UNRWA provides healthcare, education and welfare payments for about 5 million people with Palestinian refugee status. It received its mandate to temporarily provide relief for the 600,000 to 700,000 Arabs displaced by the 1948 war from the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 302 of 1949. The resolution notes that
…continued assistance for the relief of the Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability, and that constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.
The resolution did not set out criteria for eligibility for refugee status. This was apparently decided by UNRWA staff itself. But the criteria were chosen in a way that contradicted the intent of the resolution. Instead of being structured so that the refugees could ultimately be weaned off of the international dole, the definition of a refugee, the actions of the agency and the behavior of the host countries where the refugee camps were located, all operated to create the largest possible refugee population – and a population that would continue to increase without limit.
UNRWA defined a refugee as someone who was displaced after as little as two years residence in Palestine before 1948, it made refugee status hereditary without a limitation on the number of generations, and it paid welfare benefits according to family size. These conditions ensured the continued increase of a dependent population. Today there are about 5 million people with Palestinian refugee status: refugees, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Not only have there been more and more refugees created, their quality of life has been poor. The host countries (Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Jordan, Palestinian Authority) restricted the mobility of the refugees, requiring them to live in specified locations, and in some cases limited the occupations that they were permitted to engage in. Refugee camps – today some the size of cities – were deliberately neglected. During the 1970s, Israel attempted to improve the conditions in some of the camps that came under its control, but was prevented from doing so by the PLO. In places where there are restrictions on employment like Lebanon, or places like Gaza where the economy is particularly weak, young men have no options for employment. UNRWA itself is a major employer of refugees; some 97% of its employees are Palestinian. In Gaza, one of the only other options is to join Hamas’ “security forces” or one of the other armed militias.
Unsurprisingly, the UNRWA schools teach hatred of Israel and nurture the Palestinian themes of dispossession and revenge. Its installations in Gaza have been used to store weapons, on the usually correct assumption that the IDF will spare them.
Most people who favor the continued existence of the state of Israel agree that UNRWA is an agency designed to perpetuate the conflict, not to ameliorate it. And yet, Israeli officials – in particular, the IDF – and the most important pro-Israel organizations in the US have always stepped back from deploying the one weapon that could actually force change, which is cutting the hundreds of millions of dollars the US, UNRWA’s largest donor, grants the agency each year. This is because the IDF (AIPAC follows the Israeli government’s lead, which in turn follows the IDF’s) sees the status quo as the least bad of all possible alternatives. If UNRWA went away, who would feed, educate and take care of 5 million dependent Arabs? Would the IDF itself have to take charge? UNRWA schools teach anti-Zionism, but what would Hamas or Islamic State schools teach? Would the humanitarian condition of the refugees decline even further, and if so, would this bring instability and terrorism?
The IDF and Israeli government have not wanted to step into the unknown, preferring the devil they know to the one they don’t, and the US has followed their lead. But simple Malthusian mathematics proves that this status quo is unsustainable. The US, EU and other donors can’t continue to meet the needs of a geometrically increasing population. And while Israel may feel that continuing to buy off the Palestinians is in her national interest, it is not obvious to the US and others that it is in theirs.
But there is, or should be, a much greater problem from the Israeli point of view. And that is that UNRWA’s very definition is profoundly anti-Israel. It is the embodiment of the Palestinian “right of return,” by virtue of its hereditary definition of “Palestinian refugee.”
The main stumbling block to ending the conflict between Israel and the Arabs (the Palestinians and others) is the claim that the “refugees” are pressing to “return” to “their homes.” This claim is what distinguishes our conflict from countless territorial disputes all over the world. It is what makes the dispute not be over borders, but over the existence of our state.
The Palestinian narrative of dispossession is buttressed by this massive UN enterprise to maintain what is in effect a nation in exile, a nation waiting to burst its bonds and expand into what it sees as its land, driving out its temporary Jewish interlopers. It is not surprising that the Palestinians expect the UN to force Israel to give them everything they ask in negotiations – after all, it has been meeting their physical needs for nearly 70 years.
In order to end the conflict without the destruction of one or both sides, any negotiation has to be reality-based. But thanks to UNRWA and their other allies, the Palestinians have developed fantasies. Two of the subjects of these fantasies are Jerusalem and the “right of return.” The fantastic Palestinian beliefs that they will possess the holy sites in Jerusalem, and that the “refugees” will “return” to Haifa, Yafo, Acco and other places make it impossible to settle the conflict peacefully.
President Trump seems to think, as his State Department does not, that a switch from fantasy to reality may have a positive effect. I think he’s right. In any event, it’s certainly true that indulging Palestinian fantasies has so far been profoundly unproductive.
Although it is not a sufficient condition for an eventual peaceful settlement, it is a necessary one that the Palestinians divest from their fantasies. And the only way to lose the “return” fantasy is to end the concept of a permanent refugee population. If there are no refugees, then there can be no question of “right of return.” That means that UNRWA and its fundamental principle of hereditary refugee status needs to be ended too, even if the process is somewhat uncomfortable – both for the Palestinians and for Israel. Some way can be found to phase out humanitarian aid slowly, but the ideological principle has to change now.
Possibly the economic facts of life and some of the geostrategic changes in the Middle East that have been gathering steam recently will make it possible for this to happen in the near future. And then, maybe in a few generations, we can think about the possibility of actual peace between the Jews and the Arabs.