Even the head of UNRWA admits it should not exist

By Adi Schwartz, November 26, 2010
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How useful: an attempt to break the record for basketball bouncing in Rafah, organised by UNRWA

How useful: an attempt to break the record for basketball bouncing in Rafah, organised by UNRWA

Not many people in the West are familiar with the acronym UNRWA. But they should be: first, because Europeans and Americans pay billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to sustain this UN agency; and second, because of UNRWA's negative role in one of the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict - namely, the Palestinian refugees problem.

I had the chance to raise some of the most troubling aspects of UNRWA with its head of operations in Gaza, John Ging. In a series of meetings and through email correspondence, we discussed first and foremost its mere existence. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was established by the General Assembly in 1949. For some reason, the UN decided that the Palestinians would be the only ethnic group to have a special agency - and all the rest, tens of millions of refugees around the world, are taken care of by another agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

While UNHCR's main task is to resettle refugees - and its success is measured accordingly - UNRWA is dealing solely with welfare and education. While in all other cases the number of refugees diminishes with time, the number of Palestinian refugees has grown sevenfold from 700,000 in 1949 to 4.8 million today.

One reason for that is the unique way in which UNRWA defines a Palestinian refugee. Throughout the world, a refugee who receives a new citizenship in another country is no longer considered a refugee. Palestinian refugees, however, enjoy UNRWA's services even after receiving new citizenship (as is the case with two million Palestinians in Jordan). In addition, UNRWA widened the definition of a refugee to include descendants of refugees, so that every newborn baby - forever - is considered to be a refugee.

Commendably, Mr Ging admitted that UNRWA "shouldn't exist after so many years", adding that he perfectly understands the Israeli negative view of his agency. But he fell short of addressing the most important issue.

The Gaza Strip, where Mr Ging is positioned, is under Palestinian rule. By not resettling the refugees, I argued, UNRWA is not assuming a neutral role but hampering any chance of agreement, since every reasonable person understands that Israel will never be able to accept millions of refugees. Still, when I asked Mr Ging if he ever approached Hamas to initiate resettlement projects, he said: "Why would I do that? This is not our mandate."

UNRWA - the representative of the family of nations - is thus serving the most radical stream of thought in Palestinian and Arab circles, where the view that any peaceful solution should be avoided unless all refugees realize their "right of return" is promoted.

Tragically, it is not Iran or Hizbollah who sponsor UNRWA, but Western governments, even though the outcome is hardly in their interest. The UK alone has donated UNRWA £218 million in the past decade, and more if you take into account its contribution through the EC's overall donation (an additional £805 million). And in 2009, the UK contributed to UNRWA's budget 50 per cent more than Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Qatar and Oman together.

All this money did not serve the goal of achieving a solution. In fact, the Palestinian refugees problem is being perpetuated and even made worse. Isn't it time for a change?

Adi Schwartz is an independent investigative journalist based in Tel Aviv. The full interview with Mr Ging is at www.adi-schwartz.com/blog

    Last updated: 11:04am, November 26 2010