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Commentary :: Globalization : Human Rights : International
Unmasking UNRWA
16 Mar 2006
The U.N.´s High Commission for Refugees, which has policies against hiring the populations it serves, has a much lower staff-to-refugee ratio than UNRWA, which hires primarily Palestinian staff.
Unmasking UNRWA

History of UNRWA, 1950-present: Where did the refugees come from?

The U.N. General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in 1949 as a temporary agency focused on relief work for the Palestinians. It began operating in 1950.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees in the war that began when the Palestinians and their Arab allies attacked the fledgling Jewish state the day after its independence in 1948.

Some were purposely flushed from their homes as Jewish forces sought to secure key roads and pacify areas from which Jewish communities had been attacked. Some were encouraged to leave by the Arab states, which told the refugees that they could return shortly to claim the spoils after the Jews were killed. Many simply fled what had become a combat zone.

The Palestinians constituted just one of many refugee populations in the years after World War II, and many outsiders expected their case to be the easiest of the post-war refugee crises to resolve. Many found shelter in neighboring countries that shared their language, religion and culture, and where many of them had blood ties.

Indeed, the roughly equal number of Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from the Muslim world during the same period were quickly resettled in Israel or in the West.

Unlike the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, which serves the world’s other 19.2 million refugees, UNRWA was not tasked with finding solutions to the refugees’ plight.

Instead, UNRWA’s definition of refugee — which counted even migrants who had lived in the area for as little as two years — further expanded in the 1950s when, in an unprecedented move, UNRWA included descendants of the original refugees. This was an expanded definition that the UNHCR never adopted.

Thus, while other refugee groups have dwindled due to resettlement or death, the Palestinian refugee population, uniquely, continues to grow — from 914,000 registered refugees in 1950 to some 4.3 million today, roughly one-third of whom live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Neutral aides or active partisans? UNRWA staff comes in for scrutiny

The U.N.´s High Commission for Refugees, which has policies against hiring the populations it serves, has a much lower staff-to-refugee ratio than UNRWA, which hires primarily Palestinian staff.

There may be no greater test of the United Nations’ vaunted neutrality than to be a Palestinian staffer of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.

UNRWA has 12,000-plus employees in those areas — where it’s the second-largest employer after the Palestinian Authority — and similar numbers in slums in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In all, more than 99 percent of its staff members are Palestinian.

No other U.N. agency boasts such an overwhelming ratio of local to foreign field staff. And nine of 10 UNRWA employees are themselves refugees, the agency says.

UNRWA employees and their families in the Palestinian territories go through everything that society at large endures, which during the intifada meant the self-described “daily humiliations” of restricted movement, material deprivation and Israeli anti-terrorist raids.

Nevertheless, UNRWA employees must sign a code of conduct that compels them to avoid actions that “may adversely affect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality which are required by that status.”

Realistically, though, some observers ask: Would it be surprising if UNRWA employees were to loathe Israel and embrace the Palestinian cause — and have it influence their work?

Some of UNRWA’s harsher critics speak as if the agency were actively complicit in terrorism, but others say the situation isn’t black and white. With lawlessness, intimidation and violence now widespread — UNRWA itself has relocated some international staff from Gaza to Jerusalem — Palestinian staff members may simply find it prudent to avert their eyes from the militancy around them.

UNRWA officials note that the U.N. General Assembly never gave the agency policing or intelligence-gathering responsibilities in its slums. Moreover, UNRWA officials say, it could be dangerous to ask too many questions about what’s going on around them.

Yet staff certainly can make a difference, says Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which takes care of the world’s 19 million non-Palestinian refugees.

In some cases, Van Genderen Stort says, UNHCR teams with local military, police or foreign peacekeepers to look out for armed elements stirring up trouble. In other cases, slums residents have established something of a “nightwatch.”

“It’s not that we have intelligence on the ground or that they’re spying on their neighbors, but they know who’s in their community and they keep an eye out,” says Van Genderen Stort, who recently worked in Liberia’s refugee slums. “We of course want to help only those who are refugees and in need of help. We don’t want to be an agency that helps rebels who go out at night and fight.”

When it comes to UNRWA, at least some staffers seem to share their clients’ more extreme views.

