Issues In The Palestinian—Israeli Conflict
__ Refugees Forever __
UNRWA: Caring for Refugees for
Years and Still Counting
UNRWA, the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East was created in 1949 to help individuals (along with their spouses and dependants) whose homes were in Palestine from June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948 and who lost both their homes and their livelihoods as a result of the conflict.
According to UNRWA figures, at the time of its inception the refugees numbered some 726,000. Later, those displaced as a result of the Six Day War and their dependants were also declared eligible for UNRWA aid, as were inhabitants of "frontier villages" in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes affected by the war.
In UNRWA camps, refugees seldom die
Because no one wants to lose UNRWA benefits, deaths often go unreported in their camps. In 1961, UNRWA director, Dr. John H. Davis, admitted that his statistical report of the number of refugees was inaccurate, due to the many unreported deaths and the growing number of forged cards granting access to UNRWA benefits and services. UNRWA Commissioner- General Peter Hansen has recently acknowledged that deaths in the camps may not be reported as assiduously as births. In 1960, US Congressmen visiting Jordan cited official estimates of forged UNRWA cards at over 150,000. Furthermore, the more refugees, the more justification there is for the work of the 22,000 Palestinian UNRWA employees. It is one of the ironies of the problem that as the number of
"refugees" has increased through falsehood, their plight has become all the more real.
Just how many refugees are there?
The first serious assessment of the number of refugees based on demographic data was carried out by Dr. Walter Pinner. (How Many Arab Refugees?, London, 1960). Out of 1,282,000 - the total Arab population of Mandatory Palestine in April 1948, 548,600 were counted as refugees. At UN sessions the Arabs repeatedly inflated the figures. Lebanon spoke of over a million, (UN DOC/ASP/SA). Morocco gave a more "accurate" figure of 1,120,000. Swept up by an Oriental imagination, the Palestinian Emil Houry came up with 2 million. Palestinian sources, with an obvious interest in increasing the potential benefits of a future settlement and increasing Israel's supposed responsibility for the refugee problem, have consistently inflated their figures.
The highest figure was that quoted in 1998, when Salman Abu Sitta—the most vaunted of Palestinian researchers - attempted to add credence to a grossly exaggerated study by claiming that there were exactly 7,778,186 Palestinians, an amazing 5,325,000 of whom he called refugees. Figures on this scale are commonly bandied about when discussing the need for a just solution to the Palestinian problem, but they are false:
UNRWA - while admitting that its own figures are inflated - recognizes some 3.8 million Palestinians today. Not far off is the day when the number of refugees claimed will be the same as the number of Palestinians. According to their definition, nearly every Palestinian can be considered a refugee in one way or another. So there will be no escape from the need to negotiate who is a refugee, and who was uprooted from his home, yet still lives in his homeland. For example, those who fled the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh and now live in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis have been counted twice. So, too, have the Palestinians living in Detroit or in the Persian Gulf states.
UNRWA's budget is almost a third of that of the UN High Commission for Refugees, which is the global relief agency. And this is the situation despite the fact that Palestinians constitute only 17% of the world's 24 million refugees. Somehow, the efforts of UN workers to aid displaced Palestinians have mushroomed into a $330 million-a-year project that actually perpetuates the refugee problem.
UNRWA has provided the Palestinians with benefits exceeding those of all other refugees. These include medical and educational training, community centers for women, youth clubs and other social benefits. However, the term "camps" is misleading. Palestinian refugees do not live in tents as the term implies, but in houses in neighborhoods where conditions are superior to those of the poor neighborhoods of modern metropolis.
A good idea gone bad
Dependence on benefits that encourage unprecedented population growth, combined with a dearth of jobs, has created a restless and unruly young populace. The camps are infested with gangs, violence and drug trafficking. Even Palestinian police are afraid to enter them, whether Jenin or Ein al-Hilweh in Lebanon. The New York Times has described the refugee camps as paramilitary training grounds where 25,000 children from 8 to 16 years old are taught to make fire bombs. The camps serve as arms depots, factories for the manufacture of mortars, missiles and bombs, and asylum for fleeing terrorists.
The shocking images of jubilant Palestinians celebrating the disaster on September 11, 2001 in the refugee camps are symptomatic of the violent society that, due to its refugee status, is becoming increasingly more desperate.
Who foots the bill?
Who funds these refugee villages? Most of UNRWA's work is covered by voluntary contributions from donor states. UNRWA's biggest donors are the US, the European Commission, the UK, Sweden and Canada. Not surprisingly, the contributions of Arab states make up only a tiny percentage of the UNRWA budget.
Although it provides important humanitarian aid to the Palestinians,
UNRWA ultimately serves as a fig leaf for an Arab world that has
deliberately ignored or exploited the plight of these refugees.
- The Face of Defeat (Quartet Books, London) Report to the Senate, April 20, 1960
- Alexander Safian, PhD, CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)
- The New York Times, August 2, 2000
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post 1-15-2003 approximately,
and is reproduced solely for educational purposes.
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