The New York Times’ Sanitized Profile of UNRWA

“What is Unrwa, and how would a cut in American aid affect its work with more than five million Palestinian refugees?” The New York Times ostensibly sets out to answer these questions in the wake of statements by President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley which raised the prospect of substantial cuts in American aid to Palestinians. The Jan. 3 article by Megan Specia (“What is Unrwa and What Would It Mean if Trump Cuts Its Funding?“), however, whitewashes the United National Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), obscuring both the disproportionate benefits that this unique UN agency enjoys along with some unflattering facts. 

First, regarding the figure of five million Palestinian refugees, at no point does Specia explain that the United Nations applies a very unique definition to Palestinian refugees which does not apply to any other population in the world. According to UNRWA, those eligible to receive funding from the agency meet the following criteria:

These are 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. Palestine Refugees, and descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are eligible to register for UNRWA services. (Emphasis added.)

UNRWA’s expansive UNRWA definition of what constitutes a refugee, in which the status carries on to the next generation, is contradicted by the 1951Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in which descendants of refugees are not considered to be refugee:

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The unique status granted to the descendants of Palestinian refugees is the reason why the population figures expanded from hundreds of thousands in 1948 to some five million today. Were the usual definition of refugee to be applied to Palestinians, so that only those who actually fled or were expelled in 1948 were to qualify, the figure would shrink from 5 million to around 30,000.

Moreover, as the Times article correctly notes, “Palestinians are the only refugee group whose support is not handled under the broader mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” Specia, however, fails to note that UNRWA, which cares for the needs of just one population group — the Palestinians — enjoys a larger staff than UNHCR with cares for all other refugee populations in the entire world. Thus, UNHCR, which is tasked with dealing with the world’s refugees (aside from Palestinians) in 110 countries, has a staff of less than 7,000, according to latest available figures. In contrast, UNRWA, which is responsible only for Palestinian refugees has over 30,000 employees, making it the largest employer of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza after the Palestinian Authority itself. The disproportionate resources allocated to Palestinian refugees compared to all of the refugees from the rest of the world, combined, is highly relevant to understanding UNRWA and what cuts would mean for the organization, the topic The Times is purportedly investigating. 

“The agency has never been involved in peace negotiations and has instead focused its attention on humanitarian efforts throughout the Middle East in areas where the largest numbers of displaced Palestinians are concentrated,” averred The Times reporter, ignoring critics who argue that UNRWA is responsible for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, as opposed to working to bringing it to an end, which would be the ultimate humanitarian step.

As Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, stated in The Tower (“The Real Palestinian Refugee Crisis“):

At the same time, its activities go well beyond simple humanitarianism. It plays a distinctly political role in Palestinian society, working to further the cause of Palestinian nationalism through politicized education, activism, anti-Israel propaganda, and other activities.

James Lindsay, a former UNRWA official, has also argued that far from sticking to a strictly humanitarian mission, the agency actively seeks to advance Palestinian political rights (“Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees“). He described how UNRWA dispensed with its original mission to work towards reintegration in the late 1950s, and engaged in political activity. He cited, for example, the participation, in contravention of U.N. rules, of UNRWA staff  in the 1964 Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem, an event which saw the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Following the 1967 war, UNRWA , together with Palestinian leaders, lobbied for a U.N. presence in the West Bank and Gaza. 

As Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe wrote:

Since its inception in 1950, UNRWA has worked against resettlement in Arab countries where Palestinians are located. It has done so by shifting its mission from refugee relief to education, devising its own expanded definitions of who is a refugee, and expanding its legal mandates to “protect” and re
present refugees. As a result, the Palestinian clients of UNRWA have gradually taken over the organization and have undermined an international relief effort, created in naïve good faith, under the auspices of the UN General Assembly.

“Israel has regularly feuded with the organization,” writes Specia, “as it rejects the Palestinian demand for a right of return for the refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Indeed, the insistence on the so-called “right of return” is a political position, not a humanitarian act, and is tantamount to interference with peace negotiations, especially given that UNRWA schools indoctrinate the next generations to expect they will return to the grandparents’ homes, regardless of Specia’s assertion that the agency “has never been involved with peace negotiations.” 

UNRWA Incitement

Israel’s objection to the U.N. agency isn’t limited to its demand for the so-called “right of return.” With maps showing Palestine from the river to the sea, UNRWA textbooks teach rejection of Israel and its teachers engage in antisemitic incitement and advocated violence. (Last April, UNRWA employees and parents committees in UNRWA schools, along with Hamas, objected to plans to eliminate the anti-Israel incitement from the UNRWA textbooks, and that material apparently remains.)A February 2017 report by UN Watch, “Poisoning Palestinian Children,” shows “40 alarming new cases of UNRWA school teachers in in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria whose Facebook pages incite to Jihadist terrorism and antisemitism, including by posting Holocaust-denying videos and pictures celebrating Hitler.” 

Specia reported that “[m]ore than 500,000 children are taught in 700 Urnwa-run schools across the Middle East, according to the agency,” but said not one word about the anti-Israel incitement being taught in those schools. Nor did she note the antisemitic and pro-Jihadi messages being disseminated by UNRWA’s own teachers.

In June, UN Watch called out Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s chief, for a major fundraising campaign which used images of Syrian girl in desolate surroundings, falsely identifying her as a Gazan victim of Israel. Times’ “What is UNRWA?” does not breathe a word about any of the agency’s bad-acting, a major source of ire against the organization. 

Shelter for Rockets

Also ignored was the fact that, on numerous occasions, UNRWA facilities were used to store rockets. Referring to exactly those time periods, Specia writes:

At times its role is as basic as providing a safe space for civilians. Much in the same way that other United Nations facilities have become a haven in times of active conflict, an Unrwa school was used by thousands of civilians seeking shelter during the 2014 Gaza war.

Why does she fail to mention that also Hamas rockets found shelter in UNRWA facilities during that conflict? In at least one instance, Israel accused the U.N. agency of turning over the discovered rockets to Hamas. (For its part, UNRWA insisted that it gave the weapons to “local authorities” which the unity government, backed by Hamas, and led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.)

See also: “The Washington Post Whitewashes UNRWA