By Dave Kopel. Volokh Conspiracy, Nov. 29, 2007. More by Kopel on the United Nations.
November 29 is the United Nations' "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People." It occurs on the anniversary of the 1947 date that the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Many Palestinians and other Arabs rejected the UN partition, and started a war to exterminate the infant state of Israel soon after. So by choosing November 29 as Palestinian day, the United Nations is in effect rewarding the aggressors who refused to comply with the UN plan. A much better date for the United Nations to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people would be December 8, the anniversary of the 1949 creation of the organization that, for over half a century, has done more than anyone to immiserate the Palestinian people. That organization is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
That there is 21st-century refugee problem from a war that ended in 1949 is primarily because of UNRWA's decision to maximize Palestinian suffering for political advantageEstablished in December 1949, UNRWA began operations the next May. The UN Agency's job was to help settle the Palestinians who had left Israel because of the 1948-49 war. According to General Assembly resolution 302(IV), UNRWA's mandate was that "constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief."
Over half a century later, UNRWA's annual budget is nearly half a billion dollars, including nearly $150 million from US taxpayers. As UNRWA's website explains, "In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate." Stated another way, UNRWA's bureaucratic existence depends on making sure that the Palestinian refugee problem is not solved, and that "international assistance for relief" is not terminated at an "early date," or ever.
In 1950, the United Nations created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which began work in 1951. UNHCR tries to help refugees all over the world. It has worked on behalf of refugees in more than a hundred nations. UNHCR, which whose work is governed by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, has helped more than 25 million refugees begin new lives.
In terms of organizational behavior, UNHCR has no incentive to try to obstruct the solution of any particular refugee problem. To the contrary, UNHCR can work to solve one problem, secure (bureaucratically) in the knowledge that new problems with other refugees will occur soon enough.
But in 1949, there was no UNHCR, so UNRWA was created solely to deal with the Palestinians. UNRWA is the only UN entity dedicated solely to serving a single ethnic group.
The creation of UNRWA turned out to be a catastrophe, particularly for the Palestinians, and also for the Israelis. Because the suffering of Palestinians has been used so effectively by terrorists to build support for attacks on the United States, Americans are also victims of UNRWA. America's naive good intentions in providing billions for UNRWA, while Arab governments contribute only a pittance, has obviously not bought America good will in the Middle East.
In retrospect, it is clear that once the UNHCR was created, the UN should have merged UNRWA into UNHCR. Then UNHCR could have aided the Palestinian refugees the same way that it has aided refugees in so many other countries--by helping them find new, permanent homes, so they could begin building new lives.
Wars often produce refugees. People who choose to start a war must accept responsibility for the creation of refugees of a result of the war.
From the end of World War I until 1948, "Palestine" (a name invented by Roman imperialists) was governed by the United Kingdom, as the result of a mandate from the League of Nations. Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine (consisting of the modern nations of Jordan and Israel) was acquired by the UK as part of the spoils of World War One.
The reason that the League of Nations awarded Palestine to the UK was the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised to create a Jewish homeland there. The Declaration was part of a British effort to win Jewish support during the war.
But the British government broke its promise and failed to carry out the League of Nations mandate. Even after World War II and the Holocaust, Britain refused to create a Jewish homeland. The exasperated Jewish population's war of national independence finally led to Britain announcing in 1947 that it would abandon its mandate in Palestine in 1948. In late 1947, the United Nations announced a partition of Palestine: over 80% would be given to the new nation of Jordan, whose population was (and still is) majority-Palestinian. The new Jewish state would be given only territory which was already owned by Jews, or which was Crown property (owned by Great Britain).
On the day in May 1948 that Israel declared its independence, the new state was granted diplomatic recognition by American President Harry Truman. The same day, five Arab states, joined by many Palestinians, launched a war of extermination.
The war lasted from 1948 to 1949, when the Arabs gave up trying to destroy the Jews immediately, and accepted an armistice, although they did not renounce their state of war.
During the Arab war of aggression, several hundred thousand Arabs left Israel. Some left because they listened to the Arab propaganda urging Palestinians to get out of the way of the Arab armies. Some left without prompting because they just wanted to get away from the fighting. Some were pushed out because they were part of Palestinian villages that were fighting to eliminate the Jews.