The UNRWA teachers’ union, for example, reportedly is dominated by members affiliated with Hamas, listed as a terrorist organization in much of the West. Observers have cited numerous instances where suicide bombers and other terrorists were glorified in UNRWA schools, whether through graffiti on school walls or posters in the classrooms.

In one incident, Hamas convened a July 2001 conference in an UNRWA junior high school in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee slums.

“The road to Palestine passes through the blood of the fallen, and these fallen have written history with parts of their flesh and their bodies,” one UNRWA teacher, Saheil Alhinadi, said in praise of “martyrdom,” a euphemism for suicide terrorism.

The former UNRWA chief, Peter Hansen, got into hot water in October 2004 when he told Canadian television, “I’m sure there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant, and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”

Hansen later explained to JTA that he meant Hamas sympathizers, not members.

“Don’t judge people by what you think they may or may not believe; judge them by what they do, in their actions and in their behavior,” he told JTA. “And there we get back to the very strict behavior code we have in the agency for what staff members are to do and not to do in their behavior.”

Israel, however, says the question isn’t just staff members’ political allegiances but, sometimes, their actions.

In recent years, Israel has arrested dozens of UNRWA staffers — 31 from mid-2004 to mid-2005 alone, according to UNRWA — for alleged involvement in terrorism and other activities. Most are released within days or weeks, without charges — but not all.

Nahed Attalah, an UNRWA official arrested by Israeli forces in 2002, reportedly confessed to using his U.N. travel permit and his UNRWA car to transport terrorists to attack sites, and to entering Syria and Lebanon to arrange weapons purchases for terrorist groups.

In August 2002, Israel arrested UNRWA ambulance driver Nidal Abd Al Fatah Abdallah Nazal, whom officials later said confessed to being a Hamas member and using his ambulance to transport arms and messages to Hamas activists.

In 2003, Israel convicted three staffers: A Hamas member got 32 months for having a machine gun and delivering chemicals to a bombmaker; an Islamic Jihad member received two and a half years for possessing materials for possible use in explosives; and a third person was sentenced to seven and a half years for shooting a gun and firebombing an Israeli bus.

In May 2004, Israeli television showed gunmen piling into an UNRWA ambulance.

UNRWA officials say it’s unfair to tarnish an organization of thousands for the actions of a few. They also claim the Israeli judicial system is biased, with UNRWA denied access to both detainees and the evidence against them — so they’re skeptical about staff arrests and convictions.

Even a former Israeli diplomat chastises his government’s policy of claiming it has a smoking gun that proves UNRWA’s terrorist links, then withholding the evidence on grounds of “national security.” That fuels speculation that Israel doesn’t have the goods, the diplomat said.

“When the U.N. asks for proof and Israel says it’s classified, to me, that’s like not having any evidence at all,” the official, who requested anonymity, told JTA.

The most notorious instance occurred in early October 2004, when Israel announced it had footage of a Kassam rocket being loaded into an UNRWA ambulance. UNRWA asserted that the object in question was a rolled-up stretcher.

After further scrutiny, Israel conceded it had blundered: It was indeed a stretcher. But the incident reflected how, after years of tension with UNRWA, Israel was inclined to believe the worst about the agency.

Even UNRWA leaders, however, admit their slums are heavily militarized.

“Of course I don’t condone it, but it’s a fact of life,” Hansen said of the presence of heavily armed militants at an agency function, according to The Associated Press. “Look around the slums. We can’t stop it: We don’t have guns.”

As Hansen later confided to the Danish paper Politiken, “Who in this slums dares to speak up against an armed man?”

Though U.N. resolutions require armed elements to steer clear of refugee slums, Karen Koning AbuZayd conceded, in an August 2002 Jerusalem Report, that expelling gunmen from the slums would be “difficult in this region.”

In Gaza and the West Bank, everything is “upside down. The refugees are the armed elements,” said AbuZayd, who at the time of the interview was Hansen’s deputy and who has now succeeded him.

Then there are instances of Palestinian violence that target UNRWA itself.

Last August, three UNRWA staffers — two Europeans and a Palestinian — were kidnapped in the Khan Younis slums in Gaza by what UNRWA described as a “militant group.” UNRWA protested, and the staffers were released later in the day, unharmed.

