Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin is taken out by Israel. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs march the streets of Gaza pledging allegiance to Hamas. Hamas’s remaining leaders swear revenge.
The world focuses on these events, registering alarm and clucking at what Israel has wrought. Astonishingly, however, a central reason as to why Hamas has the strength it does is simply overlooked. In all that has been published on the subject in recent days, there has been nary a comment regarding UNRWA–the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is responsible for the Palestinian Arabs refugees.
Yet to ignore UNRWA’s role in the current quagmire is to close the door to a great deal of understanding. When one steps back and surveys the scenario with regard to the Palestinian Arab refugees as it has played out over the course of more than 50 years, it is almost surreal. It persists because people have not been paying attention.
A political construct has been established that makes UNRWA an agency unique in all the world, and provides it with enormous latitude (not to mention funding). All other refugees worldwide are tended to by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. Only UNRWA and its Palestinian Arab protégés stand apart from this: UNRWA is the only agency that is dedicated to a single group of refugees and establishes its own rules for them.
The High Commission is mandated to help refugees get on with their lives as quickly as possible, and works to settle them rapidly, most frequently in countries other than those they fled. UNRWA policy, however, states that the Palestinian Arabs who fled from Israel in the course of the 1948 war–and their descendants!–are to be considered refugees until they return to the homes and villages they left more than half a century ago (which actually no longer exist). The principle they apply is called the “right of return.”
In truth, there is no such legal principle. According to the UNRWA mandate, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 provides the basis for this right. There are, however, several problems with this–the primary one being that GA resolutions have no standing in international law. This resolution, which in fact also suggested other alternatives in addition to return, was no more than a non-binding recommendation.
Yet, for all of these years, UNRWA has not only been telling the refugees that they have such a right, they have been promoting it actively via a variety of programs. The goal is to ensure that the refugees focus on achieving that return. To that end, UNRWA policy has also been to make certain that the refugees are not too comfortable, as this would diminish their motivation to “return.” Thus, for example, when the physician who was head of medical services in Gaza for Israel’s civil administration from 1967-1985 wanted to improve medical facilities for the refugees, UNRWA blocked his efforts. And when Israel wanted to move refugees out of camps and into permanent housing in the 1980s, she was prevented from doing so by U.N. resolutions.
What we have then are millions of Palestinian Arabs who live their lives in less-than-desirable conditions and in a never-ending state of impermanence. It has been made clear to them that they have an “inalienable” right to return to Israel, and that Israel thwarts this right.
This is a situation that generates rage: Fertile ground for radicalism and terrorism. The message of Hamas, which seeks Israel’s total destruction, is one that speaks to them.
It is no accident that the UNRWA camps have been the source of an enormous number of terror attacks. Weapons are stored and explosives manufactured within the environs of the camps. Not only do the terrorists emanate from the camps, but UNRWA employees, who are themselves refugees, are often in the service of Hamas. Hamas even controls the UNRWA teachers’ union.
Expectations that the current situation regarding Hamas can be remedied remain unrealistic until UNRWA policies and practices are radically altered.
–Arlene Kushner, a journalist in Israel, is author of the forthcoming Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.