Save the UNRWA for Palestine Refugees

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“UNRWA is an organisation that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and the narrative of the right-of-return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel,” the Israeli leader said, adding the development agency needed “to pass from the world”.

The Trump administration is withholding more than half the funding that the United States generally has provided to a United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees, officials said Tuesday.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said the United States would provide $60 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency but would withhold $65 million “for future consideration.”

Ms. Nauert said that the decision was intended to encourage other countries to increase aid, as well as to promote reform at the relief agency — and that it was not intended to be a punitive move against Palestinians. But she refused to comment when asked if the funding shortfall was linked to President Trump’s threat on Jan. 2 to end the aid after Palestinian leaders said the United States should no longer play a role in peace talks with Israel.

The withholding was denounced by the Palestinians and welcomed by Israel. “Once again, the U.S. administration proves its complicity with the Israeli occupation by attempting to remove another permanent status issue off the table,” said Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency “has proven time and again to be an agency that misuses the humanitarian aid of the international community and instead supports anti-Israel propaganda, perpetuates the plight of Palestinian refugees and encourages hate.”

Mr. Trump has turned American policy sharply in favor of Israel and against the Palestinians. He has formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and threatened to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington.

The United States provided more than $355 million to support the relief agency’s 2016 operations, and also gave about $290 million last year to the Palestinians through the United States Agency for International Development. Altogether, the United States has provided about $5.2 billion in assistance to the Palestinians since 1994, a level of funding that is likely to be reduced in the coming years as the Trump administration works to cut foreign assistance.

Tuesday’s announced cut alarmed United Nations officials and aid groups that regard the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as a critical pillar of well-being for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza and in neighboring countries.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which works in more than 30 countries, urged the Trump administration to reconsider, saying that the funding reduction will have “devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.”

Israeli officials argue privately that UNRWA simply should not exist. They say Palestinian refugees should be defined and treated like any other refugee group around the world. They say UNRWA serves a Palestinian narrative fundamentally intolerant of Israel’s existence. They say UNRWA disseminates a relentless, one-sided, emotional and problematic message that is implicitly anti-Israel.

Supporters of Israel have repeatedly criticized the curriculum taught in UNRWA schools. Israel has charged in the past that UNRWA ambulances were abused by Hamas gunmen. It has charged that UNRWA employed Hamas members on its vast, 30,000-strong payroll (five times the staff of the UNHCR, with its global responsibilities), an allegation that one previous UNRWA commissioner-general seemed to acknowledge.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN Member States. UNRWA also receives some funding from the Regular Budget of the United Nations, which is used mostly for international staffing costs.

The Agency’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance and emergency assistance, including in times of armed conflict.


Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. The Agency began operations on 1 May 1950.

In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2017.


UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees. It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees, defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration.

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its areas of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

Why does this matter for peace? Because if millions of Arabs who are citizens of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, or inhabitants of Syria and Lebanon, claim to be refugees from what is today Israel, even though they were never born there and never lived there, and demand that as a result of this refugee status they be given the right to relocate to Israel (‘the right of return’), then the whole basis for peace by means of two states for two people crumbles. If Israel with its 6 million Jews and more than 1.5 million Arabs has to absorb between 5 and 8 million Palestinians then the Jews will be relegated again to living as a minority among those who do not view them as equals; the only country in which the Jews are a majority and can exercise their right to self-determination would be no more.

The critiques of UNRWA’s alleged role as a “perpetuator of the refugee situation” fail to grasp the fact that UNRWA’s work is consistent with established international refugee law and practice and that the Agency’s mandate to protect and assist refugees, as exclusively granted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, will remain in effect until its parent body decides otherwise.

