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Unmasking Unrwa Its Role More Vital Than Ever, Can Unrwa Stay out of Politics?

March 16, 2006
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As Washington and the West weigh a cutoff of aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency could become a crucial lifeline to millions of Palestinian refugees who depend on it for vital services. But the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections have revived a long-standing Israeli concern: that some of UNRWA’s staff are members of Hamas, or at least sympathize with the terrorist group’s anti-Israel cause.

Israeli concerns were not eased by the fact that nine UNRWA staffers resigned to run for office in the late-January elections that Hamas swept. Furthermore, they had to be firmly reminded, in a letter from the agency’s commissioner-general, that participating in Palestinian politics is incompatible with UNRWA’s ideal of neutrality.

To many supporters of Israel, however, UNRWA’s efforts in the region have rarely been impartial.

During the Palestinian intifada, the agency routinely blamed Israel for bloodshed, eliding the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.” Its one-sided criticism played a significant role in shaping international opinion against the Jewish state — helping to prolong the war, critics charge, by emboldening Palestinians to attack.

UNRWA camps, including the infamous West Bank refugee camp that is part of Jenin, became engines of the intifada, with terrorists using them as bases from which to plan and carry out attacks — sheltering themselves, all the while, under the U.N.’s vaunted neutrality.

Tensions between UNRWA and Israel have lessened in the past year as the number of terrorist attacks, and concomitant Israeli reprisals, dropped significantly.

But with many observers warning of an imminent resumption of the intifada, this time centered on the West Bank, whether UNRWA camps are again allowed to become incubators of terrorism may go a long way toward determining if peace will come to the Middle East. It could also help determine if UNRWA’s Palestinian charges can become citizens of their own independent state, ending their decades-long status as refugees.

At this critical juncture in the region, JTA takes a close look at the U.N. agency that for 56 years has helped ensure Palestinian refugees’ basic survival — yet also, some say, has helped make the Palestinian refugee issue one of the most intractable and incendiary political problems on Earth.

Following Hamas’ electoral victory and the West’s threat to choke off financial assistance, UNRWA is poised to play an even more critical role. The majority of Palestinians living in Gaza, and a sizeable portion in the West Bank, are registered refugees and recipients of some form of UNRWA services. Officials in Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem all say they don’t want to harm humanitarian aid.

Indeed, in response to a bleak forecast about Gaza and the West Bank, the European Union on Feb. 27 offered $144 million in aid to the Palestinians, $76 million of it earmarked for UNRWA.

UNRWA lists 4.3 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East, including 1.6 million in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where it operates 27 refugee camps. Not all of the refugees live in the camps, which long ago evolved from tent cities into dilapidated, densely packed urban neighborhoods.

For more than half a century, UNRWA has provided the refugees with food, jobs, shelter, medicine, healthcare and education. The agency runs schools, health clinics and housing, operating as a virtual statelet within the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA was the main source of sustenance during the intifada in Gaza, where three-quarters of the coastal strip’s 1.3 million residents are registered as refugees and a half-million live in eight cramped, sprawling UNRWA camps. Others live in the immediate environs.

At the same time, UNRWA has done nothing to help resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. In contrast to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, the agency responsible for the world’s 19.2 million other refugees, UNRWA is not tasked with helping to resettle Palestinian refugees, but merely with providing services.

Critics, however, say UNRWA has served to exacerbate the problem by taking sides in a highly politicized conflict, and by allowing its camps to become bastions of militarism.

Nothing illustrates how UNRWA’s approach impacts both Israel and the agency’s own clientele better than the events in the Jenin refugee camp during spring 2002, a particularly bloody period of the intifada.

Some Palestinians had nicknamed the place “the suicide bomber’s capital,” and Palestinians and Israelis alike knew the Jenin camp as a major hub for terrorists to recruit, plan and launch attacks against Israel.

Everyone knew except for UNRWA — or at least, the agency said little publicly about the terrorist activity in its midst.

On March 27, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself in the dining room of Netanya’s Park Hotel, killing 29 Israelis at a Passover seder. That attack, which capped a month of mounting casualties, came to be known as the “Passover Massacre.”

Israel responded with one of its largest anti-terror operations of the intifada, including a two-week assault on the Jenin refugee camp that leveled the camp’s center. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fierce, close-range battle, Israel’s largest military death toll during more than four years of the intifada.

The Palestinians, their supporters and much of the world media branded the battle a “massacre,” claiming that some 500 Palestinians had been killed.

Peter Hansen, UNRWA’s head at the time, helped stoke the flames.

First he urged Israel to “end this pitiless assault on civilian refugee camps.” Then, after the smoke had cleared, Hansen proclaimed, in an UNRWA news release widely quoted by the media, “I had hoped the horror stories of Jenin were exaggerated and influenced by the emotions engaged, but I am afraid these were not exaggerated and that Jenin camp residents lived through a human catastrophe that has few parallels in recent history.”

