Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

UNWRA, Hamas and the plight of refugees

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Israel came under some criticism lately when Israeli authorities were refusing to allow entry to a group of Eritrean asylum seekers stuck at the Egyptian border. The Israelis eventually relented after one week and permitted some of the asylum seekers to cross the border.

One of the most prominent critics of this incident was William Tall, the local representative from the UN High Commission for Refugees ('UNHCR'), one of the two UN bodies tasked with catering to the world's refugee populations. 

The other body is, of course, the UN Relief and Works Agency For Palestine Refugees -- which regularly goes by the acronym 'UNRWA'.

The omission of the 'FPR' from the acronym makes it sound as though UNRWA were simply another arm of the UN, rather than an organisation established soleley to cater to one population. Unfortunately, the 'FPR' is a part of UNRWA's name and mandate, which must be glaringly apparent for the unfortunate Africans who attempt to find refuge in Israel.

Apparent because UNRWA administers 'camps' and other services for the five million 'Palestine refugees' in the Palestinian territories and the surrounding Arab countries. Apparent because non-Palestine refugees are not permitted anywhere near these camps or service. Apparent because, while the living conditions in UNRWA's camps are by no means luxurious, in comparison to the UNHCR camps, they are paradise on earth.

As I explained in July's Australia/Israel Reviewthere is a separate definition for 'Palestine refugee', as distinct from 'refugee'. A 'Palestine refugee' is simply a person descended from someone who fled British Mandate Palestine in the course of the 1947-8 war between Israel and the Arab states.

Unlike 'refugee', there does not have to be any fear of persecution and, while a refugee ceases to be a refugee when they no longer have reason to fear persecution, 'Palestine refugee' status has no defined method of expiring.

Anyone who has visited the West Bank will know that the UNRWA camps are indistinguishable from the surrounding suburbs -- the residents do not live at a high socio-economic level, however they do live in concrete houses with electricity, running water and satellite dishes. Meanwhile, UNRWA provides them with free education, healthcare, and even employment.

By contrast, a person fleeing Sudan or Eritrea for a UNHCR camp often ends-up with no more than a canvas tent, a bag of grain for the month and long walk to the nearest water source.

As recent AIJAC guest Asaf Romirowsky noted in the Australian in July, the UNHCR has roughly 5-6,000 employees internationally, whereas UNRWA has around 30,000, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian. This is despite the fact that the UNHCR caters to around twice as many people as UNRWA, most of whom are far more needy than UNRWA's recipients.

With this in mind, a recent Guardian article by Robert Turner, UNRWA's Gaza chief, presents some very salient points -- albeit not quite what Turner intended to convey. After noting the impending water shortage in Gaza, Turner writes that:

These predictions have profound implications for all humanitarian and development organisations in Gaza, in particular the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which works with Gaza's refugee communities. Some 70% of the population are refugees, with UNRWA's current caseload of over 1.2 million expected to rise to some 1.5 million by 2020. This 30% increase in refugees will require massive investment to maintain current levels of service.

Under the Refugee Convention, the 1.2 million people that Turner refers to are not refugees. The fact that they are Palestinians living in Gaza means that neither they nor their ancestors ever actually left the borders of Palestine, which means that they are not refugees, but 'internally displaced peoples' -- the subsequent establishment of Israel notwithstanding.

As Turner explains, these Palestine refugees now make-up over 70% of the population and their number continues to grow. Understanding the definition of 'Palestine refugee' makes this understandable -- if a current 'Palestine refugee' marries a person in Gaza, their children become Palestine refugees. 64 years after the original Palestine refugees fled to Gaza, they are indistinct from the general population of the area.

Turner also gives an overview of the kinds of welfare services that UNRWA provides to its clients:

Take health: in 2011 there were over 4.4 million patient visits to UNRWA health centres, that could be expected to rise to over 5.7 million annual visits at current rates. UNRWA's 21 health centres currently have an average catchment of approximately 57,000 registered refugees; without new clinics that would rise to over 74,000 by 2020. ... In the education sector, currently UNRWA has 247 schools in 130 buildings ... To maintain our current student teacher ratio we would need over 2,000 teachers and support staff.

On social protection UNRWA distributes food to over 900,000 refugees, after which some 44% remain food insecure because of a lack of jobs. Without improvements in the economy that can only come about with the lifting of the blockade that figure will rise to over 1 million. An additional 350,000 refugees by 2020 means some 20,000 new shelters will be required.

These services, while clearly under severe strain, are vastly superior to the services afforded to the unfortunate refugees turning up at Israel's door. It is time for the UN to finally be honest: UNRWA is not a refugee agency, it is a Palestinian welfare body.

While Turner does not say it explicitly, it is clear from his article that Gaza is essentially becoming an UNRWA-administered welfare state. His solution is to call for the Israeli blockade to be lifted:

While the UN has condemned the rockets many times, we continue to demand a lifting of the blockade, which is costing the international community hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

In reality, the aid administered by UNWRA is necessary because Hamas -- the governing party in Gaza -- cares less about its own people than it does about 'resistance' against Israel. Its money is spent on fortifications and arms, not water purification and food.

Turner does recognise that the blockade is in place because of the rockets that continue to be fired at Israeli civilian populations by Hamas, as well as breakaway factions that share Hamas' ideology and use weapons smuggled into the strip through Hamas-controlled tunnels.

He is also correct in desiring that the blockade be lifted. That decision, however, is largely beyond Israel's control.

While willing to occasionally impose a temporary 'truce', Hamas refuses to renounce terror attacks as its preferred method of 'resistance', to recognise Israel's existence, and to abide by existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority -- the three demands from the Middle East Quartet that Israel has imposed as conditions for the blockade to be lifted.

As long as this remains the case, Israel cannot afford to lift the blockade that at least limits, if not eliminates, Hamas' ability to import weapons to fire on Israeli civilian centres.

Like many others calling for a premature end to the blockade, Turner seems to believe that Israelis should be satisfied with the fact that the UN has 'condemned' the rocket fire without doing anything concrete to end it. Accordingly, the blockade should be lifted, Israelis should be subjected to even more intense rocket fire -- with likely casualties -- and they need to just deal with that and stop complaining.

In summary, the situation in Gaza is becoming unsustainable, however it is important that it is not misrepresented. There is no refugee crisis, there is a spiralling welfare dependency being developed as a result of Gaza's militant rulers and being paid for by well-meaning aid donors, including Australia.

That is the problem that must be solved in order to begin addressing the needs of the people of Gaza. Providing never-ending increases to the UNWRA aid budget is not a solution.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz