Debates just aren’t what they used to be. A case in point, on April 24th the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC presented a panel discussion entitled UNRWA at 60: The United Nations and the Palestinian Refugees. The event was co-sponsored with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Friends of UNRWA.
The notice posted on Wilson Center’s website promised those attending the talk would be presented with a “panel [that] will offer participants the opportunity to debate one of the most interesting foreign policy subjects. The 60th anniversary of UNRWA is an occasion to reflect upon the contribution that the Agency has made to the prosperity and stability of the Middle East. UNRWA has served four generations of Palestinian refugees.”
The panelists were Karen Koning AbuZayd Commissioner-General, UNRWA, Ali Abunimah, Palestinian-American journalist, and Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. President, Foundation for Middle East Peace. The moderator was former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller, now a Public Policy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center and is considered by most accounts to be a far leftist Jewish scholar sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause.
Alas, this was a one-sided discussion on a highly politicized topic by distinguished advocates for the maintaining the status of Palestinians as everlasting Refugees maintained by UNRWA.
It is obviously a concern that the Wilson Center, a reputable academic institution that prides itself on being non-partisan, would host such a one-sided debate.
Enter James Lindsay, who served as a legal advisor for UNRWA from 2000 to 2007 and as the general counsel from 2002. In his role, he oversaw all UNRWA legal activities, from aid contracts to relations with Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.
Until recently, Lindsay was the Aufzien fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and under their auspices he published a report entitled Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees. This is the first time an UNRWA insider has broken the code of silence and exposed the problems of the organization from within. Lindsay's report warns that UNRWA has deteriorated dramatically since its establishment. Among other charges Lindsay states that UNRWA offers services to those who not actually in need of them; “No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.”
Had the Wilson Center sought out Lindsay then we would have been presented with a more even handed presentation, possibly even an actual debate. After some back and forth with the organizers, it was not to be.
Anyone who knows something about UNRWA and the call for a Palestinian right of return knows that this discussion within the academic hallways is based on a highly specific reading of history, one that assumes an Israeli responsibility for creating the refugee problem via “ethnic cleansing.” Restitution from the allegedly guilty party involves the return of the refugees and their descendants.
To an outsider, UNRWA seems a humanitarian group helping Palestinian refugees. In reality, it helps destroy the chances of Arab-Israeli peace, promotes terrorism, and holds Palestinians back from rebuilding their lives.
Long ago UNRWA schools became hotbeds of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Semitic indoctrination, and recruiting offices for terrorist groups. The vast majority of UNRWA's employees are Palestinian, and local offices are dominated by radicals who staff and subsidize radical groups while potentially intimidating anyone from voicing a different line. UNRWA facilities are used to store and transport weapons, and have actually served as military bases.
In this process, UNRWA has broken all the rules that are presumed to govern humanitarian enterprises, encouraging their resettlement, avoiding political stances, and putting refugees in danger. But by design, UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee relief operations, such as those orchestrated by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. UNHCR seeks to resettle refugees; UNRWA is dedicated to blocking resettlement in favor of the ‘right of return.’
UNHCR helps refugees to restore normal lives elsewhere so that they can move on with their existence; UNRWA's role is to ensure Palestinian lives remain abnormal, inevitably filled with anger and a thirst for revenge that inspires violence and which can only be quenched by a victorious return. UNHCR try to create stable conditions for refugees; UNRWA’s de facto mission is to enable radical political activity and indoctrination by armed groups which ensures a continual state of near chaos.
Furthermore, if we are truly concerned about the well being of Palestinian society there are few things we should strive for. Now that more and more policy-makers and individuals are aware of UNRWA’s problems, how do we significantly decrease the hold UNRWA has on Palestinian society? If we are to work towards improving the environment in which Palestinians reside in and work towards the creation of institutions that will foster civil society and promote some element of democratization, all the services UNRWA currently provides to the Palestinians should be handed over to parallel agencies within the UN, who already provide duplicate services for other UN beneficiaries. Gradually weaning Palestinians off UNRWA and moving the inter-dependency from UNRWA to the Palestinian Authority must be the ultimate goal.
UNRWA in its current configuration is a liability for many reasons. For one, by granting its employees U.N. diplomatic status, it undercuts the organization’s accountability. Too many UNRWA workers have abused their diplomatic privilege to engage in or encourage terrorism. Television crews have filmed UNRWA employees escorting armed Palestinian fighters in U.N. vehicles. Agency-operated - and, by extension, America-funded - schools decorate their classrooms with flags and banners celebrating terrorist groups. All this must stop if we ever want to see any kind of change in addition, to calling for accountability as well as checks and balances from those agencies we finance.
A principal policy issue for the United States will be how to aid in mobilizing donors, both public and private, for a financial infusion of aid resources to finance refugee compensation (and resettlement, immigration, and rehabilitation) as well as the permanent status agreement in general. All of this must be done outside the UNRWA framework.
All and all, our tax dollars would be better spent promoting independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth. UNRWA does not work towards a resolution. In fact, the opposite is true. UNRWA perpetuates the problem.