Hansen never recanted, yet his comments were quickly exposed as a wild distortion: A U.N. probe itself later determined that 52 Palestinians were killed — corroborating Israel’s estimate — and noted that “up to half may have been civilians.”

That wording downplayed the flipside: The other half were armed combatants whose presence represented a breach of U.N. resolutions and international law. Indeed, the media widely ignored the U.N. report’s fine print: “According to both Israeli and Palestinian sources, there were 200 armed men in the camp at the time.”

The battle of Jenin was illuminating on many levels — showing not only how UNRWA helps heap international calumny on Israel, but also how the agency’s laxity toward the militancy in its camps helps bring catastrophe upon the very population UNRWA is duty-bound to assist.

“UNRWA has not been ambivalent about the manner in which the refugee camps, and the civilian population within them, have been cynically and callously used in the intifada,” said Harry Reicher, an international law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the former U.N. representative for Agudath Israel World Organization.

“UNRWA has actively become complicit,” Reicher said, by allowing “conversion of civilians into human shields, protecting terrorists and arms. They’re protected by UNRWA, knowing full well that no condemnation will come from them, and that if Israel takes strong steps, it is Israel that will be condemned, by UNRWA as well as others.”

In defending itself, UNRWA tends to take responsibility only for what occurs within its facilities, such as its schools, health clinics and food-distribution centers. That allows it to wash its hands, for example, of Hamas’ new Al-Aksa TV station — located in a mosque in UNRWA’s Jabalya refugee camp, a site that offers a double layer of political protection from Israeli attack.

UNRWA notes that its mandate for what goes on in its camps is limited.

“The agency has never been given any mandate to administer, supervise or police the refugee camps or to have any jurisdiction or legislative power over the refugees or the areas where they lived,” the agency’s Web site ( says. “The agency has no police force, no intelligence service and no mandate to report on political and military activities. This responsibility has always remained with the host countries and Israel, who maintained law and order, including within refugee camps.”

The U.N. General Assembly — dominated by Arab and Muslim states, and long hostile to Israel — has never done anything to sharpen UNRWA’s role. Both the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations and the U.N. mission for the 22-member League of Arab States declined to comment for this series.

Yet regardless of its stated mandate, UNRWA has moral authority and international legitimacy — assets it doesn’t hesitate to use to condemn Israeli military actions, and which it could use to condemn terrorism in its midst as well.

UNRWA says it criticizes Israel often because of concerns about refugee welfare. But critics wonder why that same logic doesn’t compel UNRWA to speak up when, for example, rockets fired from refugee camps bring Israeli reprisals that end up hurting UNRWA’s charges.

“Among our staff, they certainly understand that as long as Kassams are going out, there’s going to be something coming in,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, UNRWA’s current commissioner-general. But, she said, “there’s always an excuse given for it. Whenever they do it they say it’s because of this or that. There’s always this tit-for-tat, and it’s not always clear who started it.”

That only bolsters those who say the agency should be more balanced in its criticism.

“So infiltrated does the U.N. agency in Gaza appear to be with Hamas operatives that it would probably be dangerous for any UNRWA official to speak out against terrorist attacks planned or launched from UNRWA facilities,” said Harris Schoenberg, a U.N. reform advocate and author of “Combatting Terrorism: The Role of the U.N.”

However, he added, “When UNRWA doesn’t speak out against extremism, as a U.N. agency should, through its silence it condones and thus encourages terrorism.”

Israeli officials take the threat of violence seriously, and some suggest that UNRWA camps could again serve as bases to plan and launch terrorist attacks if the intifada is renewed under a Hamas-led government.

“The camps could be used in a third intifada for everything from production of Kassam rockets to launch areas for attacks,” Dore Gold, Israel’s former U.N. ambassador and author of “Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos,” told JTA. “Not only that: One has to anticipate they will try to lodge themselves in and around U.N. facilities, to find some kind of immunity.”

AbuZayd defends her agency’s record.

“UNRWA has publicly condemned violence on both sides on many occasions,” she told JTA.

She declined to give examples, but a review of UNRWA public comments in recent years yields only rare references to Palestinian violence, typically only a single line.

Critics suggest several factors behind UNRWA’s unwillingness to regularly denounce this violence: built-in bias at the United Nations; a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about UNRWA staff members’ and clients’ activities; and intimidation by various Palestinian groups.

There also is the perceived tilt of UNRWA itself: Virtually all of the agency’s 25,000-plus staff members are Palestinian, with most of them refugees themselves. Staff members must sign a pledge of neutrality, but critics say that hardly inures them to their society’s pervasive anti-Israel animus.

One staffer, for example — Sayed Seyam — became a spokesman for Hamas after he left the agency in November 2003.

The blurred line between serving the refugees and advocating for them was illustrated by the recent P.A. elections. Nine UNRWA staffers were forced to resign their jobs in order to run for Parliament, including one who won office on the Hamas ticket, the agency said. Six have since applied for reinstatement, and their actions and statements during the campaign are being reviewed.

