[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part I of a five-part series. See Part II, III, IV and V. For UNRWA’s post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]
NEW YORK (JTA) — As Washington and the West weigh a cutoff of aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency could become a crucial lifeline to millions of Palestinian refugees who depend on it for vital services.
But the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections have revived a long-standing Israeli concern: that some of UNRWA’s staff are members of Hamas, or at least sympathize with the terrorist group’s anti-Israel cause.
Israeli concerns were not eased by the fact that nine UNRWA staffers resigned to run for office in the late-January elections that Hamas swept, and another former staffer was named to serve as interior minister in the Hamas government. Furthermore, the nine candidates had to be firmly reminded, in a letter from the agency’s commissioner-general, that participating in Palestinian politics is incompatible with UNRWA’s ideal of neutrality.
To many supporters of Israel, however, UNRWA’s efforts in the region have rarely been impartial. During the Palestinian intifada, the agency routinely blamed Israel for bloodshed, eliding the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.”
Its one-sided criticism played a significant role in shaping international opinion against the Jewish state — helping to prolong the war, critics charge, by emboldening Palestinians to attack. UNRWA camps, including the infamous West Bank refugee camp that is part of Jenin, became engines of the intifada, with terrorists using them as bases from which to plan and carry out attacks — sheltering themselves, all the while, under the U.N.’s vaunted neutrality.
Tensions between UNRWA and Israel have lessened in the past year as the number of terrorist attacks, and concomitant Israeli reprisals, dropped significantly. But with many observers warning of an imminent resumption of the intifada, this time centered on the West Bank, whether UNRWA camps are again allowed to become incubators of terrorism may go a long way toward determining if peace will come to the Middle East.
It could also help determine if UNRWA’s Palestinian charges can become citizens of their own independent state, ending their decades-long status as refugees. At this critical juncture in the region, JTA takes a close look at the U.N. agency that for 56 years has helped ensure Palestinian refugees’ basic survival — yet also, some say, has helped make the Palestinian refugee issue one of the most intractable and incendiary political problems on Earth.
Following Hamas’ electoral victory and the West’s threat to choke off financial assistance, UNRWA is poised to play an even more critical role. The majority of Palestinians living in Gaza, and a sizeable portion in the West Bank, are registered refugees and recipients of some form of UNRWA services.
Officials in Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem all say they don’t want to harm humanitarian aid. Indeed, in response to a bleak forecast about Gaza and the West Bank, the European Union on Feb. 27 offered $144 million in aid to the Palestinians, $76 million of it earmarked for UNRWA.
UNRWA lists 4.3 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East, including 1.6 million in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where it operates 27 refugee camps. Not all of the refugees live in the camps, which long ago evolved from tent cities into dilapidated, densely packed urban neighborhoods.
For more than half a century, UNRWA has provided the refugees with food, jobs, shelter, medicine, healthcare and education. The agency runs schools, health clinics and housing, operating as a virtual statelet within the Palestinian Authority.
UNRWA was the main source of sustenance during the intifada in Gaza, where three-quarters of the coastal strip’s 1.3 million residents are registered as refugees and a half-million live in eight cramped, sprawling UNRWA camps. Others live in the immediate environs.
At the same time, UNRWA has done nothing to help resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. In contrast to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, the agency responsible for the world’s 19.2 million other refugees, UNRWA is not tasked with helping to resettle Palestinian refugees, but merely with providing services.
Critics, however, say UNRWA has served to exacerbate the problem by taking sides in a highly politicized conflict, and by allowing its camps to become bastions of militarism.
Nothing illustrates how UNRWA’s approach impacts both Israel and the agency’s own clientele better than the events in the Jenin refugee camp during spring 2002, a particularly bloody period of the intifada.
Some Palestinians had nicknamed the place “the suicide bomber’s capital,” and Palestinians and Israelis alike knew the Jenin camp as a major hub for terrorists to recruit, plan and launch attacks against Israel.
Everyone knew except for UNRWA — or at least, the agency said little publicly about the terrorist activity in its midst. On March 27, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself in the dining room of Netanya’s Park Hotel, killing 29 Israelis at a Passover seder.
That attack, which capped a month of mounting casualties, came to be known as the “Passover Massacre.” Israel responded with one of its largest anti-terror operations of the intifada, including a two-week assault on the Jenin refugee camp that leveled the camp’s center.
Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fierce, close-range battle, Israel’s largest military death toll during more than four years of the intifada.
The Palestinians, their supporters and much of the world media branded the battle a “massacre,” claiming that some 500 Palestinians had been killed.
Peter Hansen, UNRWA’s head at the time, helped stoke the flames. First he urged Israel to “end this pitiless assault on civilian refugee camps.”
Then, after the smoke had cleared, Hansen proclaimed, in an UNRWA news release widely quoted by the media, “I had hoped the horror stories of Jenin were exaggerated and influenced by the emotions engaged, but I am afraid these were not exaggerated and that Jenin camp residents lived through a human catastrophe that has few parallels in recent history.”
Hansen never recanted, yet his comments were quickly exposed as a wild distortion: A U.N. probe itself later determined that 52 Palestinians were killed — corroborating Israel’s estimate — and noted that “up to half may have been civilians.”
That wording downplayed the flipside: The other half were armed combatants whose presence represented a breach of U.N. resolutions and international law. Indeed, the media widely ignored the U.N. report’s fine print: “According to both Israeli and Palestinian sources, there were 200 armed men in the camp at the time.”
The battle of Jenin was illuminating on many levels — showing not only how UNRWA helps heap international calumny on Israel, but also how the agency’s laxity toward the militancy in its camps helps bring catastrophe upon the very population UNRWA is duty-bound to assist.
“UNRWA has not been ambivalent about the manner in which the refugee camps, and the civilian population within them, have been cynically and callously used in the intifada,” said Harry Reicher, an international law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the former U.N. representative for Agudath Israel World Organization.
“UNRWA has actively become complicit,” Reicher said, by allowing “conversion of civilians into human shields, protecting terrorists and arms. They’re protected by UNRWA, knowing full well that no condemnation will come from them, and that if Israel takes strong steps, it is Israel that will be condemned, by UNRWA as well as others.”
In defending itself, UNRWA tends to take responsibility only for what occurs within its facilities, such as its schools, health clinics and food-distribution centers.
That allows it to wash its hands, for example, of Hamas’ new Al-Aksa TV station — located in a mosque in UNRWA’s Jabalya refugee camp, a site that offers a double layer of political protection from Israeli attack.
UNRWA notes that its mandate for what goes on in its camps is limited.
“The agency has never been given any mandate to administer, supervise or police the refugee camps or to have any jurisdiction or legislative power over the refugees or the areas where they lived,” the agency’s Web site (http://www.unrwa.org) says.
“The agency has no police force, no intelligence service and no mandate to report on political and military activities. This responsibility has always remained with the host countries and Israel, who maintained law and order, including within refugee camps.”
The U.N. General Assembly — dominated by Arab and Muslim states, and long hostile to Israel — has never done anything to sharpen UNRWA’s role.
Both the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations and the U.N. mission for the 22-member League of Arab States declined to comment for this series.