by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor
America’s new approach to the UN has set the diplomatic world on its ear. First it was US Ambassador Nikki Haley’s in-your-face-with-the-truth diplomacy, calling the UN out for its long history of anti-Israel bias. Then, the US withdrew from UNESCO. Next, the president of the United States had the chutzpah to agree with Israel that their capital is, in fact, Jerusalem. But, the icing on the cake seems to be America’s defunding of UNRWA.
The US State Department recently announced that it was withholding $65m of a $125m aid package, its annual donation earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) for Palestinian Refugees. And if that wasn’t a tough enough pill to swallow, the department informed the UN by letter that additional US donations would be contingent on major changes by UNRWA. Those funds are “frozen for future consideration,” the letter stated.
The outcry was deafening. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called the US a pawn in Israel’s plan to dismantle the “one agency that was established by the international community to protect the rights of Palestinian refugees.” She accused the Trump administration of targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Palestinian people, depriving them of basic services and a dignified life. A spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called UNRWA a “stabilizing presence” in the region and suggested the US action would perpetuate a refugee crisis.
Al Jazeera published countless reactions from so-called refugees themselves. “There won’t be anything—everything will disappear,” they said, insisting that a Palestinian uprising would result. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, urged the US government to reverse its decision, claiming, “The move will have devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.” Countless articles and statements appeared from European countries, Western political organizations, media outlets and Foreign Policy magazine, all wanting us to believe that the US decision would precipitate a humanitarian crisis and destabilize the entire region, even threatening world peace.
How much truth, however, is there to be found in all that rhetoric? Just what is UNWRA supposed to do and how effective is it? By the end of Israel’s war for independence in 1948, approximately 600,000 Palestinians had fled to Lebanon, Gaza and the so-called West Bank (Judea–Samaria) at the instruction of their own Arab leaders who promised that they could return when the war was over. However, when the dust settled, they had become permanent refugees and pawns in the Arab world’s attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel. Egypt, who was occupying Gaza, and Jordan, the West Bank, found themselves dealing with a refugee crisis of their own making. As these Arab governments built refugee camps for Palestinian Arabs, UNWRA was created to help deal with the situation, with a mandate to provide health care, education, financial assistance and food specifically and only to the Palestinian refugee population.
Since that time, UNWRA has remained an agency exclusive to the Palestinian refugee situation, while every other refugee population on the globe is dealt with by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). UNWRA has also broadened their definition of “refugee” to include descendants of the original Palestinian refugees as well as people who have become residents in other countries and are no longer displaced. If UNWRA were to use the same definition used by the UNHCR, their number would drop from 5 million to about 20,000 who actually fit the criteria. According to their own records, two million UNWRA refugees reside in Jordan with full Jordanian citizenship, while a recent Lebanese government census revealed 175,000 Palestinian refugees within its borders rather than the 450,000 claimed by UNWRA. It is interesting to note that the UNHCR serves over 17 million people globally with a staff of just under 11,000 and a commitment to resettlement and integration into host nations. UNWRA, however, serves 5 million perpetual refugees and employs a staff of 30,000. If the UNHCR definition were actually applied, UNWRA would find itself with 10,000 more staff than refugees, and all at a cost to the American taxpayer of $6 billion since 1950. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The UN’s own internal audit has revealed that misappropriation, graft and corruption are rampant in UNWRA, while oversight arrangements are deficient and inspections practically non-existent. It also exposed the UNWRA practices of filling high level positions with senior Hamas operatives while using schools and hospitals as storage places and launch pads for terrorist rockets, all in violation of the UN Charter and UN Staff Rules of Conduct.
A decade ago, the US Congress mandated an audit of UNRWA’s cash assistance program, but the agency refused to have their books audited. The next year, however, the standard US lump sum donation was handed over as usual, and the US has continued to serve as UNWRA’s largest single donor throughout its existence.
Despite the international assertion that UNWRA is a stabilizing influence in the region that cares for the needs of Palestinians, the evidence shows otherwise. And contrary to the allegation that the Trump administration is leaving those in need high and dry, they are simply making any contributions contingent on UNWRA cleaning up their act. They are calling the agency out for mismanagement of funds, illegal activity, lack of performance metrics, perpetuating the problem it claims to be solving and some would say, working toward the elimination of the State of Israel.
The Trump administration’s decision to defund UNWRA should not be seen as an effort to cease funding for those most in need and certainly not an attempt to dismantle an agency that could be serving a vital role in the region. Rather it is a demand that UNWRA step up to the plate and operate within its own mission and mandate, using its dollars to finally move its five million dependents from international welfare to self-sufficiency. It’s that simple.
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