Many Arabs, however, chose to stay in Israel, and today they constitute one-sixth of the Israeli population. For over half a century they have enjoyed the rights denied almost everywhere in the Arab world: complete freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to be elected to government (as many Israeli Arabs have been), the right to due process of law under a fair judicial system, and many other fundamental human rights. The nation with by far the best record in the Middle East for protecting the right of its Arab citizens is Israel.
During the war, Israel urged the Arabs to stay, and after the war Israel welcomed back a hundred thousand who did return.
At about the same time--from 1947 to 1950--over three-quarters of a million Jews were forced out of Islamic nations where they had lived for many centuries. Intensified persecution in Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Syria, and other Islamic countries made life intolerable. The United Nations did nothing for the Jewish refugees.
Most of the Jewish refugees went to Israel, where they were welcomed, and the new government worked hard to integrate them into society. Israel has always accepted Jewish refugees from anywhere, and today Israel is one of the most successful multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies in the world.
The Palestinian Arab refugees did not receive similar treatment from their Arab brethren. Except for Jordan, none of the Arab countries would grant them citizenship. Instead, the Arab governments decided to make them permanent refugees. By preventing them from resettling, the Arab dictatorships could create a human rights problem which could be used to distract the subjects of the Arab dictatorships from the massive human rights abuses of those dictatorships.
As Ralph Galloway, a disillusioned former director of UNRWA observed in 1958: "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore--and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die." (Terrence Prittie, "Middle East Refugees," in Michael Curtis et al., eds., The Palestinians: People, History, Politics (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Books: 1975), p.71.)
Today, many of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those Palestinians who left Israel in 1948 still live in refugee camps. They are the only refugee population in the world for whom the United Nations has actively prevented resettlement.
Because of pressure from Arab countries, UNRWA was, from its very inception, given almost unlimited autonomy. It sends one report per year to the General Assembly, and is subject to essentially no checks or balances on its operations. There are no outside audits; just an audit performed by the notoriously corrupt UN itself.
UNRWA has used its autonomy in the manner favored by its prime UN sponsors--"the Arab bloc"--to ensure that as many people as possible are classified as "Palestinian refugees."
For all refugees in the world--except the Palestinians whom UNRWA "serves"--the key international law is the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees follows the standards of the Refugee Convention.
The UNCHR defines its objective as finding solutions, which often means working to ensure that "everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state." The goal of UNHCR, in accordance with the 1951 Convention, is to help people stop being refugees.
UNRWA does just the opposite. For example, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a "refugee" as a person who "is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution."
The UNCHR definition means that, at the least, a refugee must be someone who has left his "country of nationality or habitual residence." If an American businessman lived in China for three years, and then the businessman tried to help some countries which were invading China, and then the American businessman fled China after China won the war, the American businessman would not be "refugee" according to UNCHR's common-sense definition.
Likewise, if a Jewish or Ukranian family fled from Communist persecution in the Soviet Union in 1948, and came to the United States, then the American children, grand-children, and great-grand-children of the Soviet refugees would, obviously, not be refugees according to UNCHR. The children, grand-children, and great-grand-children, having been born and spent all their lives in the United States, could hardly be "habitual" residents of Russia.
UNCHR's common-sense definition of "refugee" is designed to identify true refugees, while preventing other people from making false claims about refugee status for political purposes.
UNRWA works in exactly the opposite way, awarding refugee status to people who are not real refugees.
Although Jews have lived in Israel continuously for over three thousand years, a surge of Jewish immigration to Israel began in the late 19th century, when the area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Immigration continued during the period of British rule, and the formerly torpid economy of the region began to blossom. The Zionist immigrants drained swamps, reclaimed wasteland, started small businesses, and made the desert bloom. The economic growth resulting from Jewish immigration attracted many Arabs, who sought to participate in the economic opportunities that had been created by Zionist initiative.
Many of the Arabs who left Israel because of the 1948-49 war had not been there very long. So UNRWA fabricated the definition that refugees were "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." By UNRWA's definition, the American businessman who left China after living there three years (or an illegal alien in the United States who got deported after living in the U.S. for more than two years) would be a refugee.
