(August 21, 2014) In UNRWA’s books, a refugee can be just about anyone who wants to be one.
This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post
In the West, it’s known as welfare fraud. In the Palestinian Territories, it’s called refugee relief. In both places, the fraud can become a way of life, seen as an entitlement that children and then grandchildren adopt. Only in the Palestinian Territories, though, does the welfare agency see its goal as putting more people on welfare and keeping them there, the better to keep “the Palestinian refugee crisis” alive.
That welfare agency is called the United Nations Relief and Aid Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA as it’s commonly known. UNRWA doesn’t focus its efforts on resettling Palestinian refugees in foreign countries that would welcome them, as might be expected of a refugee agency, or even on resettling them in their own homeland when possible.
UNRWA doesn’t even limit its efforts to what most people, and all dictionaries, would consider “refugees” — in UNRWA’s books, a refugee can be just about anyone who wants to be one. As a result, the number of Palestinian “refugees,” rather than diminishing to nothing, has grown like topsy over the decades.
UNRWA didn’t always have a create-new-refugees mission. Founded in 1949 as a temporary organization to alleviate the plight of Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel, its laudable goal included emergency relief and “the economic integration of the refugees in host countries.” By funding nearby development projects that would employ the refugees, UNRWA intended to “make them self-sufficient to a point where their names could be deleted from the relief rolls.” UNWRA initially even culled its lists of fraudulent applications, thought to number in the tens of thousands, by people using false births and duplicate registrations with variations of their names.
But UNRWA’s goals soon changed, both because Arab states generally refused to accept the Palestinian refugees that would accompany the development projects and because many refugees themselves balked at being resettled.
When Foreign Affairs Minister Manley offered to resettle Palestinians in Canada, Palestinians responded by burning Manley in effigy.
UNRWA then morphed from a temporary organization into a permanent “huge welfare agency, prolonging its beneficiaries’ dependence instead of giving them tools to become self-sufficient,” according a report by James G. Lindsay, a former legal advisor and general counsel for UNRWA, who lamented “the agency’s funding of food rations to large numbers of refugees who were perfectly capable of providing for their own sustenance.”
To expand its reach, UNRWA redefined who would be eligible for welfare. Its definition of “refugee,” always a politically determined moving target, changed from its early version: “a person whose normal residence had been Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the 1948 conflict and who, as a result, had lost both his home and means of livelihood.”
UNRWA decided to treat homeless Palestinians who hadn’t fled Israel as refugees. Then less needy Palestinians who hadn’t fled Israel and hadn’t even lost their homes received refugee status — Palestinians who had always lived outside Israel could now receive refugee status, even if they lived continuously in the same home they, their fathers and grandfathers had inhabited.
Then UNRWA expanded the definition of refugee to include needy nomadic Bedouins and Arab villagers who lived in Palestine but had used fields that became part of Israel. Then to include needy urban residents of Palestine who had held jobs in Israel. UNRWA also counted some needy non-Palestinians in neighbouring Lebanon. Then UNRWA dropped the requirement to be needy. Also the requirement to have continuously resided in the Palestinian territories after the 1948 war with Israel — a Palestinian who had moved to Canada, decided after a few years he preferred Gaza, and then moved back could now have his refugee status, and entitlements, reinstated. Finally, UNRWA changed the definition of refugee to include the grandchildren and great grandchildren of refugees. Not surprisingly, the number of official refugees soared, from an original official estimate of 726,000 (unofficial estimates are as low as 500,000) to more than 5 million official UNRWA refugees today.
This expansion of the refugee rolls — overwhelmingly paid for by Western taxpayers — paralleled the politicization of UNRWA, which over the decades grew to be 99% staffed by Palestinians, its self-perpetuating bureaucracy of 30,000 employees running schools and hospitals, providing security services in the West Bank and Gaza to counter Israel, and becoming a government within a government in the Palestinian Territories.
Because keeping refugee numbers high became a political goal to help rally international condemnation of Israel while securing more aid, neither the Palestinian leadership nor UNRWA looked favourably on those who would lower the refugee rolls. When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 2000 and Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley in 2001 naively offered to resettle Palestinians in Canada, Palestinians responded by burning Manley in effigy in the West Bank. “If Canada is serious about resettlement, you could expect military attacks in Ottawa or Montreal,” said the head of a Fatah militia. “We reject any kind of settlement of refugees in Arab countries, or in Canada,” said the PLO.
The Palestinian “refugee crisis” — considered the most intractable problem preventing a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is one that neither UNRWA nor its Palestinian confederates can countenance ending. They have a good racket going that will last as long as the West keeps bankrolling it.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute and a member of the advisory board of StandWithUs Canada. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.
This is the fourth piece in a series related to Israel’s war with Gaza. For the other three, click here, here, and here.