The relations between Israel and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) have known ups and downs. It’s a story that features familiar UN politics, and most of all, plenty of money.
A few weeks ago, UNRWA officials decided to call off summer camps for Gaza Strip children. Israeli officials raised an eyebrow. Every year, the organization runs a loud campaign regarding the need for Gaza summer camps, Israel’s indifference that prevents the transfer of “summer camp goods” and the risk that children will end up turning to radical Islamic camps. Yet summer arrived and UNRWA is silent. The summer camps evaporated, along with the campaigns.
I approached the agency recently and asked what happened. They said they ran out of money but asked that I won’t quote the conversation or mention any names. And who’s at fault according to UNRWA? Everyone. The occupation, the blockade, the donors who cut down their aid, and mostly us, the Israelis, who prompted UNRWA to spend so much money to the point where nothing was left of the agency’s annual billion dollar budget.
The problem is that this very same organization that called off Gaza summer camps recently started to invest large sums of money in monitoring the security fence; the same fence that on July 9, 2004 was declared illegal by the UN, while suicide bombers were making their way into Israel.
The original sin
So what does a refugee agency have to do with a fence that goes through east Jerusalem and area C, and what does the fence have to do with monitoring Bedouins, water, and agriculture in Judea and Samaria? That’s a good question. UNRWA officials decided this is their job, and with relative ease considering the apparent difficulties faced by the organization came up with the funding for setting up a unit tasked with monitoring the fence and its surroundings.
In order to understand the paradox, one should go back to the starting point. Following the War of Independence in 1949, the organization was formed temporarily in order to settle some 700,000 Palestinians who fled under the guise of Arab states’ pledges to destroy Israel. It was a stormy period, millions of refugees were roaming the world in the wake of World War II, and UN officials decided to rectify the situation.
One hand established UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while the other hand formed UNRWA, whose aim was identical, yet the target audience was Palestinian. The original sin started there. While the main agency managed to settle more than 25 million refugees in new countries within a short period of time, cut down the lists and minimize costs, UNRWA failed in every direction it tried. Arab states displayed their famous solidarity with the Palestinians and refused to take them in, and UNRWA officials fell in love with their position.
By the early 1950s there were no more pretenses. Instead of resolving the problem, UNRWA decided to perpetuate it. As opposed to the laws of nature and official policy, refugee lists started to grow, and along with them so did the organization’s budget and apparatus. The status of refugee was freely passed on from one generation to another, to the point where nearly five million satisfied clients signed up with UNRWA.
The main incentive: Money
The main incentive was money, and everyone enjoyed the arrangement: UNRWA employees and also the refugees, who received allowances and free support from the rich uncles overseas. And what about the organization’s mandate? It became somewhat vague: Caring for the refugees wherever they live.
From there, the road to issues involving fences and politics was short. The mandate changes every three years, monitoring it is difficult, and it can be interpreted in various ways. “We don’t determine the mandate,” one UNRWA manager told me. “The General Assembly determines it, while we act and develop.”
And so, I embarked on a search for the updated mandate in order to understand the direction, yet UNRWA’s website features no mandate, and the UN website links to UNRWA. Eventually I was directed to an academic paper by Lance Bartholomeusz, head of the International Law Division at UNRWA’s Department of Legal Affairs. In the absence of another source, the writer explains that his organization has a mandate to deal with Palestinian refugees, but also with people uprooted after 1967, with local communities cut off by the fence, and with people who were not originally refugees.
In other words, the definition is broad enough to include every Palestinian. Given the fact that UNRWA recently approved family reunification, which grants refugee status to those marrying the female descendent of refugees, we shall soon reach the day where all Palestinians will become refugees, and then UNRWA will officially hold up the banner of resistance.