UNRWA declined JTA requests for more information on the subject, citing the agency’s privacy policy. It remained unclear how many more staffers might have been interested in running for office but were unwilling to relinquish jobs considered lucrative and desirable.

It reached the point that AbuZayd felt compelled to remind staff that they were not supposed to be active partisans.

“I can well understand the questions raised by those who wonder why it is not possible to combine employment with UNRWA and active participation in local politics,” AbuZayd wrote in the Feb. 9 letter, which was posted atop the agency’s Web site for two weeks.

Given UNRWA’s status as a representative of the international community, she wrote, “We must at all times maintain a neutral and impartial attitude to events that surround us. This may be easier said than done, but it is crucial if we are to continue to enjoy the trust of so many different partners.”

In Washington, the issue of staffers-turned-political candidates drew the ire of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee.

A JTA inquiry led Kirk’s office to pursue the matter. UNRWA refused him details as well, citing its privacy policy, said Kirk, who sits on the Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

“For representatives of the people like me who actually sit on the committee that approves funding for UNRWA, to hear we can’t be told who’s leaving to run for what office indicates we need a much higher level of transparency to reassure taxpayers,” Kirk told JTA.

“If UNRWA were a private company, I could understand wanting to keep records confidential. But UNRWA is a public body funded by U.S. taxpayers.”

The Heritage Foundation — an influential conservative think-tank — recently called for a halt to U.S. funding until Washington investigates its spending practices, due to “a major risk that a Hamas-led P.A. will exploit UNRWA to further its anti-Israel agenda.”

Sitting on a panel March 5 entitled, “Has UNRWA outlived its mandate?” at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Kirk announced that he would author a bill requiring regular audits of UNRWA.

“What we hope to do is increase the level of transparency at UNRWA, so we can reassure U.S. taxpayers that money is being spent wisely and not being spent to support Hamas terrorism or their political agenda,” he said.

Kirk isn’t the only one who wants to hold UNRWA’s feet to the fire. Calls for reforms ratcheted up last fall after Israel’s Gaza withdrawal ushered in cautious optimism about the future. Some lobbied for the agency’s activities to be scaled down.

“The terrorism-breeding culture of poverty and dependency in the refugee camps must be brought to an end. Palestinian refugees should be encouraged to leave the camps and trained to assume normal, productive lives,” Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, told JTA. “If the oil-rich Arab states were willing to part with just a tiny sliver of their windfall profits, they could vastly improve the lives of these refugees.”

Indeed, while the United States, Canada and Europe together provide the lion’s share of UNRWA’s annual budget — now approaching $500 million — Arab governments combined contribute only 2 percent. Other groups, such as the “Syrian Arab Popular Committee for the Support of the Intifada and Resistance to the Zionist Enterprise” — innocuously referred to in UNRWA materials as the “Syrian Arab Popular Committee” — have given the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, mainly to rebuild suspected terrorists’ homes that Israel has destroyed.

Others call for UNRWA to be folded into UNHCR. AbuZayd, however, defends the existence of two separate U.N. refugee agencies.

The General Assembly “has decided that Palestine refugees’ unique political context requires a unique agency,” she told JTA.

In fact, UNRWA’s supporters say the reform calls are a smokescreen designed to distract attention from what they contend is Israel’s real agenda.

“Israel has accused UNRWA of a lot of issues, like involvement in terrorism, helping terrorism and such, but it’s been proven false,” says Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. “Israel and the U.S. basically want UNRWA to be abolished because they believe abolishing such a body will ultimately abolish the refugee issue itself, or at least make it only a theoretical issue.”

That’s unlikely. Even Israel and some of the agency’s harshest critics understand that if UNRWA were dismantled, the responsibility for refugee welfare would fall to the “occupying power” — which in the West Bank, at least, still means Israel.

That leaves Israel and its supporters urging UNRWA to steer clear of politics and just stick to its humanitarian role.

Despite the calls for reform, however, observers don’t expect any of the proposals to go anywhere.

First, UNRWA remains low on the U.S. agenda for overall U.N. reform. Second, with the Palestinian Authority’s ineptitude on display in the months since the Gaza withdrawal and now with Hamas’ ascension, some critics in Israel and Washington view UNRWA as a rare point of stability in a lawless region.

Finally, the U.N. General Assembly remains the greatest obstacle to any meaningful change. Altering UNRWA’s mandate would require two-thirds approval of the 191-member body, but the Arab-Muslim bloc’s automatic majority makes that almost impossible.

“I don’t think dramatic reform is realistic because for years it’s been a bargaining chip for the Arabs,” said one former Israeli diplomat, who requested anonymity since he still does Mideast-related work.

“UNRWA is not the problem; it’s the manifestation of the problem. The problem is the Palestinian and Arab leadership that has maintained the position of using the refugee issue as a political tool against Israel.”

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