Similarly, UNRWA pretends that any descendant of a refugee is a refugee. By UNRWA's theory, if your ancestors fled from someplace 150 years ago, then you are still a refugee. In fact, the descendants of many of the Arabs who chose to leave Israel after 1948 have permanently settled in other countries and become citizens. The largest number settled in Jordan, the only Arab country to grant them citizenship. Many others moved to Europe. Yet UNRWA still issues refugee cards to all of these people, and their children, and their children's children.
In contrast, 1951 Convention does not include any descendants of refugees--let along the third or fourth generation of descendants--as "refugees."
Similarly, the 1951 Convention specifies that if a refugee acquires a new nationality and the protection of a new government (e.g., a refugee from Russia becomes a U.S. citizen), she is no longer a refugee. In contrast, UNRWA claims that a "Palestinian refugee" who becomes a citizen of the United States, France, Jordan, or any other nation is still a "Palestinian refugee" forever--and so are his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren.
UNRWA has been so eager to increase the number of refugees that it can claim to serve that it has given out enormous numbers of refugee cards to people whom it knew were not refugees. (And then, of course, all the descendants of the person with the original refugee card are also counted as refugees.) UNRWA admits that it gave out at least a hundred thousand improper refugee cards (entitling card-holders to UN welfare) in its early days, although the actual number of improperly-issued cards may be much larger.
So today, you may hear that there are over four million "Palestinian refugees," a figure that has grown from the 914,000 refugees that UNRWA claimed in 1950. Most of them are not refugees, but are descendants of people whom UNRWA labeled as "refugee" many years ago.
Of the "refugees," about two-thirds have found their own housing, while one-third live in one of the 59 housing facilities that UNRWA operates in five countries. Some of the housing is UNRWA-owned row houses in cities that have grown around or near the camps. Other housing is more primitive. Rarely are the housing facilities well-maintained. Their Palestinian residents do not own them; they belong to UNRWA, so no-one in a housing unit has a financial incentive to conduct preventive maintenance, let alone invest in improvements.
Moreover, UNRWA insists on the fiction that the housing units--which have been occupied from 1950 until the present--are merely "temporary" because the residents will be going "home" to Israel. So UNRWA too performs little upkeep or improvement, lest UNRWA be seen as deviating from its official pretense that the housing is temporary.
When Israeli troops entered Gaza in 1967, they were appalled at the squalid conditions in the UNRWA camps there. The Egyptians had forbidden residents to work outside the camps, and had not allowed electricity or running water inside the camps. Israel attempted to ameliorate conditions there, including medical care, and to replace shacks with small houses, but UNRWA blocked the improvements. UNRWA is often reluctant to allow conditions in the camps to improve, because such improvements might diminish the desire of "refugees" to "return."
In 1985, Israel offered to give 1,300 permanent homes near Nablus to refugees. Israel did not even ask the people who would receive the charity housing renounce their so-called "right of return." But the UN blocked the housing program, and claimed that "measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return."
Similarly, after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the United Arab Emirates donated one hundred million dollars to the Palestinian Authority to build a new city in Gaza, for the benefit of people who have been harmed by the Arab-Israel conflict. Yet the PA refused to allow the refugees to live in this new city.
Under international law, there is no such thing as a right of return. If your ancestors left France, or Russia, or anywhere else (regardless of whether they were forced out, or they just wanted to live somewhere else), then you have no right of return to France or Russia. Nor do your grandchildren.
Nevertheless, UNRWA tells the "refugees" that they have a "right of return" to Israel--that the grandchild of someone who moved to Tel Aviv to work as a janitor from 1946 to 1948 has a right to live in Israel, and to take back whatever real property their ancestor abandoned when he left Israel.
The pretext for the claim of an "inalienable right of return," is General Assembly Resolution 194, which says, "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date..."
In fact, Israel did allow one hundred thousand Arabs who had fled the fighting to return to Israel.
The General Assembly Resolution itself indicates that the only refugees who should be allowed (not who have a "right") to return are those who wish to "live at peace with their neighbours." It is the Palestinians who have the obligation to prove--against a record of many decades of aggression--that they have changed, and are now willing to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.
