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Dispassionate assessment of UNRWA

James G. Lindsay, an Aufzien fellow at The Washington Institute focusing on Palestinian refugee issues and UN humanitarian assistance, served with UNRWA from 2000 to 2007. As legal advisor and general counsel for the organization from 2002, he oversaw all UNRWA legal activities, from aid contracts to relations with Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.

Before his UNRWA service, Mr. Lindsay spent twenty years as an attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, with assignments in the Internal Security, Appellate, and Asset Forfeiture Sections, as well as in the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Washington, D.C., and Miami. Between 1985 and 1994, he was seconded to the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, serving as the force counsel for legal and treaty affairs. In 2000, he took early retirement from the Justice Department to join UNRWA in Gaza.

The full document is at Policyfocus91.pdf

Executive Summary

After its creation by General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) in 1949, and since beginning operations in May 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)(prne) has provided assistance to Palestine refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. In its nearly sixty-year existence, however, few dispassionate examinations of UNRWA have been published in English, and nothing has been written by a senior staff member with actual knowledge of UNRWA’s daily functioning. This paper, written by a former general counsel of UNRWA, analyzes the agency’s relationship with the United States, evaluates recent criticisms of its operations, and recommends policies for the U.S. government.

Initially, UNRWA provided emergency relief (food and shelter) to refugees who suffered as a result of the 1947–1949 struggle over Palestine, an area from which the United Kingdom withdrew in 1948.

Gradually, UNRWA segued from an organization that supplied only emergency relief to one that provided governmental and developmental services in areas such as education, health, welfare, microfinance, and urban planning. Along with the obvious changes in function, several other processes or “themes” stand out in UNRWA’s history: the incomplete shift from statusbased
aid to need-based aid; the also incomplete content correction of textbooks used in UNRWA schools;
the gradual assumption of a mission to enhance the political and humanitarian rights for refugees and Palestinians in general; and the immense increase in the number of persons considered refugees entitled to UNRWA services.

The United States, despite funding nearly 75 percent of UNRWA’s initial budget and remaining its
largest single country donor, has mostly failed to make UNRWA reflect U.S. foreign policy objectives.

UNRWA initially served U.S. humanitarian purposes, but in later years often clashed with U.S. policies.

Recent U.S. efforts to shape UNRWA appear to have been ineffective, and critics of the agency have sometimes focused on sensational, but largely unproved, accusations. Nonetheless, a number of changes in UNRWA could benefit the refugees, the Middle East, and the United States. But those changes will not occur unless the United States, ideally with support from UNRWA’s other main financial supporter, the European Union, compels the agency to enact reforms.

The most important change, the one most required and least subject to rational disagreement, is the removal of citizens from recognized states — persons who have the oxymoronic status of “citizen refugees”—from UNRWA’s jurisdiction. This would apply to the vast majority of Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan, as well as to some in Lebanon. If a Palestinian state were created in Gaza and/or the West Bank, such a change would affect Palestinian refugees in those areas. Meanwhile, for those who are still defined as refugees, UNRWA’s move toward greater emphasis on need-based assistance, as opposed to status-as-refugee-based assistance, should be accelerated.

No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services. In addition, UNRWA should make the following operational changes: halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA schools.

With the above changes, UNRWA would be better aligned with what should be its ultimate objectives.

For the Palestinians it serves, this means ending their refugee status and returning, after nearly sixty years, to what most of them so desperately seek: normal lives.

The full Document is at dlpdf.php?document=policyfocus91

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Lindsay"s article is significant in that an UNWRA insider writes what any rational person - politicians excepted - has been saying for a long time. The probability of UNWRA changing while it suits the Islamic/Third World grouping"s war against the West and Israel is zero. That then raises the question of its chief funder, the USA. If UNWRA acts against its interests as Lindsay corectly states, why does it not simply stop funding that organisation? It is highly unlikely that the USA will influence UNWRA and its anti-Israel industry, but while UNWRA is allowed to exist and continues to be funded and the "Palestinian refugee" issue is kept alive, the USA can and does pressure Israel to make concessions.

Posted by paul2 on 2009-02-03 06:49:29 GMT

Brave article & if this gets up UNWRA"s nostrils, expect a denial & subsequent attempts to discredit the author. Maybe we should try & get this to Ban Ki-Moon"s attention!

Posted by Avi P. on 2009-02-02 12:12:19 GMT

Thank you James Lindsay for your thoughtful and meticulous expose of UNWRA failures, and recommendations for future approaches. Many of us have for a long time felt that UNWRA is part of the problem, and that it has become a self-perpetuating industry to keep people in refugee status, at the expense of progress in developing an independent civil Palestinian society. Also, a recent article (Ending the West"s Proxy War Against Israel, by Gunnar Heinsohn, 12.01.09)discussed the dangers of a Palestinian population bulge of too many children and youths, who have nothing positive to do and are used to make war. If not for western-funded UNWRA handouts, Palestinians would need to work for a living, rather than be dependent, and would have less time for having such large families leading to their inevitable impoverishment and recklessness with the lives of their over-numerous (replacable) dependents. The west should stop mollycoddling the Palestinians and force them to begin standing on their own feet with real responsibilities, instead of the perpetual "victims" who have formed a cargo-cult type of mentality where they act as though the world owes them a living.

Posted by Mary on 2009-02-02 09:56:00 GMT

UNWRA now represents a dagger held at Israel"s throat. It carries much responsibility in keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going. Hopefully people that have some authority will listen to James Lindsay"s wise counsel and respond accordingly.

Posted by Wazza on 2009-02-02 07:54:20 GMT

Since the 1950"s: the world is different. the UN is different. people are different. The foes of the West and Israel understand this - sadly, the West and Israel do not understand this. The West and Israel need the correct leader - then and only then will the situation alter to reflect changed conditions and attitutes.

Posted by Hector on 2009-02-02 05:59:53 GMT

The UNRWA Response: It should be noted that UNRWA refused to provide detailed feedback on a draft of this paper. The agency’s official readers were, inter alia, “struck by [the draft’s] inaccuracies, its selective use of source material, its failure to understand or even acknowledge many of our current activities, its flawed analysis of our mandate and its misunderstanding of UNRWA’s political and historical context.” Despite repeated requests from the author, the agency declined to identify the alleged weaknesses on the grounds that “our views—and understanding—of UNRWA’s role, the refugees and even U.S. policy are too far apart for us to take time (time that we do not have) to enter into an exchange with little likelihood of influencing a narrative which so substantially differs from our own.” Thus, the paper has not benefited from any input by UNRWA, whether a discussion of policy or even correction of alleged errors. For an extended description of my correspondence with UNRWA on this subject, see the epilogue following the conclusion of this paper.

Posted by James G Lindsay on 2009-02-02 05:26:56 GMT