The continued existence of the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has played a key role in the Arab-Israeli Conflict for decades, but not necessarily a positive one. In fact, the title of a 2008 Jonathan Spyer piece puts UNRWA’s role succinctly into perspective: UNRWA: Barrier to Peace. Yet UNRWA was not always a case study in how the UN can be manipulated against the State of Israel.
Part I covers UNRWA’s possibly surprising origins, while Part II addresses how the UN and international principles alike have been used to perpetuate the war against Israel between and during wars, using UNRWA’s politicization as the case study.
A genuine humanitarian crisis arose in the months that followed Israel’s independence in 1948 and the subsequent attack on the fledgling state by its neighbors, one that quickly proved beyond the capabilities of voluntary aid societies like the Red Cross and the Quakers. On November 19, 1948, the General Assembly passed Resolution 212 (III), which not only authorized emergency funds to be allocated to alleviate “conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestine refugees,” but stated that this action “is one of the minimum conditions for the success of the efforts of the United Nations to bring peace to that land.”
Little more than a year later on December 8, 1949, the UN General Assembly decided that a temporary agency was required to create relief and works programs and established UNRWA with Resolution 302 (IV). In 1951, the General Assembly passed Resolution 393, which created a specific fund to facilitate reintegration as a means of reestablishing refugees and removing them from relief programs.
As the first Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Walter Eytan wrote in his 1958 memoir The First Ten Years, “It [the General Assembly] did not wish the refugees to drag out an idle and demoralized existence on relief; it wanted them to be ‘reintegrated.’” Unfortunately, “If the Assembly’s intention was not in doubt, the Arab states were determined not to heed it. They refused, as they have refused to this day, to co-operate in projects of reintegration.”
In the early 1950s UNRWA provided critical assistance to a number of actual registered refugees, to the extent that as Eytan wrote, “In the [Egypt-controlled] Gaza area, where there are some 60,000 near-destitute Arabs who are not refugees, the contrast between them and the refugees maintained by the United Nations is particularly striking.” But reintegration was not to be, “as a result of the United Nations’ inability to overcome the political opposition of the Arab states.”
Sadly, UNRWA never successfully achieved reintegration, with a single exception. In 1952 the Annual Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East noted that on June 30, 1952 UNRWA was able to close one of its major field offices after the host country agreed to reintegrate its 19,000 registered refugees. That office had been located in Haifa, Israel.
Tragically, Walter Eytan’s words written in 1958 to describe UNRWA’s early failures hold true over a half-century later: “The international community tried to see to it that the refugees were kept alive until the day they could cease to be refugees. The Arab states have seen to it that the refugee problem has been kept alive, and that day should never dawn.”
Part II of this article will explain how UNRWA itself was turned into an avenue of attack against the State of Israel.