Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Essay: "Refugeeism"

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By Michael Bernstam


British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called Gaza a “prison camp.” Former US President Jimmy Carter has called it a “cage.” At first glance, these characterisations of the Hamas-ruled province seem like rhetorical excesses designed to cast Israel in the role of the unjust jailer blockading the strip. But Cameron and Carter have got it right, in a way. Gaza is a totalitarian paramilitary camp at war with its neighbours and other Palestinians. It is a paramilitary camp because it is a unique type of refugee camp. The narrow confines of the 139 square miles of the Gaza district – surrounded by Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west – feature eight separate Palestinian refugee camps, plus dozens of surrounding ghettos. Altogether, they combine the features of a refugee camp and a military camp and, cut off from the world, look to some extent like the cages Carter mentioned.

These camps were established in 1949 and have been financed ever since by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Yet far from seeking to help residents build a new and better life either in Gaza or elsewhere, UNRWA is paying millions of refugees to perpetuate their refugee status, generation after generation, as they await their forcible return to the land inside the State of Israel.

Though pundits and foreign policy experts focus on the question of settlements or the current temperature of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA’s institutionalisation of refugee-cum-military camps is, in my view, the principal obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The chances of achieving peace and security in the Middle East will continue to be remote as long as UNRWA is, in effect, underwriting a self-destructive Palestinian cycle of violence, internecine warfare, and a perpetual war against Israel.

The core issue is a phenomenon we can call “refugeeism”. For 60 years, UNRWA has been paying four generations of Palestinians to remain refugees, reproduce refugees, and live in refugee camps. It is UNRWA that put them in refugee cages and watched the number of inhabitants grow. The Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza has exploded from 726,000 in 1950 to 4.8 million in 2010. About 95% live under UNRWA care. The unprecedented nature of this guardianship is rooted in the unusual nature of this institution. UNRWA is a supranational welfare state that pays its residents not to build their own nation-state, for, were they to do so, they would forfeit their refugee status and its entitlements of cash, housing, health care, education, credit, and other largesse.

It is these perverse incentives above all that have undermined efforts to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, such as those measures aimed at fostering economic development in the West Bank undertaken by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the Israeli government. If the international community truly wishes to serve the needs of the Palestinians and improve their lot, its first task would be the abolition of UNRWA.

In their 1845 pamphlet The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels coined the term “lumpenproletariat”. Marx later defined it as “neither wage-earning workers nor peasants,” “classless elements,” “beggars, alms-seekers, dole-seekers, paupers, and vagabonds.” In 1949, Josef Stalin, who knew his Marx, instructed his envoy to the United Nations to oppose a refugee agency devoted to Palestinian Arabs. He wrote: “We should not vote for UNRWA. The goal should be to return Palestinian refugees to normal productive labor so that they work for a living. We need the Palestinian conscientious working class, not the Palestinian parasitic lumpenproletariat.” Yet on Dec. 8, 1949, the UN voted overwhelmingly to create the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The US, Western Europe, the Arab states, and even Israel voted for it. Acting on Stalin’s orders, the Soviet Union and all the other Communist-bloc countries abstained. Ever since, UNRWA has been among the most bizarre humanitarian organisations in human history. It is a refugee-relief effort whose definition of “refugees,” a term meant to describe those in emergency flight from imminent peril, includes the descendants of refugees.

Whereas all other refugees and deportees fall under the jurisdiction and care of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians belong to UNRWA. Only actual refugees qualify for aid under the UNHCR, and that on a short-term basis. This draws a clear line between refugees as such and various ethnic diasporas. The UNHCR’s mandate is to resettle and integrate all refugees in their historical homelands or in new host countries – to “un-refugee” them, so to speak. Out of the millions of refugees and deportees who emerged after World War II and since – Germans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Finns, Russians, Ukrainians, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis, Jews, Turks, Chinese, Koreans, Algerians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and many others – the UN provided Palestinians alone with a different sort of relief.


