Veteran Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yamini has written extensively on the subject of the treatment of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. This article (translated by CiF Watch) was published on June 22nd 2012 and is entitled ‘A deception named UNRWA’.
Last month the American Senate reached a precedential decision concerning UNRWA and the Palestinian refugees. In order to understand the change, we must remind ourselves that the beginnings of UNRWA were appropriate. It was a humanitarian organization working on behalf of the UN in order to take care of the Arabs of the British Mandate, most of whom fled and some of whom were expelled, in the context of the Arab aggression which sought to destroy the State of Israel which had barely been established. But the care of refugees changed direction, and instead of care UNRWA became a factory of cloning, worsening and perpetuation of massive proportions.
The UN has two bodies which deal with refugees. The High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which deals with all the world’s refugees and UNRWA, which deals only with those who became Palestinians. (In the beginning they didn’t know they were such. They were Arabs. The separate identity developed later). The Commissioner has taken care of fifty million people. They received initial help and they are not refugees. UNRWA, in contrast, began with 711 thousand and magically turned them into more than five million. The commission rehabilitates refugees. UNRWA nurtures, clones and perpetuates the refugee problem.
This paradox is clear to anyone who has eyes in his head. It originates from many sources. One of them is UNRWA’s strange definition of a refugee: someone “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict”. But with time, descendants too came into the picture, and strangely, and in conflict with the definition, so did those who were not in need from the beginning, as well as those who became wealthy later on – all still count as refugees. And thus the number of “refugees” rises with the years at a somewhat strange and dizzy rate.
On the basis of this, MK Dr. Einat Wilf has been acting in the past few months, in collaboration with AIPAC, to try to bring about change in UNRWA’s main funder – the United States. The result is the “Kirk Amendment”, named after the Republican Senator Mark Kirk, which will oblige the State Department to report on the real number of original refugees – those who meet the criteria appearing in UNRWA’s original mandate. It is estimated that the numbers are around 30,000 alone.
There is something sophisticated about Kirk’s amendment. That is because there is nothing in it which demands a cut in aid or the changing of criteria. There is only the obligation to report. Report on the number of original refugees and report on the number of descendants. But information about the amendment makes it clear that in fact this is a first step in the direction of a more basic change. Because following the reports the question will be raised – why should the tax payers have to fund those who are not really refugees?
Actually, these questions are already appearing. The Deputy Secretary of State of the United States, Thomas Nides, sent a letter to the Senate appropriations committee in which he urged them to vote against the amendment. According to him, this is a particularly sensitive subject, America should not interfere in establishing the number of refugees and the subject is supposed to be solved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Jordanian embassy in Washington exerted pressure against the amendment and Nides states in his letter that the amendment is liable to create “a negative reaction, especially in Jordan”.
Nides’s request was rejected. The amendment passed. In the meantime there have been no strong after-shocks. It is time to pierce the inflated balloon, which continues to inflate further, of the Palestinian refugees. The day when the Palestinian “refugees” will be treated in the same way as tens of millions of other refugees in the world is the day their situation will begin to improve, together with improvement in the chances for peace. That is because the “refugee problem”, as the Arab side has said time and time again, “is perpetuated in order to achieve the solution of the elimination of Israel”.
The treatment so far of the refugee problem has become the biggest obstacle to peace. It is time for a change. The US Senate has taken the first step, limited and hesitant. A step in the right direction. Let us hope that the next steps will come too.
Some more points for the attention of the US Congress: according to official UNRWA figures, the number of refugees in Lebanon was at the beginning of last year 425,000. But according to research published by the American University of Beirut, which UNRWA itself helped fund, there are just 260-280,000 refugees. They are emigrating and fleeing from Arab countries because they suffer from the worst apartheid in the Arab world (also according to the report). So there is no connection between the number registered and budgeted and the number still there. So America, which is the main donor, has to ask the question: where exactly is the money going when there is an inflation of 57% in the number of refugees?
And another deception: according to the UN’s refugee charter, whoever receives citizenship in whatever country can no longer be counted as a refugee. And yet according to official UNRWA figures, in Jordan there are over two million refugees, the vast majority of whom hold Jordanian citizenship. So it is possible to reduce the numbers by two million in Jordan, and another 150 thousand in Lebanon and it is more than likely that the situation in Syria is similar. There the number is inflated too. A recommendation in that spirit is found in a report presented by James Lindsay. For seven years Lindsay held a senior position in UNRWA. After he left, and whilst a research fellow at the “Washington Institute”, he published a comprehensive report with suggestions for deep reform.
And the carnival carries on. UNRWA keeps a team of over 29,000 people, among whom only two hundred are not Palestinian. We are talking about a huge system, which also deals in incitement, through the education system which the organization holds. This is the UN’s biggest agency. Just for comparison, UNHCR, the commission which takes care of all the rest of the world’s refugees, keeps a much smaller team of 7,685 employees, and takes care of 34 million refugees. In UNRWA there is one worker for every 172 refugees. In the UNHCR – one worker for every 4,424 refugees. The budget per head at UNRWA is also more than double that at UNHCR. Taking into account the fact that a significant proportion of those listed are already citizens of other countries or that the lists are inflated, as in Lebanon, that means that a Palestinian “refugee” costs the international community – and especially the US – a lot more than any other refugee in the world.
The chain of absurd and deception has to end. There is a need for universal definitions and norms. The anti-Israel camp claims again and again that Israel must obey international norms. A wonderful and just demand. That is exactly what should also happen on the subject of the refugees. The same definitions of “who is a refugee” and the same treatment which helps the real needy and does not eternalize them as “refugees”. That would be the international community’s biggest contribution to encouraging peace.
Senator Kirk began. Let us hope he continues.