This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community1
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is today one of the largest UN programs. It remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional, and that deals with a single group of people. The vast, quasi-governmental machinery into which UNRWA has evolved has made itself susceptible to political manipulation, in particular by extremist groups, in a way that might overshadow its humanitarian accomplishments. The Agency has become an active agent in reaching out to international actors and audiences, and a powerful tool within the anti-Israel propaganda campaign.
The educational services provided by UNRWA, particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, propagate a non-peaceful point of view, upholding a political vision of a continued struggle against a delegitimized Israel. The Agency’s significant influence on Palestinian educational activities, as well as the fact that more than half of its general budget is dedicated to education, highlight UNRWA’s problematic educational role in the Middle East conflict.
The acceptance by UNRWA’s leadership of the mission to enhance the political rights of Palestinians has become a key trend characterizing the Agency’s activity. UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate” has allowed the Agency to become a fierce advocate for Palestinians in its dealings with Israel, although it remains nearly silent when Arab governments in host countries violate or restrict Palestinian civil rights.
UNRWA is regularly involved in political speeches and public pronouncements. The unfettered freedom of speech enjoyed by UNRWA’s leadership defies the fundamental norms of objectivity and neutrality to which UN officials are obliged as international civil servants. In large part, this is the outcome of the fact that UNRWA lacks outside controls over its chief executive, who receives hardly any political guidance from any of the relevant international bodies that are in a position to provide direction.
UNRWA has entrenched the idea of “return,” as well as its misconception as a legal right. Also, it has generated an exponential increase in the number of Palestinian refugees. As was stated recently in a report presented to the US Senate Appropriations Committee, UNWRA’s practice in this regard is artificial and misleading, and undermines any possibility of resolving the refugee issue in future peace negotiations.
In July 2014, some 20 rockets were found in a school in Gaza, operated by UNRWA.
Within the last few years there has been a growing awareness within international political, diplomatic, and academic circles regarding UNRWA’s policies. It testifies to the fact that UNRWA’s position as a stabilizing, “peace servicing” factor in the region and as a guardian of refugee interests is no longer taken for granted. It also reflects the growing quest for accountability and an acknowledgement of the responsibility of donor countries to scrutinize UNRWA’s policies to ensure the strict application of their tax-payers’ money toward relief and humanitarian causes.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has become one of the largest UN programs, with over 30,000 personnel operating in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional, and that deals with a single group of people. It is also unique in that it directly provides government-like public services to its beneficiaries.
Despite UNRWA’s significant achievements in the humanitarian field, within the last few decades, the vast, quasi-state machinery into which the Agency has evolved has attracted considerable criticism. Recently, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon nominated Pierre Krähenbühl of Switzerland, former Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to the position of UNRWA Commissioner General (CG). Given the tremendous authority and discretion vested in the hands of the CG in articulating the Agency’s strategies, now is the appropriate time to consider the recent developments in UNRWA’s controversial practices and trends, calling for awareness and action on the part of UNRWA’s donor countries.