How Aid to Palestinians Hurts – Not Helps – the Peace Process

by Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe, Forward
January 22, 2018

Aid to the Palestinians has had a world of unintended consequences.

Last week, the US announced its intention to delay a $65 million payment to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA is a UN agency specifically dedicated to providing Palestinians with aid. The Trump Administration will be withholding $65 million out of the US’s total annual contribution of over $360 million.

The responses to the US decision have been predictable. The Washington Postimmediately sought out the Gazan on the street, who warned that

Any reduction of aid would be a death sentence for refugees in Gaza. The work is almost nonexistent. There are not enough jobs. Those who work for the Palestinian Authority receive only a stipend, and Hamas employees get a quarter of their salary.

And J Street called the mere threat of a funding freeze “incredibly dangerous, counterproductive and vindictive.”

With an annual budget of some $1.25 billion, UNRWA has thrived as the internationally funded health, education and welfare provider for Palestinian refugees. But the U.S. decision is not only courageous; it is a necessary first step in any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For UNRWA’s patronage sustains two key factors that prolong the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the ideology of “refugees”, and their ever-inflating numbers.

The responses of J Street and the Gazan interviewed in the Post are in fact typical of the discourse around this issue. For many, Palestinians are refugees who must be sustained as welfare cases of the international community; this condition is central to Palestinian culture and identity. To those on the left who see things this way, any changes to this system would be disastrous.

UNRWA’s expansive definition of “refugee” is central to Palestinian identity and culture.

But culture is only one of the sources of political paralysis. The rest is institutional. UNRWA originally defined a Palestinian refugee as anyone whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” This number, according to most historians, was about 700,000.

But today’s UNRWA definition is much more expansive. It includes under the definition of a refugee “the children or grandchildren of such refugees are eligible for agency assistance if they are (a) registered with UNRWA, (b) living in the area of UNRWA’s operations, and (c) in need.”

This is how UNRWA can now claim there are over five million Palestinian refugees.

By the 1960s, UNRWA had shifted its mission from relief to education.

It’s not just the definition though which has made this number swell. Since its inception in 1950, UNRWA has worked against resettlement in Arab countries where Palestinians are located. It has done so by shifting its mission from refugee relief to education, unilaterally devising its own expanded definitions of who is a refugee and expanding its legal mandates to “protect” and represent refugees.

In doing so UNRWA has helped ratify the perception that refugee status for Palestinians is central to their identity and culture, no matter where they are in the world, and that the international community must support them and their descendants in perpetuity. UNRWA’s support for the Palestinian “right of return,” in its educational system and in pronouncements from leadership, cements this, and fosters the fantasy that Israel, and the past 70 years, will magically be undone.

Not only will Israel never cease to exist. But you can see how the skyrocketing number of refugees, coupled with the demand that they be resettled in Israel, makes UNRWA into a force that perpetuates – rather than solves – the Palestinian crisis.

UNRWA should be putting pressure on countries to integrate Palestinians who have lived there for decades.

What UNRWA should be doing is putting political pressure on countries to integrate Palestinians, who have lived there for decades. This would be a better strategy than continuing to fund an agency solely designed to maintain them in limbo.

And yet, UNRWA does the opposite. Despite the billions invested, and the existence of the Palestinian Authority (which itself receives close to $400 million annually from the US), there are ever more Palestinian “refugees.” Only Jordan provides Palestinians with rights to work and own property; after almost 70 years, Palestinians are still subject to severe restrictions in Lebanon and Syria.

In other words, UNRWA is perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem in order to perpetuate itself. UNRWA’s ever expanding role in the Palestinian economy can be measured through the number of its local employees. During the mid-1970s, UNRWA had 15,000 employees. UNRWA now has more than 30,000 employees, the largest of any United Nations organization, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders have been incompetent, corrupt, and violent. Clockwise from top left: Nazi ally Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, the late Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, and current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

For the US, other Western powers, and for Israel, UNRWA has been an investment in stability. For the Arab states, it was hardly an investment at all but rather a convenient weapon to use against the West, which allowed them to neglect and abuse Palestinians. And for the Palestinians themselves, it has been pivotal, not only for identity and culture, but also because it has allowed their own leadership to skirt responsibilities while receiving billions in Western aid. This is the tragic — indeed, criminal — aspect of political paralysis.

Palestinians are educated and entrepreneurial. But they are cursed with incompetent and corrupt leaders whose fantasies, violence and rejectionism have been a disaster since the 1920s.

Withholding a small amount of money from UNRWA should alert Palestinians that nothing lasts forever. Replacing their leaders is a vital next step to reforming the Palestinian Authority and making real progress towards creating a state that treats Palestinians with decency, not as refugees but as citizens, and which is capable of living in peace alongside Israel.

Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Alexander H. Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow of the Middle East Forum. Their book on the AFSC in Gaza, Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief, was published in 2013.

January 24, 2018 | 6 Comments »

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  1. Trump today said unless PA actually starts negotiating and stops disrespecting the US, they will get NO further aid money period.

    The PA responded by saying unless Trump reverses the Jerusalem recognition, Trump is out the peace process and they will not be blackmailed.

  2. “Withholding a small amount of money from UNRWA should alert Palestinians that nothing lasts forever.”

    The conclusion contradicts the body of the article which is that the fake “Palestinian narrative” has created and sustains the “Palestinian” culture. He’s calling for an indigenous, “educated” alternative culture to take over that doesn’t exist.

    The conclusion should have been what other pundits have written which is that UNRWA, which exists to perpetuate the Palestinian Refugee Problem, should be defunded, and the governance of the camps should be passed to UNHCR, the official UN refugee organization, whose mandate is to permanently settle all refugees from every conflict in any country that will take them.
    The “Palestinians” need to disappear from history. Dissolving UNRWA and enabling UNHCR to settle them elsewhere, on the one hand, and creating a new Jordan that will accord them the right of return with equality and opportunity, on the other, would solve it. Besides, dismantling the PA and Hamas.

    The Jews of Judea and Samaria, should be given Israeli civil law. The Muslims currently under the PA, Hamas, and Hezbollah, should be placed, once again, under Israeli martial law minus the Jordanian and Ottoman precedents.

  3. The majority of the money never sees the end target anyway…….it’s all been stuffed in Arafat’s coffers…..and now Meshal’s with his dacha in Qatar along with the other high Hamas and PA officials. All the reduction in aid will do is not fatten their bank accounts at the current pace. Best if the USA withholds all of it…..let the Arab world keep up the payments…..let the Arab world re-absorb their 5th column in Gaza. Israel is smart to supply the Gaza with water, power….when the time comes to move out the interlopers that will abruptly stop. They all belong in their homeland of Jordan and further East than that….

  4. Whatever arguments are brought up, it is still impossible to figure out where all the money actually went, since according to UNRWA and the Palestinians wherever they may be, the refugees are living under inhuman conditions and have neither the prospects nor the inclinations to improve their fate.
    So, who has been pocketing that $1.25Billion? I would normally expect protests like in Iran…

  5. Edgar G. Said:

    This article is a rehashing of 70 year old stew, with no focus on the real facts. There have been many articles lately, and in fact ever since 1948, which far better investigate the number of “refugees” and come very close to reality.

    . The UNRWA extended fake mercy to Palestinians at the expense of Jews.

    UNRWA almost forcibly kept the Palestinians in ghettos and refugee camps. The camps, which were supposed to help the Palestinians adapt to a new life, became a life in itself. Instead of acting like a boarding school—feed, educate, and let go—UNRWA camps became a permanent home to four generations of Palestinians. Worse than the worst inner cities, the refugee camps produced generation after generation of people who lacked productive skills and depended on UN handouts; who had no viable occupation, but spent their time idly, day after day. No wonder that idleness was filled with the most radical longing—romantic nationalism. Neither education nor morality was relevant in the camp life, but only raw strength.

    The UN agency found the terrorist organizations useful both for maintaining order in otherwise unruly camps, and for providing raison d’etre for the UN operations. The persistence of refugee camps for sixty years testifies to the failure of the UN’s policies, but terrorists let the UN feel and show that it was not sponsoring a failed experiment in the middle of nowhere. Now the UN was in charge of the most respectable policy: worldwide anti-Semitism. The UN was no longer failing to adapt the refugees to life’s realities, but was nurturing the anti-Jewish resistance movement.

    Political concerns, bureaucracy, and paternalism combined to make Palestinian refugees into the UN’s pet project, to preserve the refugee camps indefinitely. And it transformed them into vast, semi-permanent slums almost physically filled with hate.

    Even the most innocent UNRWA programs become potent weapons against Israel. UNRWA sponsors education in Palestinian refugee camps. Well and good, until we realize that UNRWA pays for education laid out by Fatah and Hamas.

    Whatever other meager or irrelevant knowledge Palestinian children acquire in schools, what matters is that UNRWA pays for anti-Jewish education. Likewise, the UNRWA food deliveries to Palestinians benefit Fatah and Hamas, who distribute the supplies and perform other organizational tasks. More importantly, Palestinians know that their livelihood is not affected by policy changes; whether Hamas or some mythical doves are at the helm, Palestinians will still receive their food allowance from UNRWA. Guaranteed supplies of food and medicines create a safety net for Palestinians and prompt them to radicalize, to take chances. The guaranteed supplies keep Palestinians at the refugee camps; absent of such aid they would have long since gone to work and assimilated in their countries of residence. But the UN loves its pet project and its pet people; the UNRWA has created the Palestinian nation—in refugee camps.

