficiaries. The Assembly has provided UNRWA with a flexible mandate designed to facilitate, rather than restrict, the Agency’s ability to act as and when the Commissioner-General [of UNRWA], in consultation with the Advisory Commission as appropriate, sees fit. [emphasis added]
So, according to Bartholomeusz:
- Its mandate gives UNRWA a lot of leeway.
- Even when the language implies a “compulsory” obligation for UNRWA, most of the “operational mandate” is actually “permissive” (read: optional).
- UNRWA’s mandate is “rich” and “flexible”
- UNRWA’s Commissioner-General and the Advisory Commission are the final arbiter of what UNRWA’s mandate actually is.
How has UNRWA exercised this flexibility?According to UN General Assembly Resolution 302, part of the UNRWA mandate is for “direct relief and works programmes.” Yet 10 years later, the incoming UNRWA directorJohn Davis suggested a new focus, which emphasized a shift to education:
- providing general education, both elementary and secondary
- teaching vocational skills, and awarding university scholarships
- offering small loans and grants to individual refugees who have skills and want to become self-employed
The new focus allowed UNRWA to increase from 64 schools, with 800 teachers instructing 41,000 students in 1950 — to 699 schools, with 19,217 instructors and 486,754 students in the 2011-2012 school year.For all the good this may have done over the years, there are major concerns over the abuse this has led to, as documented by UN Watch in its latest report Poisoning Palestinian Children: A Report UNRWA teachers’ incitement to jihadist terrorism and antisemitism:
This report exposes more than 40 Facebook pages operated by school teachers, principals, and other employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which incite to terrorism or antisemitism. The report is divided by region, and includes UNRWA staffers in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and Syria. These cases are additional to the 30 cases of incitement revealed at the end of 2015 by UN Watch.The examples of incitement in this report include UNRWA teachers and staffers celebrating the terrorist kidnapping of Israeli teenagers, cheering rockets being fired at Israeli civilian centers, endorsing various forms of violence, erasing Israel from the map, praising Hitler and posting his photo, and posting overtly antisemitic videos, caricatures, and statements.
The results of this report were summarized in a video:
The report and video point to the growing problem of the unchecked influence that Palestinian Arabs have on the very agency that is supposed to be aiding them. In an email correspondence, Dr. Alexander Joffe, who has written extensively on various aspects of UNRWA, expanded on this issue and the growing threat it poses:
UNRWA basically shifted its entire operation towards education by the end of the1950s, ending any hopes of repatriation or resettlement. It then rode the anti-colonialism wave at the UN through the 1960s and 1970s (which saw the growth of the UN’s immense pro-Palestinian infrastructure) and by the 1980s had become a full service health and welfare provider. But during the 1990s, especially the Oslo years, the concept of promoting Palestinian ‘rights’ and ‘protections’ grew, partially in response to Oslo and also as part of the global trend towards casting all claims in terms of legalisms and human rights. This advocacy role makes UNRWA a kind of competitor to the PA or at least a shadow foreign ministry. In short, the organization adapts to changing conditions. Because it is basically run by and for Palestinians (we’ve called this an example of ‘regulatory capture’) it reacts to its own needs, those of the Palestinian street which it serves and cultivates, especially through the educational system, and to changes in the rhetorical ecosystem of international organizations. Its promotion of the ‘right of return’ is a recent adaptation from the last decade or so. And everything it does is against the background of ‘financial emergency,’ which has been its stock response since the 1950s.
Currently, UNRWA is still remaking itself. In line with the advocacy role that Dr. Joffe describes, as early as 2007 UNRWA described itself in a report, UNRWA in 2006, as
a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees. In circumstances of humanitarian crisis and armed conflict, the Agency’s emergency interventions – as well as its presence – serve as tangible symbols of the international community’s concern, helping to create a stable environment. [emphasis added]
This is a far cry from the temporary agency with a mandate to help Palestine refugees resettle.The claim that UNRWA protects as well as cares for the refugees seems something of a stretch. In 2002, when US Representative Tom Lantos complained to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that “UNRWA officials have not only failed to prevent their camps from becoming centers of terrorist activity, but have also failed to report these developments to you,” Annan responded:
the United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory
UNRWA will have to make up its mind just how global — or how limited — their protection is going to be, and who they intend to protect from whom.Just how UNRWA intends to be a stable influence when it assumes a responsibilitythat overlaps with the Palestinian Authority on the one hand, while it encourages antisemitism on the other, remains to be seen.
And if it can’t — no problem.UNRWA can always remake its mandate.
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