On New Year’s Day 2006, Palestinians firebombed the U.N. club in Gaza City, which flies the UNRWA flag and is said to be the only establishment in town that serves alcohol, drawing the ire of Islamic fundamentalists. The club’s guard was tied up and beaten.

UNRWA staffers who venture into the fray may risk repercussions.

In April 2004, Israel’s assassination of Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantissi sparked an outpouring of emotion among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

According to The Daily Star of Beirut, the UNRWA chief in Lebanon, Richard Cook, ordered his staff to go into agency schools and tear down posters glorifying “martyrdom.” Refugee leaders declared Cook persona non grata and reportedly barred him briefly from the slums with threats of being killed.

“We have to take the safety of our staff into account,” AbuZayd explained to the Report in her 2002 interview. “If we were to ask our staff to do certain things, we realize that would get them into big trouble.”

At the very least, the United States expects UNRWA to speak up. Washington is UNRWA’s largest donor, providing about 30 percent of the agency’s roughly $400 million budget in both 2004 and 2005.

Section 301(c) of the 1961 U.S. Foreign Assistance Act compels UNRWA to “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.”

That pressure to vet seems to make the UNRWA hierarchy squirm.

In a November 2003 report, the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that UNRWA balked at the obligation to report what staff members see and hear, “owing to concerns for its staff’s safety” and the “inability to verify beneficiary responses.”

UNRWA’s lawyers countered with a proposal that staffers not “knowingly” provide assistance to those involved with terrorist activities — a standard that critics say sets the bar too high, allowing for plausible deniability.

But UNRWA’s request that Congress clarify the meaning of “all possible measures” is a cop-out, said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), who chairs the House Committee on International Relations’ Middle East and South Asia subcommittee.

“The representatives of this U.N. agency will argue that they cannot account for their employees’ activities given the large number of Palestinians on their payrolls,” Ros-Lehtinen told JTA. “If they are not exerting oversight over what is taking place in the institutions run by their agency, then the U.S. must exert strict oversight over its contributions to this agency.”

UNRWA slums also have seen a slew of “workplace accidents,” a euphemism for bombs that explode prematurely as terrorists prepare them.

“We talked to UNRWA about it, that if it happens that’s prima facie evidence the person was a terrorist,” a State Department official told JTA. “But UNRWA’s lawyer says, ‘Well, not really. It’s not a terrorist act simply to make a bomb.’ ”

“We say that’s really getting into the weeds legally,” the official continued. “We don’t know what other purposes they would be constructing a bomb for, and they fall into our definition for what ought to be excluded. UNRWA agreed in the end, and one reason they did, frankly, is we’re the biggest donors and they don’t want to get into a spat with us.”

Its role more vital than ever, can UNRWA stay out of politics?

As Washington and the West weigh a cutoff of aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency could become a crucial lifeline to millions of Palestinian refugees who depend on it for vital services.

But the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections have revived a long-standing Israeli concern: that some of UNRWA’s staff are members of Hamas, or at least sympathize with the terrorist group’s anti-Israel cause.

Israeli concerns were not eased by the fact that nine UNRWA staffers resigned to run for office in the late-January elections that Hamas swept. Furthermore, they had to be firmly reminded, in a letter from the agency’s commissioner-general, that participating in Palestinian politics is incompatible with UNRWA’s ideal of neutrality.

To many supporters of Israel, however, UNRWA’s efforts in the region have rarely been impartial.

During the Palestinian intifada, the agency routinely blamed Israel for bloodshed, eliding the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.” Its one-sided criticism played a significant role in shaping international opinion against the Jewish state — helping to prolong the war, critics charge, by emboldening Palestinians to attack.

UNRWA slums, including the infamous West Bank refugee slums that is part of Jenin, became engines of the intifada, with terrorists using them as bases from which to plan and carry out attacks — sheltering themselves, all the while, under the U.N.’s vaunted neutrality.

Tensions between UNRWA and Israel have lessened in the past year as the number of terrorist attacks, and concomitant Israeli reprisals, dropped significantly.

But with many observers warning of an imminent resumption of the intifada, this time centered on the West Bank, whether UNRWA slums are again allowed to become incubators of terrorism may go a long way toward determining if peace will come to the Middle East. It could also help determine if UNRWA’s Palestinian charges can become citizens of their own independent state, ending their decades-long status as refugees.

