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In the previous parts of this series, the history of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, has been traced from its origins as a genuine attempt to deal with a humanitarian crisis to a politicized agency whose continued existence helps ensure that the Palestinian refugee camps will remain in perpetuity, in order to use human suffering as a weapon against the state of Israel. Sadly, this has not been limited to figurative or political weapons, but to the decades-long terrorist campaigns against the Jewish State.
On October 4, 2004, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation TV interviewed United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees then-Commissioner-General Peter Hansen after Israel demanded a UN investigation into the agency and its chief. In response, Hansen blithely commented that:
“Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”
The statement was met with outrage not only in Canada, but in the United States, which has provided the lion’s share of UNRWA’s funding to date, including well over $100 million annually over the past decade. The statement also flouted a standing US law, namely Title 22, Section 2151 of the United States Code. Subsection c is entitled “Palestine refugees; considerations and conditions for furnishing assistance” and states that:
“No contributions by the United States shall be made to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East except on the condition that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”
On August 30, 2011, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and dozens of cosponsors in the United States House of Representatives introduced the bill H.R. 2829, “United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011.” Section 801 of the bill contains a number of findings about UNRWA, and not only that “Almost all of UNRWA’s almost 30,000 staff are Palestinian refugees themselves, presenting a clear conflict of interest” but that UNRWA contravenes U.S. law by completely failing to screen its personnel to determine if they are members “of Palestinian Foreign Terrorist Organizations such as Hamas, Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
As damning as the bill’s 15 pages of findings are, it could be argued that it understates UNRWA’s ties to Hamas in particular. In her 2009 Forbes.com article, “Gaza Bedfellows UNRWA And Hamas,” Claudia Rosett explained that following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, “UNRWA’s interests in Gaza are by now so entwined and, in many ways, so aligned with Hamas’ interests that it is often hard to tell them apart.”
And it would be a mistake to assume that UNRWA’s affiliation with Hamas marked any shift in how UNRWA interacts with terrorist organizations. On March 20, 2012, the informative blog Elder of Ziyon pointed out that the US was concerned with UNRWA’s terrorist ties back in 1966, when “Congressman H. B. Frelinghuysen and Senator Edward Kennedy both demanded that UNRWA stop giving food and other aid for any members of the Palestinian Liberation Army, the military wing of the PLO.”
But how does UNRWA see itself? Without any apparent sense of irony, its website claims that “UNRWA’s work exemplifies an international commitment to the human development of Palestine refugees” and that “UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees, and its contributions to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees. Originally envisaged as a temporary organisation, the Agency has gradually adjusted its programmes to meet the changing needs of the refugees.”
UNRWA is an entity that claims simultaneously that it is “a humanitarian agency” and not involved in the Middle East peace negotiations yet it somehow “highlights the international community’s obligation to provide a just and durable solution for Palestine refugees.” Joseph Deiss, President of the 65th session of the UN General Assembly, stated on December 7, 2010 that UNRWA is “the only major United Nations program that is a direct subsidiary of the General Assembly” and claimed that by mobilizing international assistance for UNRWA, “we are also reaffirming our commitment to the Middle East peace process.”
Merriam-Webster defines anomalous as “inconsistent with or deviating from what is usual, normal, or expected,” “of uncertain nature or classification” and “marked by incongruity or contradiction.” The history of UNRWA exemplifies all of these definitions. It was expected to be a temporary agency tasked with dealing with a single humanitarian crisis, but has endured for six decades and ensured that the refugees it was originally tasked to assist will never see a resolution to their plight until Israel surrenders its very existence as a Jewish state.
Perhaps Representative Ros-Lehtinen’s bill will achieve what previous Congressional actions could not – bring UNRWA at least partly back to being a humanitarian agency with a limited and apolitical mandate. Until and unless that occurs though, UNRWA will remain a politicized anomaly whose actual humanitarian work is dwarfed by the role it plays in perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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.