The Magazine

The Overseers of Jenin

What exactly is the U.N. doing in its refugee camps (with our money)?

May 13, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 34 • By DOV B. FISCHER
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AMONG THE MAIN Mideast developments at this writing, it now appears that a United Nations commission will not be traveling to Jenin, but Yasser Arafat will be. The purpose of Arafat's Jenin visit is to draw public sympathy for residents of the United Nations refugee camp there, where fierce fighting occurred several weeks ago. For Americans, perhaps our attention should focus more on underlying questions: Why is the United Nations running refugee camps for people who claim to be living in their own land? How could a refugee camp under U.N. auspices become a world center for recruiting and training suicide bombers? And why is the United States essentially bankrolling these camps when wealthy Arab oil sheikhdoms barely contribute?

According to U.N. records, the United States finances more than one-fourth of the cost of operating the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In 2000, for example, the United States pledged $89,560,000 towards the $337,014,742 total that UNRWA raised from all nations and sources in the world. By comparison, Saudi Arabia pledged $2,500,000--less than 1 percent of the UNRWA total and a minuscule fraction of the American contribution. Oil-rich Kuwait pledged $2 million. Syria pledged $37,209. Egypt pledged $10,000. Iraq and Libya apparently had difficult years; they pledged nothing, although Iraq sends bounties of $25,000 each to the families of suicide bombers.

The UNRWA is a subsidiary of the United Nations. Its commissioner-general, appointed by the U.N. secretary general, is the only head of a United Nations body authorized to report directly to the General Assembly. The UNRWA was founded by Resolution 302(IV) of December 8, 1949, and to this day remains unique within the world body as a relief agency assigned to serve only one class of people. All the world's other refugees are served by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR serves the needs of more than 21.8 million refugees in 120 countries ranging from the Balkans, Colombia, West Africa, and Chechnya to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Timor, and the Horn of Africa. Palestinian Arabs alone are under the aegis of the UNRWA.

Locally recruited "Palestinian refugees" make up 99 percent of UNRWA's staff in the 59 refugee camps that UNRWA operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the disputed territories that Israelis call "Judea and Samaria" and that the Arab world calls "the West Bank." The majority of UNRWA camps and nearly 60 percent of their residents are in the three Arab countries, the remainder in the areas administered by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. According to the UNRWA, it is the main provider of basic social services in all those camps.

The UNRWA's largest budget item is its school system, comprising half its budget and two-thirds of its staff. In all, the UNRWA operates 266 schools with 242,000 students in the area administered by the Palestinian Authority. In the aftermath of Israel's military incursion into the UNRWA refugee camp in Jenin, that agency has been under a microscope, partly because it has schooled four generations of Jenin children. According to the UNRWA, its schools use the same curricula and textbooks as do the host government schools. Palestinian Authority textbooks incorporate maps of the Middle East that omit Israel, and their texts delegitimize Israel, Judaism, and Jews.

Under the UNRWA's auspices, the number of refugees it serves has grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 3.8 million today. Thus, the overwhelming majority of its population are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of those who first were placed in UNRWA camps in 1950. Between 1947 and 1950, approximately 750,000 Jewish refugees were driven from Arab countries in the Middle East. There was no United Nations agency to serve their health, educational, and social needs. So they were absorbed directly into the Israeli polity, and their offspring bear no indicia of refugee status. For example, the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is the child of Iranian Jewish refugees from that time.

Israel reports that approximately half the suicide bombers who have struck over the past 19 months were residents of the Jenin UNRWA camp or terrorists who were trained there. It also is odd that a "refugee camp" under United Nations auspices has emerged as a terror center where Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Tanzim, and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade terrorists ran wild, stocking arms, building bomb-making factories, and recruiting and training children educated at UNRWA schools to detonate themselves. Perhaps oddest of all is the American role as chief bankroller.