Every year, the United Nations votes to approve the continued operations of its projects and committees. This year is no different. Recently, a major U.N. committee passed nine resolutions that prolong a serious ongoing conflict, perpetuate hatred and cause needless violence and suffering. They do all this by continuing to authorize and fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)
The United States shoulders 22 percent of the cost of running the United Nations. Much of the work of that international body supports our interests. The U.N. fosters stability and helps the United States wield soft power rather than resorting to military power to solve a variety of conflicts. Still, if there’s one U.N. body in particular that’s worthy of a closer examination, it’s UNRWA.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees from Israel’s War of Independence. At the time it was established, there were as many as 750,000 refugees. Today, UNRWA considers more than 5 million people refugees from that conflict. UNRWA provides education, healthcare, social programs, loans and more to people in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Syria.
Helping refugees sounds great, and education, healthcare, social programs and microfinance are important programs. But UNRWA isn’t actually helping people. It’s perpetuating a conflict that the Palestinians lost long ago, and it’s aiding Arab governments who continue to refuse to provide for the basic needs of their people.
Between 1940 and 1945, World War II created 40 million refugees in Europe. The partition of India and Pakistan displaced 14 million people in 1947. But how many people remain displaced due to these conflagrations? Zero.
So why, then, has the number of refugees from Israel’s War of Independence grown nearly seven-fold since 1949? The answer is that it’s been politically advantageous to the Palestinian leadership and to Israel’s Arab neighbors to hold these people hostage as they work to ensure the conflict continues.
And with UNRWA’s support, they’ve become experts at perpetuating the conflict. Just this week, a new study found that UNRWA schools are teaching Palestinian children that, “Jews have no rights whatsoever in the region but only ‘greedy ambitions.’” The same study found textbooks in UNRWA schools glorifying terrorists who killed civilians as heroes.
We haven’t exercised it, but the U.S. has a great deal of leverage over UNRWA. Our policymakers could drive real change in many ways if they simply added conditions to our $300 million per year funding of the agency.
First, the U.S. could demand that the U.N.’s definition of a refugee conform to U.S. law. Everyone agrees that people who were displaced by the 1948 War of Independence are refugees. Most estimates figure fewer than 30,000 of those individuals are still alive. Their descendants, like the descendants of those millions of refugees from World War II and the India-Pakistan partition, wouldn’t be considered refugees if it weren’t for UNRWA. Ending the registration of newly-born refugees would go a long way toward bringing about a better life for millions of people in the region.
The U.S. could force UNRWA to transfer responsibility for administering refugee camps to the governments that host them. And we could force host countries to supply services to their populations. This would cause the Palestinian Authority to focus on helping its own people rather than demonizing others. In Lebanon, it could greatly improve life for Palestinians who live in a permanent state of apartheid. They are forbidden from attending public school, owning property, or even improving their housing stock. This doesn’t help people, it only serves to keep them in a state of limbo and to gin up anger that can be harnessed to perpetuate conflict.
Likewise, the U.S. could condition our UNRWA funding (or our U.N. contribution) to end UNRWA advocacy that supports the Palestinian “right of return.” There is no workable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that allows millions of Palestinians born outside Israel to move there. And sustaining the notion as a goal doesn’t help anyone, it only makes the conflict harder to resolve.
UNRWA could be forced to stop hiring new employees. If the mission is to help refugees, and the definition of refugee is tailored to apply only to actual refugees, then why does UNRWA need 30,000 employees? That’s one employee for every living refugee.
Finally, U.S. funding should be conditioned to end the free supply of water and electricity in refugee camps. To be clear – these utilities shouldn’t be cut off entirely, but for those who can afford to pay – and the Palestinian Authority certainly can, as can the governments of Jordan and Lebanon – free utilities contribute to the notion that refugees are special and that they deserve treatment different from the rest of the citizenry. That’s got to end.
President Trump came into office making big promises about solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and reforming the United Nations. His announcement on Jerusalem dealt a serious blow to the Palestinian rejectionism that’s been prolonging this conflict for generations. Finding a way to force UNRWA reform, or ending the program altogether would be another important step.