Part I of this series showed how the United Nations sought to provide for refugees resulting from Israel’s independence and successful defense against its attacking neighboring states by creating a specialized refugee works and relief agency. This agency in question is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, better known since as UNRWA. As originally envisioned, UNRWA was meant to specifically address a humanitarian crisis; unfortunately it was soon politicized and turned into both a peculiar entity and a lasting barrier to peace.
But when did UNRWA start to become a political tool against Israel? Reasonable guesses might include in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 or during the rise of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or OAPEC’s “oil weapon” in the 1970s, but in fact the seeds were planted during UNRWA’s early years in the 1950s.
When UNRWA was created by UN Resolution 302 (IV) on December 8, 1949, the resolution stated that, “without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, continued assistance for the relief of the Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability…”
Resolution 194 (III) was a nonbinding resolution entitled “Palestine-Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator,” and dealt with a number of plans that never came into being, such as the proposal that Jerusalem and surrounding places should be placed under UN control and internationalized. However, the real point of the resolution was to establish a Conciliation Commission, consisting of the United States, France and Turkey, which was never able to accomplish anything.
Paragraph 11 is noteworthy in and of itself as the basis of the so-called Palestinian “right of return” that was used by Yassir Arafat to reject Ehud Barak’s comprehensive peace plan in 2001 after which he launched the Second Intifada. It reads as follows
- “11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;
- Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations;”
It is clear that Paragraph 11 dealt with larger political issues of the sort that a mediator or conciliation commission would normally consider in their attempts to end a conflict. It is equally clear that these are issues that should be unconnected to an emergency fund that was established to provide assistance to refugees. Accordingly, the earliest resolutions that dealt with UNRWA prominently stated that its function was “without prejudice” to Paragraph 11; UNRWA’s mission was a separate matter that was not intended to have any bearing on Paragraph 11.
By 1954, however, Paragraph 11 started playing a pivotal role. That year’s Resolution 818 (IX), entitled “Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,” began by noting the director of UNRWA’s annual report, followed it by noting “that repatriation or compensation of the refugees, as provided for in paragraph 11 of resolution 194 (III), has not been effected and that the situation of the refugees continues to be a matter of grave concern,” and then requested that UNRWA not only continue to consult with the Conciliation Commission “in the best interest of their respective tasks” but to do so “with particular reference to paragraph 11 of resolution 194 (III).”
By 1958, the annual Report, Resolution 1315 (XII), did not merely note that Paragraph 11 “had not been effected,” but noted it “with regret.” In 1961, Resolution 1604 (XV) began noting the same with “with deep regret,” and completely dropped the clause “without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948.”
Within 10 years, UNRWA’s mission had shifted dramatically from providing much-needed assistance to refugees in order “to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability” to arguing that “the situation of the refugees continues to be a matter of serious concern” not because of starvation or distress, but because “repatriation or compensation” and “reintegration of refugees either by repatriation or resettlement” had not occurred.
Of course resettlement never occurred, aside from the Jewish refugees taken in by the State of Israel – the League of Arab States made certain of that. As for UNRWA, its role within the Arab-Israeli Conflict would only grow darker with the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 and its subsequent terror campaign against Israel.
Part III of this article will address how UNRWA grew to see itself as an “advocate” for the Palestinian cause, a thoroughly political viewpoint that has led to providing resources to the PLO in the 1960s and working closely with Hamas in the present day.
About the author
Aaron Eitan Meyer
Aaron Eitan Meyer is a consultant, analyst and researcher. He is legal correspondent for the Terror Finance Blog, an advisory board member for the digital advocacy group Act for Israel and a member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ Noncommercial Users Constituency. He has served as research director of The Lawfare Project, director of research for the Children’s Rights Institute, and assistant director of the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum. He received his B.A. from New School University, and his J.D. from Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. He coauthored Lawfare: The War Against Free Speech: A First Amendment Guide for Reporting in an Age of Islamist Lawfare, as well as numerous articles dealing with lawfare, terrorism/terror finance, and other emerging concepts in non-traditional warfare.