ABC radio‘s “World Today” reported on the growing recognition that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) may actually be perpetuating the ongoing Palestinian refugee issue (see AIJAC’s update from June 6 2012 for more).

Unfortunately, a serious issue suffered from the not-so-subtle insinuation that the enterprise is essentially a right wing plot to deprive aid to Palestinians rather than a question of who should rightfully be deemed a Palestinian refugee and how it might just be hampering solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“World Today” host Eleanor Hall introduced the story:

Some Israeli groups have stepped up their attack on the United Nations by accusing it of funding people who are not genuine Palestinian refugees.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides education, health and other programs for around 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

But now there’s a push by pro-Israeli groups to change the definition of refugee so that only those Palestinians who were personally affected by the creation of Israel in 1948 can qualify for aid.

ABC Middle East correspondent Anne Barker interviewed former Israeli journalist David Bedein, who now runs the Israel Resource News Agency, which Barker unfairly described as “a far right lobby group” – immediately implying to listeners that he is an extremist whose views should probably be ignored.

Although the story included a short explanation by Bedein of why he believes UNRWA is problematic, listeners may have appreciated more detail, such as this that featured in a piece he wrote for Jwire on June 5 2012:

In 1950, UNRWA defined a refugee as someone who had “lost his home and his means of livelihood” during the 1948 war launched by Arab countries to destroy Israel

Fifteen years later, UNRWA decided – against objections from western nations – to include as refugees the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who left Israel.

In 1982, UNRWA extended eligibility to all subsequent generations of descendants – forever.

More importantly, what Barker did not explain is how Palestinian refugees are the only group of people in the world for whom refugee status can be inherited.

So the initial 700,000 Palestinians (a figure not included in the story) who were displaced in 1948 have magically multiplied into five million with the official blessing of the UN.

Indeed, Palestinian refugees are the only specific people with a whole UN agency dedicated to their wellbeing.

As Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe wrote in Haaretz earlier this week:

This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades. The result of this 60 year long process is that incentives for the refugees to resettle in Arab countries and elsewhere are minimal, as are those for UNRWA itself to ever end its operations.

Romirowsky and Joffe also explain how UNRWA’s role in this process goes beyond humanitarian assistance and has become a self-justifying and self-sustaining bureaucracy:

UNRWA states that the Palestinians are occupied – indefinitely. UNRWA has financial and political interests in maintaining this fiction: as long as the Palestinians are refugees, UNRWA is in business. Of the 30,000 people that UNRWA employs, the vast majority are Palestinian: UNRWA is the largest single employer of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Contrast this to the UN High Commission for Refugees, that only employs 5-6,000 people globally, and which focuses far more clearly on resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees and building new lives, and not on maintaining services that prop up the status quo.

It is important to note that Bedein does not rule out assistance to Palestinians but that UNRWA should not offer its services “without conditions”, of which preventing incitement is particularly important. Likewise, the move by the US Senate to “reveal how many Palestinians assisted by UNRWA are indeed 1948 refugees and how many are just descendants” does not affect funding to UNRWA.

Barker’s report also raised the issue with controversial UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness of anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian textbooks that UNRWA schools use.

Gunness has a long history of shielding and apologising for the flagrant support UNRWA gives to Hamas and other terrorist organisations in Gaza, an issue AIJAC has raised before. See here and here.

On the matter of textbooks Gunness responded that “Where there are problems found with any books there is a system in place. Any international organisation going into any country has to work with the system that is there.”

This defence by Gunness is nonsense. UNRWA is able, when it wishes, to set its own curriculum, as was evidenced in the organisation’s attempt in 2011 to start teaching Palestinian children about the Holocaust – an educational initiative that both Hamas and Fatah opposed and called a “crime” and a “big lie”.

And as Bedein wrote, there is clear objective evidence that the UNRWA textbooks are political in tone and encourage the sort of mindset that goes against the very principles one would reasonably expect the UN to foster.

Dr. Arnon Groiss, who sits on a US-Norwegian-Israeli-Palestinian panel whose task it is to review incitement in the middle east, has reviewed all of the 200 new school books used by UNRWA and presented the “right of return” curriculum used by UNRWA

Most recently, Dr. Groiss provided special briefings for senior staff members and elected officials of the the Canadian Parliament and the US government

In his presentations, Dr. Groiss noted that “Israel does not exist on any map.” in any UNRWA schools

Barker concluded the report by asking Gunness “why not narrow the definition of refugees to be those people who were displaced or forced out of their homes in 1948? Why does it have to include their descendants over generations?”

Gunness responded:

That is how refugees are defined, whether it is UNHCR dealing with Afghan refugees in Pakistan through the decades, or UNHCR dealing with Cambodian refugees in Thailand. It’s the general assembly that signs off on these definitions. We simply implement the mandate that we’re given by the general assembly.

Except, of course, Gunness is being extremely disingenuous knowing full well that Palestinian “refugees” have a separate, unique taxonomy to all other refugee groups.

For a sense of how vital UNRWA is to the Palestinian leadership’s propaganda system, check out Jennifer Rubin’s excellent article here on the panicked response made by Palestinian spokespeople to any change in the definition of a Palestinian refugee or the activity of UNRWA.

Allon Lee