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Jewish Groups and U.S. Lawmakers Seek Review of U.N. Refugee Agency

May 29, 2002
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As the Israeli army re-entered Jenin this week to arrest terrorist leaders, several Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers are scrutinizing the link between the United Nations and the refugee camp.

The United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency administers educational, social and health services to Palestinian refugee camps, including the one in Jenin.

Jenin was home to one-third of the Palestinian suicide bombers who have launched attacks against Israel, prompting Israel’s initial military operation there.

That operation, part of Israel’s Operation Protective Wall, uncovered arms caches, suicide belts and an explosive factory in the camp.

It also prompted many Jewish and political leaders to ask why the U.N. agency didn’t know about or put a stop to the terrorist activity.

And Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, helping organize a hearing last week by his committee on the subject.

That hearing “confirmed many of Mr. Lantos’ fears,” said his spokesman Matt Gobush.

UNRWA’s “responses during the briefing raised more questions than it answered in our minds about UNRWA’s role at the camps and their failure to prevent terrorist activity from taking place,” he said.

Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, said, “The flurry of activity on the Hill and within the Jewish community surrounding these camps, and the ease with which terrorists move freely within them, have called into question if there’s something the United States can do about it.”

Jewish organizations such as AIPAC, the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations are asking how the U.N. agency can plead ignorance of terrorist activity.

They are also asking why the United States funds more than one quarter of its budget — the U.S. contribution amounts to nearly $90 million a year.

Jewish groups say they have not yet formulated a strategy beyond starting to press these questions.

But Avi Beker, secretary-general of the WJC, has a few goals in mind.

He is focusing on what he describes as UNRWA’s inherently faulty mandate, and is advocating some sort of international review.

UNRWA’s mandate was renewed in December for three more years, a customary renewal since the agency’s 1949 founding to aid Palestinian refugees.

Unlike the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which is charged to seek “durable solutions” for all of the world’s refugees, UNRWA is the only U.N. organization dedicated to one group of refugees — the Palestinians.

Beker takes issue with its mandate to provide humanitarian assistance, rather than be involved with efforts to resettle and rehabilitate the refugees.

UNRWA’s mandate perpetuates the “real human tragedy of the Palestinians,” said Beker, noting that the controversy surrounding Israel’s operation in Jenin was the catalyst for his interest.

Israel suffered widespread criticism of its operation in Jenin, with many quick to conclude that a “massacre” had occurred, a view now widely disproved as Palestinian propaganda.

At the same time, there was no international discussion over the Jenin-sponsored violence that prompted Israel’s operation, Beker said.

Beker is also working to review U.S. funding for the agency through meetings between the State Department and members of Congress.

He approached Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, who, in turn, arranged a meeting with Beker and 10 other members of Congress two weeks ago.

Last week, Lantos wrote a letter to Annan, indicting UNRWA as an organization “complicit in terrorism.”

Citing Annan’s own 1998 report to the U.N. Security Council that refugee camps be “kept free of any military presence or equipment, including arms and ammunition” and that “the neutrality of the camps” be maintained, Lantos said UNRWA’s failure to prevent and report terrorist activity links the agency “directly or indirectly” to terrorism.

Annan’s spokesman said the secretary-general was in the process of crafting a response.

But Karen AbuZayd, UNRWA’s deputy commissioner who was in

Washington last week to brief the House International Relations Committee and the National Press Club, said her agency had “no knowledge at all” of the Palestinian terror operation.

Like most Palestinians who live in the camps, people don’t know of those activities unless they are directly involved, she told JTA.

She said UNRWA is made up mostly of Palestinian staff, and the group fosters “peace” and “understanding.”

AbuZayd said her agency contributed to stability in the region, and that its efforts were often stymied by Israeli checkpoints.

AbuZayd said UNRWA uses extra-curricular activities involving drama, dance and art along with U.S.-supported textbooks to teach conflict resolution.

But AbuZayd’s peaceful characterization of her agency is not shared by Israel.

“UNRWA is a body that is politicized to the bone,” said an Israeli official.

“Instead of taking care of the Palestinian refugees, it just stagnates their situation. Moreover, in camps that are run by UNRWA, there is a flourishing network of terrorism.”

The agency “finds time to criticize Israel time and again, but when it comes to the Palestinian terrorism network, it is as silent as a lamb.”

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