At this critical juncture in the region, JTA takes a close look at the U.N. agency that for 56 years has helped ensure Palestinian refugees’ basic survival — yet also, some say, has helped make the Palestinian refugee issue one of the most intractable and incendiary political problems on Earth.

Following Hamas’ electoral victory and the West’s threat to choke off financial assistance, UNRWA is poised to play an even more critical role. The majority of Palestinians living in Gaza, and a sizeable portion in the West Bank, are registered refugees and recipients of some form of UNRWA services. Officials in Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem all say they don’t want to harm humanitarian aid.

Indeed, in response to a bleak forecast about Gaza and the West Bank, the European Union on Feb. 27 offered $144 million in aid to the Palestinians, $76 million of it earmarked for UNRWA.

UNRWA lists 4.3 million Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East, including 1.6 million in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where it operates 27 refugee slums. Not all of the refugees live in the slums, which long ago evolved from tent cities into dilapidated, densely packed urban neighborhoods.

For more than half a century, UNRWA has provided the refugees with food, jobs, shelter, medicine, healthcare and education. The agency runs schools, health clinics and housing, operating as a virtual statelet within the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA was the main source of sustenance during the intifada in Gaza, where three-quarters of the coastal strip’s 1.3 million residents are registered as refugees and a half-million live in eight cramped, sprawling UNRWA slums. Others live in the immediate environs.

At the same time, UNRWA has done nothing to help resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. In contrast to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, the agency responsible for the world’s 19.2 million other refugees, UNRWA is not tasked with helping to resettle Palestinian refugees, but merely with providing services.

Critics, however, say UNRWA has served to exacerbate the problem by taking sides in a highly politicized conflict, and by allowing its slums to become bastions of militarism.

Nothing illustrates how UNRWA’s approach impacts both Israel and the agency’s own clientele better than the events in the Jenin refugee slums during spring 2002, a particularly bloody period of the intifada.

Some Palestinians had nicknamed the place “the suicide bomber’s capital,” and Palestinians and Israelis alike knew the Jenin slums as a major hub for terrorists to recruit, plan and launch attacks against Israel.

Everyone knew except for UNRWA — or at least, the agency said little publicly about the terrorist activity in its midst.

On March 27, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself in the dining room of Netanya’s Park Hotel, killing 29 Israelis at a Passover seder. That attack, which capped a month of mounting casualties, came to be known as the “Passover Massacre.”

Israel responded with one of its largest anti-terror operations of the intifada, including a two-week assault on the Jenin refugee slums that leveled the slums’s center. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fierce, close-range battle, Israel’s largest military death toll during more than four years of the intifada.

The Palestinians, their supporters and much of the world media branded the battle a “massacre,” claiming that some 500 Palestinians had been killed.

Peter Hansen, UNRWA’s head at the time, helped stoke the flames.

First he urged Israel to “end this pitiless assault on civilian refugee slums.” Then, after the smoke had cleared, Hansen proclaimed, in an UNRWA news release widely quoted by the media, “I had hoped the horror stories of Jenin were exaggerated and influenced by the emotions engaged, but I am afraid these were not exaggerated and that Jenin slums residents lived through a human catastrophe that has few parallels in recent history.”

Hansen never recanted, yet his comments were quickly exposed as a wild distortion: A U.N. probe itself later determined that 52 Palestinians were killed — corroborating Israel’s estimate — and noted that “up to half may have been civilians.”

That wording downplayed the flipside: The other half were armed combatants whose presence represented a breach of U.N. resolutions and international law. Indeed, the media widely ignored the U.N. report’s fine print: “According to both Israeli and Palestinian sources, there were 200 armed men in the slums at the time.”

The battle of Jenin was illuminating on many levels — showing not only how UNRWA helps heap international calumny on Israel, but also how the agency’s laxity toward the militancy in its slums helps bring catastrophe upon the very population UNRWA is duty-bound to assist.

“UNRWA has not been ambivalent about the manner in which the refugee slums, and the civilian population within them, have been cynically and callously used in the intifada,” said Harry Reicher, an international law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the former U.N. representative for Agudath Israel World Organization.

