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[The following response appeared in JTA on April 10, 2006, in response to my five-part series on UNRWA. To read about the Rockower Award garnered for the series, click here.]

By Karen Koning AbuZayd

UNITED NATIONS, April 4 — The series of articles posted on the JTA web site 16 March testifies to the interest that UNRWA elicits.

The articles are well-researched, inter alia thanks to the extensive contacts between author Michael Jordan and UNRWA’s liaison office in New York. UNRWA attempted to respond to all the queries he had, and the articles reflect an understanding of most of the issues addressed.

While it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain the provenance of the information in the series since it often is attributed to anonymous “sources” or “critics,” the analysis provided is well-reasoned, if not always balanced.

But the approach appears to obscure the main thrust of UNRWA’s role and activities. We are here to provide education, health and related services to a largely destitute population of Palestine refugees in the region.

In doing so, I believe the agency has played a significant role in contributing to stability while imbuing the refugees we serve with a sense of purpose and hope. Against heavy odds, most of the refugees have managed to better their lives and become productive participants in the local economy.

What UNRWA does not do, as I made clear in an interview, is administer or supervise the camps. We have maintained the provision of our services in difficult (and sometimes quite dangerous) circumstances thanks to the resilience and commitment of our staff, and I am proud of the fact that almost all are refugees themselves.

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[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.

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[The following appeared in JTA on March 15, 2006, as Part IV of a five-part series. See Part I, II, III and V. For UNRWA's post-publication response, click here. And for the Rockower Award announcement, click here.]

NEW YORK (JTA) — Armed gunmen roamed freely in United Nations refugee camps. They stockpiled weapons, recruited refugees and launched cross-border attacks. In response, opposing forces attacked the camps, aiming for the gunmen — but sometimes cutting down civilians in the process.

The international community was troubled both by the instability fomented and the thought of the beleaguered refugees — exploited within the camps, denied a truly safe haven, then caught in the crossfire.

So the United Nations took action. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a pair of landmark reports singling out the militarization of refugee camps as a cause of conflict and insecurity.

He called for the “separation of armed elements from refugee populations” to maintain the camps’ civilian character. And he outlined several steps to police the camps. The U.N. Security Council followed suit in 1998 with Resolution 1208, defending the sanctity of refugee camps and criminalizing their militarization.

What was the source of this international concern — the Palestinian camps in Gaza and the West Bank? No, it was Africa in the mid-1990s, when civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and elsewhere unleashed torrents of refugees across the continent.

To defenders of Israel, the scenario described above sounds familiar. They question why the world body has never applied Resolution 1208 to the 27 U.N. refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which were a prime source of attacks during the violent Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

Security Council resolutions carry the weight of international law — and Resolution 1208 itself makes note of the fact that it should be universally applied. The question of the Palestinian exception to 1208 is more than theoretical.

Despite moves toward reform in other areas, the U.N. General Assembly is unlikely to make any changes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides relief and social services to the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Thus, an appeal to the Security Council to apply Resolution 1208 may be a viable option if, as some predict, the intifada is renewed and terrorists again use UNRWA camps to plan and launch attacks against Israel.

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