    The UNRWA is Israel’s enemy, far more so than Saudi Arabia. Sabotaging the UN aid to Palestinian camps is a first-degree military priority. Without the aid, the refugee camps would be abandoned in a year or two. That is the ultimate kindness: let the refugees’ descendants go on with their lives.

    The presence of fringe terrorist groups such as Fatah al Islam in the camps are a boon to Israel, as they cause fighting and prompt at least some of the inhabitants to abandon the camps. Terrorists will also make the camps unattractive to the Palestinian rich, who have created fiefdoms there and support extended clans.

    The camps are becoming progressively worse. In the beginning, their inhabitants were in a sense euphoric: they expected to return soon, lived relatively normal lives, and even created unusually extensive educational programs—so extensive that Palestinians became the most educated Arabs and entered public service in many Muslim countries. The euphoria gave way to idealism, then hopelessness, then normality. The descendants of the refugees adjusted their expectations to the new reality, and now they actually want such a lifestyle. Most will not adapt to free life. The UNRWA’s massive infusions created for Palestinians a warped alternative reality.

    The rare voices coming out of the camps belong to the educated class, and so the stories of the refugees’ noble nationalism abound. In reality, refugee camp dwellers are no more idealistic nationalists than the medieval peasants who flocked to markets to hear troubadours were knightly romantics. People who live in swamp-like conditions need a bright guiding star, but few care to sail toward it.

    In Lebanon, Palestinian refugee camps are islands of terrorism, but in Gaza the UN’s policies created a viable terrorist state. When Egypt refused entrance to fleeing Palestinians, and they were stuck in Gaza, the UN should have dispersed them quickly into other territories. Instead, it induced the Palestinians to stay in Gaza with UN subsidies, and made the place into a kind of pressure cooker.

    Conforming to political correctness, the UNRWA offered the Palestinians absurd resettlement options, such as (before 1967) moving them to the Sinai and building a massive channel there from the Nile. But the Palestinians, who still harbored hopes of return, rejected the offers, and from 1967 on there were no other suggestions.

    In 1967, four fifths of Gazans lived in towns—that is, they were virtually jobless. Since then, the ratio has only increased, temporarily diminished by job opportunities in Israel, and rebounded when Israel closed her labor markets to Arab migrants. Under whosoever jurisdiction, Gaza will continue as a mini robber-state, thriving on contraband, illegal goods such as weapons, and illegal activities—a giant inner city no one wants to reform for fear of it exploding. Fatah was so happy about the Hamas takeover of Gaza because the West Bank’s biggest nightmare is not Israeli or Jordanian occupation, but a stream of returnees from Gaza and Lebanon once Palestinian statehood is established.

    Palestinians cannot maintain a viable state. In big countries, outlaws escape to outskirts, border regions. But in a small country like Palestine they disrupt the entire society’s life. Small countries can reach statehood only by developing a culture of political obedience first, and that requires a long history of affluence and organized communal life. A Palestinian state will necessarily succumb to guerillas and criminals.

  6. The writer should well know, and I’m sure he does, that the reason that UNWRA was never a normal refugee agency was because there was enormous turmoil between 46-48 with undeclared hostilities, and the huge influx of Arabs from the surrounding countries. Also when the agency was formed, they had no Arab speakers, and most people signed on more than once, relying on change of clothes, of name, and signing with different agency reps. So that 700.000 could be cut down by about 2/3rds.

    Besides this it was well publicised by the belligerent Arab states themselves, that they wanted to keep the refugees in depressed camps with poor facilities, as a political spear pointed directly at the heart of Israel.

    Also the policy evolved because nearly 100% of the employees were Arab local “refugees” themselves…who were making (the) most of the the decisions, and of the “freebies”.

    The ignorance, oil shortage fears, and always present Anti-Semitism of the donor nations prevented them from insisting that the agency be run as a normal refugee agency, in fact that there was already a UN agency competently handling multi-millions of refugees from all around the world.

    This article is a rehashing of 70 year old stew, with no focus on the real facts. There have been many articles lately, and in fact ever since 1948, which far better investigate the number of “refugees” and come very close to reality.

    (The real refugees were mostly only immigrants either legal or illegal themselves, or children of those immigrants. The return of the Jews brought many Arabs in from surrounding countries as the documented reports of huge, unnatural, Arab increases in Jewish areas show).