The UNRWA Anomaly
Widespread expectation that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare independence (UDI) this coming September has left many interested parties fumbling for a clear sense of policy goals. Ironically, this uncertainty is even more acute in the very venue where this declaration is slated to take place -- the United Nations. Within the UN, the agency most closely associated with the Palestinian cause (via support for the Palestinian refugees) has been the United Nations Works and Relief Agency UNRWA. It is perhaps because of this close association that UNRWA has recently made some startling policy missteps and seems to be struggling to define its own mandate and goals.
UNRWA's hold over Palestinians originates from its mandate (affirmed in May,1950) as the sole body devoted to the Arab refugees. UNRWA -- by virtue of its monopoly on education as well as other social services in the refugee camps -- has educated much of Palestinian society through its extensive school system. As such, most Palestinians' alma mater is an UNRWA school, and it would be difficult to find any effective anti-UNRWA voices within Palestinian society.
Nevertheless, in recent months UNRWA has come under attack from many Palestinians who fear that the international agency is planning to cut its services to the refugees. Both Hamas and the PLO have been adamant that neither party would assume responsibility for the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (sidestepping the very salient question of why Palestinians continue to be designated as refugees within their own politically autonomous territories).
Fatah and Hamas flatly refuse to provide any services to the refugees; and assert UNRWA is the office responsible for servicing the social, educational, and healthcare networks that support Palestinians. The not-so-subtle goal is to maintain refugee status for as many people as possible for as long as necessary, so that Hamas, the PLO and the rest of the Arab world can continue exploiting the plight of the 'refugees' for their own political benefit.
Consequently, Palestinian academics and others have announced the establishment of a watchdog group to monitor UNRWA's performance. At a news conference in Gaza City Hossam Adwan announced that "UNRWA Watch" would prioritize observing the performance of the Palestine refugee agency with the hope of guaranteeing refugee rights.
In an ironic and absurd twist of reality, Palestinians themselves are attempting to hold UNRWA accountable for services that they themselves should be providing -- especially given their push for independence and statehood. UNRWA has already been largely co-opted by its constituents in unsavory and unethical ways. That a non-governmental organization is being asked by its target population to undertake the services usually provided by a governmental authority bespeaks both the un-readiness of the Palestinians to maintain sovereign authority, and the unwholesome interdependency Palestinians have with UNRWA .
UNRWA may appear to be a humanitarian group providing education, social services and other aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In reality, it helps destroy the chances of Arab-Israeli peace, promotes terrorism and holds Palestinians back from rebuilding their lives. U.S. taxpayers fund all this to the tune of nearly $230 million a year -- which is why members of Congress have demanded accountability and transparency from the agency.
An anomaly within the world of refugee relief, UNRWA's job is to keep Palestinian refugees in suspended animation -- and at low living standards, and in camps -- until a formal peace settlement is reached and recognized by the General Assembly. The suffering and anger of these millions is maintained as a weapon to encourage them toward terrorism and intransigence. That stymies the peace process rather than furthering it.
The Obama administration's focus on negotiated diplomacy within the context of the UN General Assembly -- as well as the administration's tacit goal of promoting American 'pluralism' and global inclusiveness -- has led to a distorted emphasis on the United Nations within the Beltway. But outside the executive branch bureaucracies and the State Department, the U.S. Congress remains skeptical of the United Nations and its shenanigans.
In sum, all those truly concerned about the vitality of Palestinian society -- especially now, in anticipation of a possible unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in September -- should examine UNRWA within the context of a peace in the region, and the viability and role the agency plays in the matrix we call "peace negotiations."
Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum. Nicole Brackman, Ph.D. is a former Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.