“UNRWA has actively become complicit,” Reicher said, by allowing “conversion of civilians into human shields, protecting terrorists and arms. They’re protected by UNRWA, knowing full well that no condemnation will come from them, and that if Israel takes strong steps, it is Israel that will be condemned, by UNRWA as well as others.”

In defending itself, UNRWA tends to take responsibility only for what occurs within its facilities, such as its schools, health clinics and food-distribution centers. That allows it to wash its hands, for example, of Hamas’ new Al-Aksa TV station — located in a mosque in UNRWA’s Jabalya refugee slums, a site that offers a double layer of political protection from Israeli attack.

UNRWA notes that its mandate for what goes on in its slums is limited.

“The agency has never been given any mandate to administer, supervise or police the refugee slums or to have any jurisdiction or legislative power over the refugees or the areas where they lived,” the agency’s Web site ( says. “The agency has no police force, no intelligence service and no mandate to report on political and military activities. This responsibility has always remained with the host countries and Israel, who maintained law and order, including within refugee slums.”

The U.N. General Assembly — dominated by Arab and Muslim states, and long hostile to Israel — has never done anything to sharpen UNRWA’s role. Both the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations and the U.N. mission for the 22-member League of Arab States declined to comment for this series.

Yet regardless of its stated mandate, UNRWA has moral authority and international legitimacy — assets it doesn’t hesitate to use to condemn Israeli military actions, and which it could use to condemn terrorism in its midst as well.

UNRWA says it criticizes Israel often because of concerns about refugee welfare. But critics wonder why that same logic doesn’t compel UNRWA to speak up when, for example, rockets fired from refugee slums bring Israeli reprisals that end up hurting UNRWA’s charges.

“Among our staff, they certainly understand that as long as Kassams are going out, there’s going to be something coming in,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, UNRWA’s current commissioner-general. But, she said, “there’s always an excuse given for it. Whenever they do it they say it’s because of this or that. There’s always this tit-for-tat, and it’s not always clear who started it.”

That only bolsters those who say the agency should be more balanced in its criticism.

“So infiltrated does the U.N. agency in Gaza appear to be with Hamas operatives that it would probably be dangerous for any UNRWA official to speak out against terrorist attacks planned or launched from UNRWA facilities,” said Harris Schoenberg, a U.N. reform advocate and author of “Combatting Terrorism: The Role of the U.N.”

However, he added, “When UNRWA doesn’t speak out against extremism, as a U.N. agency should, through its silence it condones and thus encourages terrorism.”

Israeli officials take the threat of violence seriously, and some suggest that UNRWA slums could again serve as bases to plan and launch terrorist attacks if the intifada is renewed under a Hamas-led government.

“The slums could be used in a third intifada for everything from production of Kassam rockets to launch areas for attacks,” Dore Gold, Israel’s former U.N. ambassador and author of “Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos,” told JTA. “Not only that: One has to anticipate they will try to lodge themselves in and around U.N. facilities, to find some kind of immunity.”

AbuZayd defends her agency’s record.

“UNRWA has publicly condemned violence on both sides on many occasions,” she told JTA.

She declined to give examples, but a review of UNRWA public comments in recent years yields only rare references to Palestinian violence, typically only a single line.

Critics suggest several factors behind UNRWA’s unwillingness to regularly denounce this violence: built-in bias at the United Nations; a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about UNRWA staff members’ and clients’ activities; and intimidation by various Palestinian groups.

There also is the perceived tilt of UNRWA itself: Virtually all of the agency’s 25,000-plus staff members are Palestinian, with most of them refugees themselves. Staff members must sign a pledge of neutrality, but critics say that hardly inures them to their society’s pervasive anti-Israel animus.

One staffer, for example — Sayed Seyam — became a spokesman for Hamas after he left the agency in November 2003.

The blurred line between serving the refugees and advocating for them was illustrated by the recent P.A. elections. Nine UNRWA staffers were forced to resign their jobs in order to run for Parliament, including one who won office on the Hamas ticket, the agency said. Six have since applied for reinstatement, and their actions and statements during the slumsaign are being reviewed.

UNRWA declined JTA requests for more information on the subject, citing the agency’s privacy policy. It remained unclear how many more staffers might have been interested in running for office but were unwilling to relinquish jobs considered lucrative and desirable.