The UNRWA charter specified that the Palestinians who lived in British Mandate Palestine during the years 1946-48 and who subsequently fled in 1948-49 qualified for refugee status – together with all their descendants. This open-ended definition of refugees applies for generations to come. It bestows housing, utilities, health care, education, cash allowances, emergency cash, credit, public works, and social services from cradle to grave, with many cradles and grand-cradles along the way, to its beneficiaries. In practice, this means multigenerational refugee camps and ghettoes in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. Close to one-third of today’s refugees, about 1.4 million, live in 59 refugee camps. There is no room in UNRWA’s mandate and agenda for resettlement and integration. In 1959, UNRWA discarded the last remnants of such programs.

UNRWA’s mandate created, in effect, a multigenerational dependency of an entire people – a permanent, supranational refugee welfare state in which simply placing most Palestinians on the international dole has extinguished incentives for work and investment. It has succeeded with a vengeance. It has thwarted economic development, destroyed opportunities for peace in the Middle East, and created along the way – both metaphorically and literally – a breeding ground for international terrorism. The great-grandchildren of East Prussian refugees do not blow up pizzerias in what used to be Konigsberg and is now the Russian city Kaliningrad. But the great-grandchildren of the original UNRWA refugees do blow up pizzerias in Jerusalem.

It is this open-ended refugee status – which necessarily envisions a victorious return to the Israeli part of the former British Mandate Palestine – that puts bread on the table in the rent-free house, together with an array of social services. Only the triumphant return of the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren to the ancestral land will mark the final deliverance in this ideology. Until then, the permanent refugee welfare state means permanent war.

The permanent refugeeism of the UNRWA welfare state generates a particular “right of return” claim – the argument that Palestinians should be given title to the land they occupied before Israel’s independence – that fuels perpetual warfare. To see its pernicious demographic and physical meaning, consider what this claim is not, and then what it is. First, it is not the right of return of actual refugees (as opposed to descendants) that was created by international conventions since 1948 to prevent deportations and to mitigate the conditions of concurrent refugees who fled the ravages of war. Nor is it the right of return of historical ethnic diasporas to their own nation-states that Germany extends to all Germans, Armenia to all Armenians, Greece to all Hellenes, and Israel to all Jews. Nor is it the establishment of new nation-states where there were none, such as the partition of British Mandate Palestine into the Jewish and Arab states or the partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan. Rather, the claim of the Palestinian right of return is intended for one historical ethnic diaspora of the descendants of perennial refugees to repopulate another people’s existing nation-state, Israel.

This is not the right of return to a country; this is the right of return of a country, a reconquest after a lost war. In Europe, a similar claim would apply to the right of the Germans to a return of the Sudetenland from the Czech Republic, Farther Pomerania and Silesia from Poland, and East Prussia from Russia. In Asia, it would mean the right of the Pakistanis to parts of India.

This is not the right of return; this is a claim of the right of retake. More than being detrimental to Israel, it is destructive for the Palestinians because it gives more belligerent groups, such as Hamas, an upper hand and prevents reunification of the two potential Palestinian nation-states.

After Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, conditions were in place for building a Palestinian nation-state. The Palestinian Authority could have taken over the physical infrastructure of the aid pipeline as well as social services from UNRWA.

Instead, there soon followed a violent takeover by Hamas, an internecine war with other Palestinian factions, and an escalation of the Palestinian war against Israel. This war became internationalised by flotillas sent by foreign organisations to break the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the terrorist regime ensconced in Gaza.

The Palestinian failure to take advantage of Israel’s withdrawal to improve their lot is reminiscent of the old joke about the Soviet failure to manufacture personal computers. The punchline was that no matter which blueprint the Russians took from the West, they always ended up making a machine gun. Similarly, the perennial refugeeism of the UNRWA welfare-warfare state always results in paramilitary formations, perpetual warfare and terrorism.