UNRWA imposes the strictest standards of neutrality on its staff, beneficiaries, suppliers and installations that go well beyond those of many comparable organizations and even governments. From recruitment to separation there are a broad range of Agency processes and mechanisms to ensure staff neutrality. Every six months, staff names are checked against the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee list of terrorists and terrorist entities. There have been no matches. Annually lists of all staff are provided to, for example, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA conducts six-monthly checks of the names of all suppliers and other payees against the 1267 list. There have been no matches. With regard to UNRWA installations, in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, UNRWA’s Operations Support Officer Programme, a team of specially tasked officials, conducts regular installation inspections. The Agency protests armed incursions into its installations by the Israel Defense Force and Palestinian militants. There is a strict no weapons policy in UNRWA installations. Inappropriate conduct triggers Agency investigations and can result in the denial of discretionary assistance such as burial expenses, shelter rehabilitation or re-housing assistance. In addition, the gravest accusations made by UNRWA’s critics have been shown to be unfounded upon investigation. The repeated claim during the Gaza war that there were militants in our installations is perhaps the most notable high profile recent example.

All the above neutrality measures are underpinned by internal and external oversight and auditing. Moreover, we report regularly on all the above to our donors, including the United States who conduct their own regular reviews. The support for the work of UNRWA from the governments of the US and Israel speaks for itself.

Likewise, our curriculum and text books have been subjected to independent review. UNRWA in the West Bank and Gaza uses the books of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, which makes sense given that we are preparing students for public exams. A US State Department review of the text books used by UNRWA found them to be free of incitement, that the curriculum was “peaceful” and one in which “religious and political tolerance was emphasized”.

The other set of arguments advanced against UNRWA is based on the fanciful notion that UNRWA itself and its approach to its work are per se the reason for the continuing existence of Palestinian refugees. Therefore, as the false argument goes, Palestinian refugees and the issues they represent would disappear if UNRWA were dissolved and the refugees became the responsibility of another agency such as UNHCR. These notions have no foundation. They are contradicted by the established principles and practice of international law and by the realities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and its political context.

Like many other refugee populations, Palestinian refugees emerged from circumstances of armed conflict, forced displacement and dispossession of land. To the present day, and particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, their state of exile is compounded by human rights violations, intra-Palestinian tensions and economic deprivation. Palestinian refugees continue to be refugees because the issues which caused their exile remain outstanding. Only by addressing in a just and durable fashion the underlying causes of conflict — and by doing so in accordance with international law and the rights of refugees — can the refugee issue be laid to rest. This is the responsibility of the parties and international political actors. It is wishful, cynical thinking to suppose that Palestinian refugees can be made to “go away” by dispersing them around the globe or by dissolving the Agency established to protect and assist them pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

In addressing the Palestinian refugee issue, agencies and actors are guided by various considerations and frames of reference which are integral to the international framework of protecting and assisting refugees, including Palestinian refugees. These include established principles that are of universal application and must be observed by all, including UNRWA or any other agency or actor seized with the Palestinian refugee issue. Those who critique UNRWA’s role conveniently ignore these considerations.

In the context of seeking solutions to refugee situations, one such consideration is the importance refugees attach to voluntarily returning to the country from which they originally took flight. In the global context, voluntary repatriation is generally referred to as the “preferred choice” of refugees. A pertinent reference is Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”

Another relevant and universally recognized principle is that refugees and their dependants retain their status as refugees until such time that a just and lasting solution to their plight is realized. That some refugee situations (for example, the situation of groups of refugees from Western Sahara, Burundi, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan) are described as “protracted” reflects this recognition. Given that this principle (the principle of family unity”) is universally recognized and implemented, there is no basis to question the reality that Palestinian refugees have for generations been compelled by circumstances, to retain their refugee status. Such questions betray a lack of understanding of the international protection regime and serve only to distract from the need to address the real reasons for the protracted Palestinian refugee situation, namely the absence of negotiated solution to the underlying political issues.

Let me conclude by saying that UNRWA will continue to advocate for the full protection of the human rights of Palestinian refugees as required by UN resolutions and international law. We will continue to advocate for a resolution of their plight in the context of a just and lasting peace, agreed by the parties in consultation with the refugees, whose freely exercised and informed choices must be respected. It is the failure of the parties to reach such a peace that has led to the perpetuation of the refugee question, not UNRWA’s continued service provision, without which hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged people in the Middle East would be deprived of essential services – a situation that would hardly advance regional stability. Meanwhile, we will continue with our human development work in education, health, relief and social services, thus contributing to calm in the communities in which refugees live.

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