From the June 3, 2002 issue: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees writes in.
12:00 PM, May 28, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
IN RECENT WEEKS THE WEEKLY STANDARD has published a number of articles concerning the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). These have contained a large number of serious inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Among these articles were David Tell's The U.N.'s Israel Problem (May 6) and Charles Krauthammer's Kofi's Choice and Dov B. Fischer's The Overseers of Jenin (May 13). Please allow me to set the record straight.
1. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes during the war of 1948, pending a political solution to their problem. (Unlike the Jews who fled from Arab countries in the same period--and the Muslims who fled India in 1947--the Palestinian refugees had no state of their own to go to.) This role is quite different from the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is mainly to ensure that states fulfill their obligations to protect refugees and asylum-seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
2. Israel specifically requested that UNRWA continue to play its role in the occupied territory after 1967, and since then has frequently repeated that it considers UNRWA's humanitarian work a major factor for stability in the region. This is because UNRWA, far from keeping the refugees in a state of dependency as your writers have claimed, has given them health and educational indicators that compare very well with those in the region, and have thereby enabled the vast majority to support themselves and their families. UNRWA's micro-finance lending and other similar programs have won awards for helping refugees to help themselves out of poverty.
3. UNRWA does not "wholly fund" or "largely administer" Jenin or any other refugee camp. It simply provides services to refugees, some of whom live in "camps," the majority of whom, in the West Bank, do not. The so-called "camps" are in fact urban ghettos without any clear perimeter or central administration. Enforcement of law and order in them is the responsibility of the civil power--which, in the West Bank and Gaza between 1967 and 1994, was the Israeli government. In the latter year, under the Oslo accords, the camps in "Area A" (including Jenin) were transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
4. Likewise, it is the civil power that approves the textbooks and curriculum used in schools, including those run by UNRWA. Under the Israeli administration, the textbooks were old Jordanian ones, dating from before 1967. Since 1994, the PA has been replacing these with new ones which, according to a study by Prof. Nathan Brown of the George Washington University, published in November 2001, "make no mention of any location as Palestine outside the territories occupied by Israel in 1967," and "go to some lengths to avoid saying anything about Israel at all," the few exceptions being "hardly pejorative." Israeli academics have confirmed Prof. Brown's findings, and the Israeli representative to the United Nations has praised UNRWA's own initiatives towards promoting tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution in its schools.
5. UNRWA is scrupulous about protecting its installations against misuse by any person or group. Only once, in Lebanon in 1982, has there been credible evidence of such misuse by Palestinians, and it was promptly dealt with. Since then the Israeli authorities have made no specific allegations about abuse of UNRWA facilities. Nor have they lodged any complaint with UNRWA about the official or private activities of any UNRWA staff member--though they have arrested hundreds of them, and in each case UNRWA immediately writes asking for information about the grounds for the arrest.
6. UNRWA employees stand for election to the staff union on their own merits (not on political slates), and UNRWA strictly enforces the rules which oblige employees to behave with integrity and impartiality in their official functions.
7. UNRWA has never hired buses to take refugees on tours of Israel.