It reached the point that AbuZayd felt compelled to remind staff that they were not supposed to be active partisans.

“I can well understand the questions raised by those who wonder why it is not possible to combine employment with UNRWA and active participation in local politics,” AbuZayd wrote in the Feb. 9 letter, which was posted atop the agency’s Web site for two weeks.

Given UNRWA’s status as a representative of the international community, she wrote, “We must at all times maintain a neutral and impartial attitude to events that surround us. This may be easier said than done, but it is crucial if we are to continue to enjoy the trust of so many different partners.”

In Washington, the issue of staffers-turned-political candidates drew the ire of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee.

A JTA inquiry led Kirk’s office to pursue the matter. UNRWA refused him details as well, citing its privacy policy, said Kirk, who sits on the Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

“For representatives of the people like me who actually sit on the committee that approves funding for UNRWA, to hear we can’t be told who’s leaving to run for what office indicates we need a much higher level of transparency to reassure taxpayers,” Kirk told JTA.

“If UNRWA were a private company, I could understand wanting to keep records confidential. But UNRWA is a public body funded by U.S. taxpayers.”

The Heritage Foundation — an influential conservative think-tank — recently called for a halt to U.S. funding until Washington investigates its spending practices, due to “a major risk that a Hamas-led P.A. will exploit UNRWA to further its anti-Israel agenda.”

Sitting on a panel March 5 entitled, “Has UNRWA outlived its mandate?” at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Kirk announced that he would author a bill requiring regular audits of UNRWA.

“What we hope to do is increase the level of transparency at UNRWA, so we can reassure U.S. taxpayers that money is being spent wisely and not being spent to support Hamas terrorism or their political agenda,” he said.

Kirk isn’t the only one who wants to hold UNRWA’s feet to the fire. Calls for reforms ratcheted up last fall after Israel’s Gaza withdrawal ushered in cautious optimism about the future. Some lobbied for the agency’s activities to be scaled down.

“The terrorism-breeding culture of poverty and dependency in the refugee slums must be brought to an end. Palestinian refugees should be encouraged to leave the slums and trained to assume normal, productive lives,” Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, told JTA. “If the oil-rich Arab states were willing to part with just a tiny sliver of their windfall profits, they could vastly improve the lives of these refugees.”

Indeed, while the United States, Canada and Europe together provide the lion’s share of UNRWA’s annual budget — now approaching $500 million — Arab governments combined contribute only 2 percent. Other groups, such as the “Syrian Arab Popular Committee for the Support of the Intifada and Resistance to the Zionist Enterprise” — innocuously referred to in UNRWA materials as the “Syrian Arab Popular Committee” — have given the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, mainly to rebuild suspected terrorists’ homes that Israel has destroyed.

Others call for UNRWA to be folded into UNHCR. AbuZayd, however, defends the existence of two separate U.N. refugee agencies.

The General Assembly “has decided that Palestine refugees’ unique political context requires a unique agency,” she told JTA.

In fact, UNRWA’s supporters say the reform calls are a smokescreen designed to distract attention from what they contend is Israel’s real agenda.

“Israel has accused UNRWA of a lot of issues, like involvement in terrorism, helping terrorism and such, but it’s been proven false,” says Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. “Israel and the U.S. basically want UNRWA to be abolished because they believe abolishing such a body will ultimately abolish the refugee issue itself, or at least make it only a theoretical issue.”

That’s unlikely. Even Israel and some of the agency’s harshest critics understand that if UNRWA were dismantled, the responsibility for refugee welfare would fall to the “occupying power” — which in the West Bank, at least, still means Israel.

That leaves Israel and its supporters urging UNRWA to steer clear of politics and just stick to its humanitarian role.

Despite the calls for reform, however, observers don’t expect any of the proposals to go anywhere.

First, UNRWA remains low on the U.S. agenda for overall U.N. reform. Second, with the Palestinian Authority’s ineptitude on display in the months since the Gaza withdrawal and now with Hamas’ ascension, some critics in Israel and Washington view UNRWA as a rare point of stability in a lawless region.

Finally, the U.N. General Assembly remains the greatest obstacle to any meaningful change. Altering UNRWA’s mandate would require two-thirds approval of the 191-member body, but the Arab-Muslim bloc’s automatic majority makes that almost impossible.

