In a bold move, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Danny Ayalon, appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) meeting in Geneva this week to end the UN’s decades-old support for the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).
A video presenting Israel’s new position on the issue assumes PM Netanyahu’s approval.
Despite widespread criticism of UNRWA, however, it’s doubtful that efforts to reform the agency or eliminate it will be successful.
Ironically, one of the main obstacles is the Israeli government -- especially the Ministry of Defense and some in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- which continue to support it.
Moreover, the US State Department opposes any changes. All fear an explosion of violence that would result. Rather than deal with the issue creatively and realistically, most would rather avoid it, pass it on and hope it will go away, thus compounding the problem.
And as long as UNRWA exists the issue of Palestinian refugees cannot be resolved and will continue to sabotage efforts towards peace.
UNRWA’s population has grown from an initial half-million or so to over 5 million, and growing daily, along with its billion dollar budget. UNRWA-supported schools teach hatred of Jews and Israel, memorialize "The Nakba" (catastrophe, the establishment of the State of Israel), and advocate "the Palestinian right of return" – the most contentious and passionate issue in negotiations.
Although it might be possible to deal with UNRWA facilities located in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (“the West Bank”) separately from those in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, a comprehensive plan appears impossible, leaving the issue to fester.
Flooding Israel with millions of hostile Arabs dedicated to Israel's demise would be suicidal. Palestinian leaders and host countries refuse to compromise, assisted by UNRWA which has a vested interest.
Although many claim that Arabs who became refugees were and are guaranteed the "right of return," there is no such "right." UNGA Resolution 194 refers to all refugees, Jews and Arabs, pending peace agreements, and suggests other alternatives, like resettlement and compensation.
Nor would the establishment of another Arab Palestinian state resolve this issue, since most potential Arab immigrants do not want to relocate and no infrastructure exists that could accommodate such a massive influx. UNRWA's political goals, therefore, represent a strategic threat to Israel and contribute to instability in Arab states as well.
Donor countries, primarily the US, who might want to shift funding into productive solutions are hindered by Israel's support for UNRWA. Canada now directs funds to specific projects rather than UNRWA’s general funds, but this leaves the elephant in the room. UNRWA’s existence makes any compromise impossible. Why, then, does Israel support it?
According to Robbie Sabel, former senior legal advisor to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
No doubt UNWRA plays a nefarious role since it helps perpetuate the myth that the Arab refugees and their descendants can and will return to Israel. Nevertheless Israel has never acted to dismantle UNWRA because we were apprehensive that the financial burden of supporting the refugees would fall on Israel. UNWRA provides far more financial support for its refugees than UNHCR provides the refugees under its auspices.
Another senior advisor warned that Israel is afraid to oppose UNRWA (or any UN-sponsored agency) lest it have a negative impact on Israel's attempts to play a more significant role in UN agencies and other bilateral relations.
Since all UNRWA-sponsored 59 towns and villages (with one exception) are either in PA-administered territory, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, why would Israel be financially responsible? What entitles UNRWA's clients to more than those assisted by UNHCR? In fact, withdrawing support for UNRWA would allow for more creative and helpful alternatives, enhance Israel's international position and eliminate one of "the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East.
Stepping aside, Israel can encourage donor countries to transfer UNRWA’s activities to the UNHCR and enable "refugees" to move on and build constructive, productive lives.
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