Foreign Policy and The Washington Post Whitewash UNRWA’s Misdeeds
“I worry,” Walter Cronkite once said, “that we’re not getting enough of the news to make us informed citizens.” Looking at recent coverage of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Cronkite’s concerns seem justified, as recent reports by Foreign Policy magazine and The Washington Post, among others, have whitewashed troubling aspects of the organization’s history.
UNRWA was created in 1949, following the unsuccessful attempt by several Arab states to destroy Israel. It is the only UN organization whose stated mission is to assist a specific group of refugees — Palestinian Arabs. All other refugee populations in the world fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is but one of several ways in which “Palestinian refugees” are treated and categorized in a completely different manner from every other refugee.
As Cliff Smith, an analyst at the Middle East Forum, has highlighted, UNRWA’s peculiar definition of “refugee” includes people who are “generations removed from the conflict, people who are citizens of new states, and people who are in their internationally recognized home of the West Bank and Gaza.” UNRWA’s categorization of “refugee” also applies to citizens of recognized states.
As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has noted, according to UNRWA’s spurious definition, the 20-year old, Los Angeles-born millionaire fashion model Bella Hadid is considered a “refugee.”
There has been a growing movement to reform UNRWA. The US, which has long been UNRWA’s chief benefactor, announced significant budgetary cuts to the organization in January 2018. In an August 3, 2018 report, Foreign Policy correspondents Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer noted that “in internal emails, [Trump adviser and son-in-law] Jared Kushner advocated a ‘sincere effort to disrupt the U.N.’s relief agency.’” The reporters say that Kushner’s suggestion is “part of a broader push by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to strip these Palestinians of their refugee status in the region and take their issue off the table in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. … At least two bills now making their way through Congress address the issue.”
Foreign Policy, however, buried key facts about UNRWA, and only later in the dispatch did the reporters note that the “internal emails” — pitched as revelatory — were merely an eight-month-old suggestion.
UNRWA, the Jewish Virtual Library has pointed out, “was originally envisaged as a temporary organization,” but has since morphed into a massive bureaucracy that perpetuates the Arab-Israeli conflict. As scholar Asaf Romirowsky has noted, although UNHCR deals with six times as many refugees as UNRWA, the latter agency has four times as many employees.
Its size notwithstanding, UNRWA has literally created refugees: although there were an estimated 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1950, there will be a projected 6.4 million “refugees” in 2020 per UNRWA’s definition of the term. Foreign Policy glosses over this fact, omits that UNRWA was initially created as a “temporary organization,” and fails to mention that it was originally created to resettle refugees.
Instead, the Foreign Policy report claims that “many Israel supporters in the United States today see UNRWA as part of an international infrastructure that has artificially kept the refugee issue alive.” Yet, one doesn’t have to be an “Israel supporter” to understand facts. And the facts are that UNRWA has changed from its initial mandate, choosing to create refugees instead of resettling them. UNRWA’s own former legal adviser and general counsel, James Lindsay, has stated that the “the only thing preventing citizens from ceasing to be refugees is UNRWA’s singular definition of what constitutes a refugee.”
Worse still, UNRWA perpetuates the conflict by promoting anti-Jewish violence, a fact that Foreign Policy’s 1,500-word article completely ignores.
Furthermore, UNRWA schools and facilities have been used to promote the hatred and murder of Israelis. As CAMERA has highlighted, a March 7, 2016 ceremony at an UNRWA school in Gaza City celebrated stabbing Jews. Pictures taken of the event showed young children holding signs saying, “We heed your call, oh al-Aqsa, our blood and souls we will sacrifice for you, oh al-Aqsa.” This is an invocation of the al-Aqsa libel: the lie, often propagated by Palestinian leaders, that Jews seek to “destroy,” “defile,” or “change the status quo” at the Temple Mount. The libel often precedes attacks on Jews.
High-ranking UNRWA officials have even posed with maps that erase Israel, and some UNRWA employees have been caught promoting violent antisemitic imagery — including cartoons showing Palestinians committing vehicular terror attacks against Israelis. A 2015 UN investigation found that Hamas used UNRWA schools as launching pads for missiles fired at Israeli civilians during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war.
Indeed, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Near East Policy Research, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad “control the UNRWA stations in Gaza.” The report also noted that in 2012, “UNRWA in Gaza elected Hamas to all 11 seats in the UNRWA’s teacher union and to 14 out of 16 sets in the employees and service sector union.” These actions run counter to section 301(c) of the US Foreign Assistance Act, which stipulates that “no contributions by the United States shall be made to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency except on the condition” that UNRWA “take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism” [emphasis added].
The failure of a lengthy news article on UNRWA to mention the agency’s history of anti-Jewish incitement and links to terror groups is a journalistic failure par excellence.
And Foreign Policy wasn’t alone in omitting UNRWA’s role in fostering violence. A July 25, 2018 Washington Post report on US aid cuts to the agency also failed to provide readers with these facts. And as CAMERA has documented, other recent Post articles on UNRWA have done the same. In so doing, both publications are failing to heed another Cronkite adage: “In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of the story.”
Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.