Where is UNRWA When it Comes to the Syrian Refugees?

January 7, 2013 8:50 am 1 comment

Syrian refugees in Reyhanli district, in Antakya, Turkey. Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

What does it mean when Assad’s regime bombs the Yarmouk – Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee neighborhood? driving dozens of formerly pro-government Palestinian fighters to defect and join the rebels. All of this, demands a closer look at the Palestinians in Syria.

In September, following the death of a UNRWA staffer in Syria, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness stated, “an UNRWA staff member in Syria, aged 28 years, was killed while on his way to catch a bus to work. The death occurred in the area of Or’uba just outside the southern border of Yarmouk residential area. Yarmouk is home to approximately 1 million Syrians and more than 150,000 Palestine refugees.”

The majority of Syria’s 500,000 UN-registered Palestinian refugees are descends of the original refugees of 1948. While not citizens, Palestinians in Syria have had more than their brethren in other Arab countries. They have been able to hold government jobs, attend state universities for free and serve in the military. As such, the Assad’s regime has long painted itself as champion of the Palestinian cause.

According to UNRWA’s calculations, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions. This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.

There is no question that this was a tragic incident, yet it raises a fundamental question about the level of attention given to UNRWA’s work within the borders of Israel versus other Arab countries specifically, Syria under Assad which has been killing its own citizens for months now.

Case in point, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and now again in Operation Cloud Pillar Israel was bombarded on a daily basis with accusations that it intentionally targets UNRWA schools with the goal of killing kids. Of course, this was a complete fallacy but UNRWA went out of its way to highlight this in order to depict Israel as coldblooded and inhumane despite the fact that those schools were indeed used as launching pads hoping the IDF would retaliate. The reality was the Israel indeed took hits in order to not put women and children in harms way as it has always conducted itself. In contrast, Palestinians have used their youth as human shields.

Enter Syria, where is the outrage? An UNRWA field worker is killed and there is barley a mention in the press whereas in Israel it engenders a slew of UN condemnations centered on its “crimes against humanity” and intentionally sabotaging UNRWA’s operations and good work. Moreover, we are now seeing Syrian-Palestinians who fled protesting outside UNRWA’s offices in Lebanon asking for help. The double standard is no accident as Palestinian identity is linked to the Nakba narrative that mandates the creation of a Palestinian state only in Israel that is to say that everything beyond those borders where UNRWA operates, should be a constant reminder that there is no option for resolution outside of “Palestine.”

Syria is unique as it serves as a paragon of Palestinian support. Consequently, Palestinian activists argue that it was their integration into Syrian society facilitated by Assad’s regime that made them join the uprisings. As Yarmouk-Palestinian activist Abu Omar states, “We have never felt that there was a big difference between the Palestinians and the Syrians [but we want our home in Palestine].” UNRWA is an open-ended, educational, social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But given what we see in Syria in what sense are any of these individuals refugees?

UNRWA’s success has been in transforming itself into the guardian of the refugees’ isolation, preserving the uniqueness of the Palestinian refugees’ identity as an entity that cannot be assimilated into any Arab country but ONLY into what is perceived as Palestine instead of the Jewish State. This dependency prevented the refugees from directly getting involved in politics, leaving UNRWA as their only voice in the “Arab Wilderness.”

The idea that on the one hand Palestinians are part of the Arab world but on the other different and isolated from it enabled UNRWA to become the vehicle that represents their “otherness” and eventually led to the agency’s politicization. The tragic scale of the human-rights crisis in Syria—more than sixty thousand dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and murderous abuses on all sides—has put the Palestinian situation in proper perspective especially when it comes to UNRWA. Had UNRWA truly been concerned about the welfare of refugees in the region it would look to Syria where there are real refugees who could benefit from their support. UNRWA was founded for Palestinians and is now run by Palestinians who monopolize and exploit a factious reality to a problem that could have been solved decades ago, as such it is time to reassess what UNRWA actually does and what it was intended to do.

Asaf Romirowsky PhD is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  Anat Berko PhD is a Jewish refugee from Iraq, a visiting professor at George Washington University and a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. She is the author of “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.”

1 Comment

  • Reply from Chris Gunness, UNRWA Spokesman.

    The authors should acquaint themselves with the literature on this subject, including UNHCR materials, before publishing ill founded opinion, dressed up as analysis. Their article, which is politically motivated, is academically and journalistically poor and contains falsehoods which I will not repeat but correct.

    1. UNRWA-registered refugees are not alone in having their status transferred through generations. UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for determining Refugee Status provides in paragraph 184: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, [for refugee status] his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.” There are numerous examples of this in practice.

    2. UNRWA has spoken out robustly about the situation of its beneficiaries in Syria on numerous occasions. See the following examples of the most recent statements:

    http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1568

    http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1573

    http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1587

    3. No evidence has been produced to show that UNRWA schools in Gaza were “used as launching pads” by militants during the fighting in 2008/2009 or late last year. Even the popular Israeli TV network, Channel Two, has admitted this and issued a retraction after making such false claim:

    http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1477

    4. UNRWA does not take a precise position on how the issue of Palestine refugees should be resolved. The Agency does advocate for a resolution of the refugee crisis in the context of a just and durable solution, based on international law and UN resolutions and in consultation with the refugees themselves.

    Ends

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Sports Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    Israeli Soccer Team Faces Prospect of International Ban

    The Israel National soccer team could be facing a World Cup ban, and other soccer sanctions, unless it alleviates travel restrictions and increases field access for Palestinian players and coaches. The head of the Palestinian Football Association is pushing for international soccer’s governing body, the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), to issue a ban on Israel competing internationally, claiming Israel’s restrictive travel for Palestinians is equivalent to a form of oppression. “It’s not only the athletes,” Jibril Rajoub explains. [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    Jewish Author of ‘Eat to Live’ Dishes on Health Care, Nutrition, Disease Prevention

    JNS.org – While the national debate on “Obamacare” rages on past the recent March 31 sign-up deadline, bestselling Jewish author Dr. Joel Fuhrman says the “current disease care model of what we call ‘health care’ cannot possibly be sustained.” “There is simply not enough money available to support a system in which the lion’s share of expenditures is devoted to acute care, with virtually nothing being spent on preventive medicine, i.e. health care,” Fuhrman says in an interview. “To make [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    ‘Tears of Color’ Art Exhibit Shows Struggles of Israelis With Eating Disorders

    JNS.org – “This is how I want to be—without fear. Independent. I want to be like a bird. I want to spread my wings.” So reads part of the description beneath one of the 30 paintings on display until the end of May at the ZOA House in Tel Aviv. The collection represents the first-ever art exhibit of its kind: an exhibit created entirely by Israelis in treatment for eating disorders. Dubbed “Tears of Color,” based on one of the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Book Reviews Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    Overprotective or Loving? Daughters Reflect on Jewish Mothers in New Anthology

    JNS.org – Rachel Ament noticed that she and her friends often shared humorous anecdotes that were typically variations on a theme: overprotective, worrying Jewish moms who smothered them with love. That included Ament’s own mother. “My mom is probably every Jewish stereotype scrunched into one,” the Washington, DC, resident tells JNS.org. “At the root of all these stereotypical, worrying, overprotective moms, is love.” A social media writer for Capital One, as well as a freelance writer, Ament decided about three years [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.