Incessant warfare is a corollary of permanent refugee status and the concomitant claim of the right of retake. James G. Lindsay, UNRWA General Counsel in 2002-07, summarised this experience: “UNRWA encouraged Palestinians who favour re-fighting long-lost wars, discouraged those who favour moving toward peace, and contributed to the scourge of conflicts that have been visited upon Palestinian refugees for decades.”

The UN’s High Commissioner on Refugees disqualifies individuals who committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts against peace from refugee status. UNRWA does not exclude them.

James Lindsay described it from the inside: “UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of organisations such as Hamas from joining its staff.” And again: “The agency makes no effort to discourage supporters of members of Hamas or any other terrorist group from joining its staff.” Indeed, of some 30,000 UNRWA employees, fewer than 200 are “internationals” and the rest are Palestinian recruits, many of whom use UNRWA facilities and equipment to serve terrorist organisations. Since it is the claim of the right of retake that accompanies the eternal refugee welfare state, and warfare and terrorism enforce that claim, the staff of UNRWA must ultimately converge with the terrorist paramilitary organisations. Natural selection, if you will.

Lindsay cites numerous instances from his former agency’s history. From 1975-82, UNRWA’s Siblin Vocational Training Centre in Lebanon was used for storing weapons, housing combatants, and retooling military equipment. Since 1987, UNRWA schools have exhibited posters glorifying militants and suicide bombers and served, in effect, as recruitment centres. In 2000-01, Palestinian children received military training in militarised summer camps. UNRWA vehicles and drivers periodically transported armed fighters.

A most telling example of this institutional adaptation is the conversion of the most important humanitarian service, ambulances, into a lethal force. UNRWA ambulances routinely serve Palestinian combatants and wounded fighters during hostilities with Israel, in addition to Gaza and West Bank ambulances. They are the medical troops on one side in the war. And more: Hamas members have been employed as UNRWA ambulance drivers to transport combatants, weapons, and explosives in both the West Bank and, especially, Gaza.

The point is not that terrorists have infiltrated UNRWA. The point is that, by the logic of institutional evolution, even regardless of the policies of specific Western managers, UNRWA has become a terror-sponsoring organisation.

This is not, of course, what the US, Western Europe and Israel had in mind when they voted for UNRWA . But institutions tend to evolve according to their own intrinsic and devilish logic beyond the good intentions of their founders.

A pattern of demand and demographic supply characterised the evolution of the US welfare system’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). AFDC was established during the Great Depression in 1935. As the name indicates, it was intended as relief support for preexisting families with underage children who lost their breadwinner. The program evolved into a multigenerational dependency program for young, often teenaged, unmarried mothers of the permanent underclass. Senator Edward M. Kennedy described the mechanism: “We go to a young girl – a child of 18, or 16, or even younger – and this is what we say: Abandon all your hopes. You will never have a decent job. You will live in neighbourhoods of endless unemployment and violence. And then we say to this child: Wait, here is a way, one way. We will give you an apartment and furniture to fill it. We will give you a TV set and a telephone. We will give you clothing and cheap food and free medical care, and some spending money besides. And in return, you only have to do one thing: Just go out there and have a baby.”

It was not until the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 that this trend was reversed.

Ancient Rome was the first to encounter the proletarian problem when it instituted a welfare state in 58 BCE. According to British historian Arnold Jones, it was intended initially just for the 220,000 plebeians who had lagged behind the general rise in living standards. The program began with grain allowances. But because the recipients did not want to bother baking bread, the grain allowance was converted into free bread. The right to welfare became hereditary, and by 284 CE there were millions of recipients. Bronze tablets, an equivalent of food stamps, were issued to recipients to control welfare rolls.

By the latest count, there are some 250 theories of the decline of the Roman Empire: moral decay, fiscal failure, inflation, unemployment, endless wars, barbarian onslaught, etc. This 251st is as good as any, and synthetically subsumes the others: Mighty Rome could not sustain, simultaneously, the welfare state and the warfare state.