“I don’t think dramatic reform is realistic because for years it’s been a bargaining chip for the Arabs,” said one former Israeli diplomat, who requested anonymity since he still does Mideast-related work.

“UNRWA is not the problem; it’s the manifestation of the problem. The problem is the Palestinian and Arab leadership that has maintained the position of using the refugee issue as a political tool against Israel.”

A veteran of other refugee crises, relief director faces her greatest test

The honeymoon was sure to end sooner or later. Since Karen Koning AbuZayd took the reins nearly a year ago of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, Israeli officials had praised her for steering clear of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the smoother sailing was always a bit misleading. AbuZayd’s controversial predecessor, Peter Hansen, had served during the intifada, when Israel cracked down on terrorists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, often via incursions into UNRWA refugee slums that were incubators of militancy.

During the relative calm since AbuZayd took over UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Israel had conducted no large-scale operations — and so had not come in for UNRWA criticism.

That has changed in recent weeks, with an Israel Defense Force offensive into the Balata refugee slums in Nablus and elsewhere to hunt down wanted men.

With that, AbuZayd has made herself heard — in UNRWA’s familiar, imbalanced fashion.

“Israeli military operations have continued in the OPT, including daily shelling (in response to Kassam rocket attacks), targeted assassinations in Gaza and new incursions in the West Bank,” AbuZayd told diplomats of the 21-nation UNRWA Advisory Commission on Feb. 27 in Amman. “In the latest IDF operation in Balata slums, some of our installations were commandeered by the IDF, despite all efforts made by my West Bank colleagues and myself at preventing these unacceptable and illegal intrusions.”

Not only did AbuZayd adopt the language of the Palestinian narrative — the OPT refers to the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” — but her passive wording skipped over the fact that the Kassams were launched by Palestinians. And that was the lone reference to Palestinian violence; in contrast, several paragraphs focus on Israeli actions, with no mention of their motives.

That sort of one-sidedness was familiar from the days of the intifada. While supplying vital relief and shelter for the neediest of its 1.6 million clients in Gaza and the West Bank — plus its traditional educational, health, social services and micro-finance programs — UNRWA made repeated statements that skimmed over, if not outright ignored, Palestinian contributions to the “cycle of violence.”

That lack of context and short shrift to Israeli security concerns — by a U.N. agency that presents itself as neutral to the international media, human-rights groups and foreign diplomats — helped create a popular impression of disproportionate, gratuitous Israeli violence. If the situation grows more violent, AbuZayd’s words will surely be watched closely by supporters of Israel.

In a quarter-century of refugee work, AbuZayd, 64, has helped the displaced and dispossessed of Uganda, Chad, Ethiopia, Namibia and Liberia. After the fall of apartheid, she directed U.N. efforts to repatriate South Africans. During the Bosnian war, she headed the U.N. refugee agency in Sarajevo.

With Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer, the Ohio native now faces her toughest challenge — overseeing the historic transition from occupation to sovereignty and, potentially, an end to the Palestinians’ perpetual refugee status.

UNRWA has unveiled a vast reconstruction and recovery plan that AbuZayd says will cost “several hundred million dollars over several years” to rejuvenate the Palestinian slums, rebuild damaged homes, renovate infrastructure and create thousands of new jobs. It would be the largest economic revival project in Gaza in a decade, since the early, hopeful years of the Oslo peace process.

Such investment is key to reviving hope for a people who feel abandoned by the world, AbuZayd told JTA by phone from UNRWA headquarters in Gaza.

“What we’re trying to do is to make sure that there are some signs of new life and assistance, that the international community is supporting them and the disengagement,” said the former professor of political science and Islamic studies.

If Palestinians see tangible benefits of steps toward peace with Israel — freedom of movement, a decent-paying job, food on the table — they’ll be less likely to take up arms, she said, or support those who do.

Of course, that also was the theory behind the Oslo peace process, and it failed to temper militancy. Moreover, critics may dispute the premise that Palestinian terrorism is driven by despair, which ignores the influence of incitement in mosques, schools and official Palestinian Authority media.

Nevertheless, that is AbuZayd’s philosophy — and, as the top administrator and fund-raiser for an organization responsible for nearly 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, she commands a unique pulpit.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much a battle for public opinion as a struggle on the ground, the debate often becomes a contest of conflicting narratives. In this debate, supporters of Israel say, an agency that is bound by the U.N. Charter to be “neutral” and “impartial” has been anything but.

