CNN Errs on UNRWA’s Refugee Definition, Downplays Scandals


CNN Corrects

After CAMERA informed CNN of the erroneous claim the UNRWA definition and the number of people who fit it, CNN corrected its piece so that it now clarifies that the figure includes the original refugees and their descendants. See below for a detailed update.

In a January 29 CNN article entitled “What we know about Israel’s allegations against UN staffers in Gaza,” the network gets it wrong when it comes to definitions of Palestinian “refugees.” The authors (Sophie Tanno, Hira Humayun, Richard Roth, Heather Chen, and Alex Marquardt) also fail to capture the extent of the scandals plaguing UNRWA, the refugee agency for Palestinians.

Begin with the definitional error. The article states:

The organization characterizes Palestinian refugees as any “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 War.” Those who fit that definition now number 5.9 million, made up largely of the descendants of original refugees.

This statement is not true, since the definition says nothing of descendants, who would clearly not fit that definition provided.

The figure of 5.9 million instead reflects the UNRWA definition of “refugees” as changed over the years to automatically include all descendants of "Palestine refugee males.” UNRWA’s website itself acknowledges this, albeit quietly. Worth noting, this is unique to Palestinians. No other group on earth is allowed to have their descendants automatically given “refugee” status.

The real number of Palestinians who would fit the definition, according to a post by then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following a State Department study, is less than 200,000, not 5.9 million.

CNN’s article is also misleading in another way. It fails to capture the extent of the scandals plaguing UNRWA. The authors commendably report the most recent development, namely the revelation that at least twelve UNRWA staffers were involved in the October 7 massacre in southern Israel.

They omit, however, an even more important revelation: that approximately 10% of the agency’s 12,000-plus employees are linked with internationally designated terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Similarly, CNN’s website appears devoid of any mention of the UNRWA staff Telegram channel, documented and exposed by UN Watch, rife with incitement and glorification of terrorism by UNRWA employees, including celebrating the October 7 massacre. Notably, rather than take the issue seriously, the United Nations responded by trying to insult the organization that produced the evidence.

Nor does CNN mention the many documented instances in which terrorist infrastructure and weaponry have been found inside or underneath UNRWA institutions, a fact which the United Nations has lied about as recently as earlier this month. There is no mention of the fact that a former UNRWA union head was fired only after it was publicly exposed that he was a Hamas political leader, and that the former UNRWA Gaza director was removed from his position simply because he admitted Israeli strikes were precise during the May 2021 Israel-Hamas war. During the current war, there have also been documented instances of terrorists firing from UNRWA facilities.

The long, documented history of UNRWA schools teaching content that incites terrorism and hatred is also omitted.

This history is important context for CNN’s audience. It would inform them that this is not an isolated incident of bad behavior at UNRWA. It explains why so many countries are now suspending aid to the agency, given its long record of bad behavior.

Instead, CNN’s Newsroom resorted to bringing in former UNRWA Director-General Christopher Gunness, who oversaw many of these scandals, to whitewash the agency’s bad behavior. Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of the issue, Gunness implied the revelations were a “political attack” timed with the International Court of Justice proceedings, presumably to take attention away.

Given CNN’s fondness for investigations, one is left to wonder: why isn’t CNN devoting any substantial effort to holding UNRWA to account by asking the hard questions of the agency?

Update: CNN Corrects

After CAMERA informed CNN that the original UNRWA definition of a refugee, which was quoted in the article, had been expanded in subsequent years to automatically include descendants of Palestinian refugees, the network updated the language to clarify the definition and the numbers the article had assigned to that definition.

The network published the following correction:

This article has been updated to clarify the definition of who qualifies for UNRWA aid.

The language now reads:

The organization characterizes Palestinian refugees as any “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 War.” Those who fit that definition and their descendants now number 5.9 million, all of whom are considered eligible for UNRWA support.

We commend CNN for the correction.

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