However, the mighty UNRWA can. It can do so indefinitely because the United States and the European Union finance it.


UNRWA has been one of the most inhuman experiments in human history. Since UNRWA creates incentives for war and disincentives for peace, conditions for Palestinian misery and disincentives for economic development, it cannot be reformed and must be removed. The change in the Palestinian incentive structure is necessary for both peace and statehood. Palestinian sovereignty will only be achieved by liberation from UNRWA and, like peace, cannot be truly achieved without this liberation.

The process is not important. What is important is the change in mission. The new mandate should be resettlement, integration, and naturalisation—or at least the former two or the latter two, with integration being a central and necessary component. The task is, in short, to transform 4.8 million people from dependent refugees into productive citizens.

One option is for UNRWA funding to be converted into international subsidies earmarked exclusively for resettlement, integration, and naturalisation. The funds could be applied in the countries of current residence (reimbursing, too, those countries’ expenses), in Palestinian jurisdictions, or in whatever country would admit refugees on an individual basis.

Most important, the transfer of UNRWA funding to the Palestinian Authority and local authorities would dispose of the very institution of the refugee camps. They would become regular neighbourhoods and dwellings once their refugee status is removed. Integration would also become easier once the refugee stigma is removed from these neighbourhoods. UNRWA schools, medical facilities, financial institutions, and all social services could be given outright to the Palestinian Authority, which would enhance its status, scope, and power as a sovereign government of a new nation-state.

In fact, the dismantling of UNRWA would, by itself, facilitate and accelerate the task of resettlement, integration, and naturalisation. This process has been forestalled in many places by the very existence of UNRWA and its refugee designation of the Palestinians.

In Jordan, more than 1.8 million of the nearly 2 million registered refugees are already naturalised citizens of that country. Lindsay aptly calls them “oxymoronic citizen refugees.” Another 170,000 have permanent residency rights. Both citizens and permanent residents are integrated into the labour market and commerce and are isolated from other Jordanians primarily by the stigma of refugeeism – encaged, to rephrase President Carter.

In Syria, since 1957, Palestinian residents have had the same rights as citizens in employment, commerce, and social services. They lack formal citizenship and full property rights because the Syrian government, in a concordat with UNRWA, committed itself to “preserve their original nationality,” that is, to keep them trapped in their permanent refugee status and the ensuing claim on retaking Israel. Without UNRWA, this obstacle to integration would weaken even if the Syrian hostility toward Israel remains intact.

Lebanon is the most difficult case. Of 414,000 registered refugees, only 70,000 are citizens. Others do not enjoy employment rights, cannot own land, and do not qualify for public education, health care, and welfare. However, the transfer of the array of social and financial services and facilities from UNRWA to the Lebanese authorities would contribute to integration and help create jobs.

Those Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese Palestinians who cannot integrate into those countries could be resettled in the nascent Palestinian nation-state, which would master an expanded scope of sovereignty after the liberation from UNRWA.

The end of UNRWA would automatically nullify the pernicious issue of the right of return-cum-retake. It is unsolvable in the presence of UNRWA, because it implies the repopulation of Israel with millions of perennial paramilitary refugees. But once UNRWA is discarded, the refugee status expires instantaneously or after a transition period, and the right of return becomes a non-issue.

Though its defenders may claim that criticisms of this agency are ill-intentioned or biased against the Palestinians, the phasing out of UNRWA also fits well with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s hope of creating a viable independent state. Though supporters of the Palestinians and even some friends of Israel have come to believe that UNRWA is indispensable, nation-building from within is the only viable form of nation-building. Instead of perpetuating the dead end that the international welfare state for the Palestinians represents, ending UNRWA’s horrific six-decade reign would instantly create the conditions for an honest, meaningful, and viable peace process to begin in the Middle East.


Michael S. Bernstam is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. © 2010 Commentary magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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