By Ben Cohen
Bassam Eid, a prominent Palestinian human rights activist, has issued an urgent plea for a serious overhaul of UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with caring for the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war in which Arab armies failed to prevent the creation of the State of Israel.
Eid, the Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, is currently visiting London, where he addressed a meeting at the British parliament organized by the Henry Jackson Society, an international relations think-tank, entitled “Perpetuating Statelessness? UNRWA, Its Activities and Funding.” In that presentation, Eid, who was raised in the UNRWA refugee camp in Shu’afat, east of Jerusalem, harshly criticized the agency for perpetuating the plight of the refugees as well as for its political relationship with Hamas.
“Sixty-six years after it was created, UNRWA is still promising Palestinians that they will return to their homeland,” Eid told The Algemeiner by telephone. “In my opinion, causing five million Palestinian refugees to suffer more and more under the umbrella of the ‘right of return’ is a war crime. They are being used as pawns in a war strategy.”
Eid, however, does not advocate the dissolution of UNRWA, which operates on a budget of $1.2 billion provided by donor nations led by the United States, which donated nearly $300 million in 2013. Doing so, he argues, would create a vacuum that would inevitably be exploited by wealthy Arab states like Qatar, the principal funder of Hamas. Instead, he is urging a reform program ambitious enough to transform the agency’s core mission.
“As a refugee, I want to see UNRWA submitting audited reports to donor countries,” Eid said. “I want UNRWA to present to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees a plan for the permanent resettlement of the Palestinian refugees. And I want UNRWA to abolish the curriculum they teach in their schools, which promotes war and terror and jihad.”
Eid is particularly concerned by UNRWA’s relationship with Hamas, advocating that all UNRWA employees with Hamas ties be dismissed from their posts. “During the war in Gaza over the summer, it was well known that Hamas was hiding rockets in UNRWA schools,” Eid said. “So what did UNRWA do? They called Hamas on the phone and said, ‘please come and collect your rockets.’ This by itself shows the degree of cooperation between them.”
Donor countries also need to exercise greater scrutiny over UNRWA’s financing and operations. “The donor countries are keeping a blind eye on UNRWA’s activities,” Eid asserted. “This gives the impression that UNRWA is running its own state with its own foreign policy. UNRWA needs to understand that it is just a small agency that belongs to the UN.”
Eid said that it is unclear exactly how many Palestinian refugees there are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as neighboring countries, because UNWRA has not carried out a census in the camps for more than two decades. “While one source says there are 2.5 million refugees, the Palestinian Authority claims that the number is higher than 6 million,” he wrote in a Jerusalem Post oped that provoked a furious response from UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, who took to Twitter to denounce “Jewish terror supporting staff accusing UNRWA of Jihadism.”
Eid continued: “UNRWA, which should be the authoritative source, is silent. So on what figures is UNRWA basing its requests for funds? Do the contributing countries have any idea of what they are contributing to?”
As a first step to focusing UNRWA’s mission away from the ‘right of return’ – a demand that is incompatible with the international commitment to a two-state solution, since an influx of the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees would end Israel’s existence as a sovereign Jewish state – Eid believes that donor countries should convene a major international conference with two purposes.
“First, UNRWA needs to apologize for six decades of false promises,” Eid said. “Then it needs to concentrate on building permanent neighborhoods for the refugees, to remove them from the miserable situation that prevails in the refugee camps.”