Yes, We Should Dismantle UNRWA
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned many by declaring that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) should be dismantled.
Speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu charged that “in various UNRWA institutions, there is a lot of incitement against Israel, and therefore the existence of UNRWA — and unfortunately its work from time to time — perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem rather than solves it. … Therefore, the time has come to dismantle UNRWA and merge its components with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR].”
This long overdue step has long been rejected by the Israeli establishment. Up until now, Jerusalem has prevented attempts to change UNRWA’s mandate, or close it down, because the Israeli establishment perceived the agency as a stabilizing force. Jerusalem focused instead on ending anti-Israeli incitement in UNRWA’s education system, and on decrying its collaboration with Hamas. That collaboration implied an international imprimatur on egregious Hamas behavior.
This time, the prime minister is talking about a bigger shift in policy.
UNRWA’s initial role was to distribute humanitarian assistance to Palestinian Arabs who were displaced during the 1948 war. However, instead of helping solve the refugee problem, UNRWA has become a tool for its eternal perpetuation. Without UNRWA, the Palestinian refugees — and certainly their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — would have resettled in their Arab host countries or elsewhere in the world, as many millions of other refugees have done. They would have done so reluctantly, of course, but they would have had no other choice, as no one would have taken care of them for so many years.
Because UNRWA did nothing to reduce the number of Palestinian refugees, their numbers have swollen from 750,000 in 1949 to more than 5 million today. And, of course, these “refugees” are not true refugees — but the descendants of Palestinians who left the land during Israel’s War of Independence.
From its earliest stages, UNRWA was a politicized agency, more interested in appeasing the Arab world’s wish to destroy Israel than in the humanitarian cause that it was established to advance.
Without UNRWA, only a small fraction of its “registered refugees” would be considered real refugees in the first place. Many of UNRWA’s refugees should never have been granted that status — as the vast majority of them are descendants of refugees who would not be granted automatic refugee status elsewhere in the world.
As the years have worn on, UNRWA has maintained a system expressly meant to perpetuate the refugee problem rather than solve it. Unlike the UNHCR, which provides six options for the cessation of the status of refugee, UNRWA offers zero. Whereas the primary concern of the UNHCR is to resettle refugees and help them build new lives, UNRWA promotes only one future: repatriation to Israel. That prospect is contrary to worldwide historical practice and would, of course, destroy Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It is also toxic to both the prospects for a peace agreement and to Palestinian national development.
In effect, UNRWA has become a spokesman — and patron — for the call to destroy the Jewish homeland by flooding it with millions of refugees and their descendants. Without UNRWA, it is hard to see how the belligerent Palestinian/Arab call for return could have survived for seven decades. Because Israel is not going to commit national suicide via demographic subversion, this UNRWA-induced intransigence is an assured recipe for the Mideast conflict’s prolongation.
Merging UNRWA into UNHCR would mean an immediate drop in the number of Palestinian refugees from more than 5 million today, to a few hundred thousand, perhaps even fewer. Most of UNRWA’s “refugees” either never left their “country” (Mandatory Palestine) or became citizens of another country (Jordan), and would thus simply be omitted from the list. Moreover, this merger would mean that repatriation is not the sole option for solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Both these outcomes are clearly in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The Trump administration might be open to this option, though its Israel policy appears to be constantly changing and in flux.
For years, the US — the biggest donor to UNRWA — did not want to deal with the agency because it feared an Arab backlash. This time, it appears that Washington and the Sunni world might enough in common — from fighting Iran to signing major arm deals — that Washington need not fear making major changes to UNRWA, or even abolishing it altogether. A push from Jerusalem may well wield results this time around.
Adi Schwartz is co-author of a forthcoming book on the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem (together with Dr. Einat Wilf). He is writing his PhD thesis on the subject in Bar-Ilan University.
This article was originally published as a BESA Center Perspectives Paper, through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.