UNRWA officials with schoolchildren in Gaza, by UNRWA/Shareef Sarhan, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
On April 18, 2018, fifty-one members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter to President Trump requesting that he order the declassification of a document- which was classified “despite no apparent national security threat or known historical precedent for classifying such a report.”
Ongoing Congressional misgivings
According to the Congressional representatives, “this classification was inappropriate and a deliberate attempt to conceal information from American taxpayers”, and they urged that “the report should be declassified without further delay”.
The document in question is a 2015 State Department report drawn up pursuant to a 2012 directive from Congress to account for how the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, allocated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA ) — the entity charged with dealing with the “Palestinian refugees” — were being used… or perhaps, abused.
Expressions of Congressional misgivings as to both the intrinsic nature of UNRWA and to its aberrant behavior have emerged into the public discourse from time to time in the last decade.
One of the first assertive attempts to address the perverse and pernicious role of UNRWA was a legislative initiative by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), designed to disperse the fog of uncertainty over just how many people were benefiting from U.S. funding allocated for “Palestinian refugees” — and what criteria were used to determine who was, and who wasn’t, entitled to such benefits.
The rationale underlying the initiative was to determine how many Palestinians were designated “refugees” according to generally accepted criteria and how many were so designated according to anomalous criteria applicable only to Palestinians.
State Department’s resistance
As will be shown shortly, the significance of this distinction is huge — both economically and politically. Suffice it to say, at this stage, that while the Palestinians (and UNRWA) claim that there are five million refugees, if universal criteria were employed, this number would plunge to around 20,000 — i.e., by over 99%!!!
So understandably, the demand for providing the information stipulated by the Kirk initiative was repeatedly incorporated in annual Appropriations Bills in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Oddly enough — or not — the State Department objected strongly to the Kirk amendment, claiming that any U.S. determination of the number or status of refugees was unhelpful and that refugee determinations are a final-status issue that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Then-deputy Secretary of State, Tom Nides, wrote a letter condemning the initiative, alleging that providing accurate statistical data to Congress “would be viewed around the world as the United States acting to prejudge and determine the outcome of this sensitive issue [of refugees]”.
Did State Department create five million Palestinian refugees?
In opposing the proposed initiative, Nides argued: “The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number… of Palestinian refugees."
This is, of course, a puzzling position to take. After all, why should a factual quantitative assessment of the status of the recipients of U.S. aid constitute a “public judgment” by the U.S. on the number of Palestinian refugees?
Indeed, the State Department’s position appears even more puzzling — if not disturbingly deceitful — when, a few paragraphs later, Nides does exactly what he warned should not be done, i.e. makes a judgment on how many Palestinians refugees there are—stipulating: "UNRWA provides essential services for approximately five million refugees…” — thereby effectively endorsing the Palestinian’s inflated tally.
This clear duplicity on the part of the State Department reveals its partisan pro-Palestinian prejudice and explains its desperate determination to conceal the truth from the public by insisting on continued classification of the report.
Palestinians: Like no other refugees
To fully grasp the scope and significance of the UNRWA/Palestinian anomaly, one must realize that all refugees on the face of the globe — whether because of famine, earthquakes, tsunamis, political repression or warfare — are under are the auspices of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) — except for the Palestinians. They have a specially designated U.N. body, UNRWA, to deal exclusively with their affairs.
The two bodies have very different definitions of who is a refugee, and very different mandates of how to deal with them. In broad brush strokes, according to the generally applicable UNHCR definition, refugee status is not hereditary and cannot be transferred to descendants of the originally displaced/expelled individuals; while according to the Palestinian-specific UNRWA definition, it is hereditary, and can be transferred to descendants.
So, while in the case of the UNHCR definition, the size of a given refugee population decreases over time, in the case of the UNRWA definition, the size of the Palestinian refugee population increases over time. Moreover, according to the UNHCR mandate, refugees can be permanently settled in third party countries, not the country of their origin. According to the UNRWA mandate, it cannot settle refugees permanently in any third party country, but can merely take care of their ongoing humanitarian needs as refugees.
Clearly then, by their very nature, by creating a growing population whose predicament can only be maintained, not permanently resolved, UNRWA’s definition and mandate necessarily perpetuate the problem it is purportedly charged with resolving.
The real reason for sustaining UNRWA
Much has been written about UNRWA’s pernicious behavior — employing known members of terror organizations such as Hamas, allowing its installations and vehicles to be used by such organizations and disseminating vicious Judeophobic incitement in its school curricula. But beyond its malicious misconduct and abuse of its U.N. credentials, the most sinister aspect of UNRWA is in its inherent nature and its underlying raison d’etre.
For in essence, UNRWA exists to perpetuate the myth of “Return” — whereby millions of Palestinians-Arabs will return to inundate Israel and effectively eliminate it as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Indeed, this was baldly divulged in a 2017 Al Jazeera article, written in response to a call by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismantle UNRWA and merge it with UNHCR. The article conceded: “Netanyahu wants to dismantle the UNRWA because the agency allows Palestinian refugee men to transmit their refugee status from one generation to another… If the UNRWA is dismantled and merged with the UNHCR, Palestinian refugees scattered all over the Middle East will effectively lose all hope of returning to their homeland… UNHCR will either integrate them in host countries or resettle them in a third country.” Precisely!!
State Department complicit in weaponization of UN against Jewish State
Clearly, if Palestinian refugees were treated — and counted — as all other refugees on the planet, the problem could be easily solved. Indeed as we have seen, by generally accepted criteria, it has already been all but dissipated (over 99%) by the passage of time.
Accordingly, as a U.N. body, UNRWA is essentially being used as a strategic weapon against Israel — by the sustaining a threat to make it untenable demographically as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Thus, by insisting on the continued classification of the report on the scope and status of Palestinians deemed “refugees”, the State Department is complicit in concealing the truth from the public, and thus in the perpetuation of this dangerous deception — and in the continued weaponization of the U.N. against a staunch American ally.
Congress must put a stop to the shameful charade.
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.