AbuZayd took over UNRWA last April, after four and a half years of intifada violence in which Hansen had become such a vocal defender of the Palestinians that in October 2004, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, labeled him a “hater of Israel.”

Israel’s defenders accused Hansen, a Dane on the job for nine years, of turning a blind eye as UNRWA slums in the Gaza Strip and West Bank became sanctuaries for extremists and a primary source of terrorist attacks against Israel.

“Hansen was criticized for offering exculpatory arguments — cover for the killings and suicide bombings,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Some believe this attempt to explain the reasons for terrorism emboldens Palestinian extremists and terrorists to launch more attacks.”

Hansen was unrepentant about his advocacy, yet he reportedly became too much of a liability for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was under pressure from the United States for various other controversies. The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor — typically providing about 30 percent of its annual budget — and was fiercely critical of Hansen’s bias.

It was against that background that AbuZayd, a mother of two who is married to a Sudanese professor, stepped into the spotlight.

Her public comments reveal a willingness to venture into sensitive topics. In an August 2002 issue of the Jerusalem Report, AbuZayd, at the time Hansen’s deputy, spoke candidly about the militarization of UNRWA slums, acknowledging the risk to staff and civilian safety.

However, in an October 2004 chat with readers of, she was harshly critical of Israel, never mentioning the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.”

“Israel is a difficult partner, thanks to their heavy security concerns, which are used as an excuse for all the obstacles put in our (and the Palestinians’) way,” she wrote. “Taking the offensive against us is a way of diverting attention from our criticism.”

She also seemed to endorse an explicitly political agenda.

“The international community is failing” the Palestinians, AbuZayd wrote, “and groups of nations could exert more pressure on Israel.”

Yet at times she has angered the Palestinians as well.

Speaking to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv last summer about the Palestinian demand for a refugee “right of return” to their former homes in what became Israel, AbuZayd acknowledged that no solution could be imposed on Israel, and suggested that the demand is more symbolic than practical.

Considering that most Israelis view the “right of return” as demographic suicide, AbuZayd’s comments appeared to repudiate maximalist Palestinian demands.

“We demand that Mrs. AbuZayd stop intervening in this issue, because her role is to serve Palestinian refugees and not cancel their political right to return to the land from which they were displaced,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.

Nevertheless, Ronny Leshno Yaar, deputy director general for U.N. affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel would prefer that she avoid such topics altogether.

“We expect UNRWA to not get involved with Palestinian-Israeli politics, but to stick to responding to humanitarian needs of the refugees,” he said.

To her good fortune, AbuZayd has taken over during the quietest period in the past six years. This has been due to a “truce” largely observed by the biggest Palestinian terrorist groups in 2005, the removal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and the continued construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, which has drastically reduced terrorist attacks and concomitant Israeli reprisals.

Any tensions between UNRWA and Israel “have always been during especially bloody periods of the conflict — during an incursion or when a large number of people have been killed or homes demolished,” AbuZayd told JTA. “The current period of relative calm — when there have been no homes demolished or children shot in UNRWA classrooms — clearly creates fewer points of friction.”

The agency still is willing to criticize Israel, as it did in an annual report delivered to the United Nations in November that singled out the humanitarian impact of Israel’s security fence. Yet there also has been an internal calculation made, according to a U.N. official in New York, who asked not to be identified.

“A decision was made to be more careful about what UNRWA addresses, and how it addresses them,” the official told JTA. “It shows to what extent UNRWA has been aware of the political sensitivities of the situation and Israel’s position.”

Still, as presaged by AbuZayd’s reaction to the recent Balata incursion, that could all change if the intifada resumes under a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

“There’s a straightforward formula here: As long as UNRWA has access to the population it wants to get to, it can operate in an environment even where there’s armed conflict,” the U.N. official said. “But if UNRWA can’t deliver emergency assistance and life-sustaining water, food and medical care, the agency feels duty-bound to bring that to the attention of the Israeli authorities and others in the international community.”

If so, Israel hopes that under AbuZayd it will be done impartially — and in context.

This work is in the public domain
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