In 1974, at the height of the period when the UN was dominated by the Soviets and anti-Semites, General Assembly Resolution 3236 declared "the inalienable right of return" of the Palestinians, and formalized the UN's relationship with what was then the world's foremost terrorist organization, the PLO.
Yet in international law, General Assembly resolutions have no legal force. In contrast to Security Council resolutions, GA resolutions express nothing more than the sense of the General Assembly, and cannot, by themselves, create legal rights.
The notion of a right of return is preposterous not only as a matter of international law, but as a matter of common sense. Israel was established to be the Jewish homeland. To allow immigration by over four million people--the vast majority of whom have never lived in Israel, and whose ancestors rejected the opportunity for Israeli citizenship--would destroy Israel as a Jewish state. Even worse, more than half a century of anti-Israel propaganda education at UNRWA-run schools have turned many of the four million "refugees" into anti-Semites and supporters of terrorism.
UNRWA schools follow the curriculum in the host country, so UNRWA schools in Egypt and Syria are now, and always been, schools for indoctrination in extreme anti-semitism. In 1995, the Palestinian Authority was granted authority over UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza, pursuant to the Oslo Accords. According to the Oslo treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, both sides were required to carefully revise their educational curricula, so that schools did not foment hatred. Israel complied with the Oslo Accords, while Arafat and his PLO did not. So beginning in 1995, UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza adopted the hate curriculum developed by the Palestinian Authority.
The Committee for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP) analyzed the UNRWA/PA curriculum, based on general guidelines from the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). The analysis revealed massive lies about Middle-East history and the present, all of them geared towards fomenting anti-Semitism and encouraging terrorism. The schools' maps do not even acknowledge the existence of Israel. Among the features of the PA hate education are: covering up the extensive historical and archeological record of Jewish habitation of Israel and nearby areas from ancient times until the present; using the Koran to incite hatred to Jews; refusing to acknowledge the existence of Israel; presenting Zionism as a western colonial movement (even though it was resisted by Western colonial powers); ignoring the existence of Jewish holy sites; depicting Jews as uniformly evil; propagandizing for the destruction of Israel; blaming the status of Palestinian refugees solely on Israel (with no hint of responsibility for the Palestinians and other Arabs who started the war against Israel); and extolling jihad and terrorism.
A study of fourth and ninth grade textbooks by the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information (the only joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy think-tank) also found extensive historical misrepresentation, maps which refused to acknowledge Israel's existence, and the promotion of jihad. Although the textbooks did promote "tolerance" in the abstract, the concept was not directly pplied towards modern-day tolerance of non-Muslims.
As a practical matter, no-one but the deluded victims of UNRWA and terrorist propaganda actually expects that Israel would honor the fictive right of return. But by making sure that as many Palestinians as possible remain refugees incensed about the continuing denial of their "right of return," UNRWA fulfills the objective of Arab dictatorships in making sure that the Arab-Israeli conflict is never resolved.
As with so much that the UN does, the "Palestinian right of return" is presented to the world as a high moral principle--but it is a principle that applies only when it can be used against Israel. Consider the many Palestinian guest workers who lived in Kuwait before Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990. Many of these guest workers had lived in Kuwait for much longer than two years (the period that UNRWA claims entitles a Palestinian and every one of his descendants to the right to "return" to Israel).
When Saddam invaded, many of the Palestinians in Kuwait supported him, as did the Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. After US-led forces drove Saddam out of Iraq, the Kuwaitis promptly expelled the entire Palestinian population.
If Kuwait were treated like Israel, the expelled Palestinians would be housed in special camps run by a UN agency created just for their benefit. The United Nations would incessantly denounce Kuwait for violating the "inalienable Palestinian right of return." And while insisting on the Palestinians' right to return to Kuwait, the UN allow its schools to be used to teach children that Palestinians have a historical right to rule Kuwait, and to claim it by jihad if necessary.
In January 2000, Israel's government, under severe pressure from President Clinton, accepted his demands, and announced it would grant Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority a state of its own in the West Bank and Gaza. Faced with the granting of so many demands, Arafat was able to find a pretext for continued war only by insisting that neither he nor anyone else would ever make peace unless Israel also granted the "right to return"--thereby destroying any hope for peace. UNRWA's mission--as perverted by the Arab bloc--had succeeded.
The Annapolis Conference aims to bring peace to the Middle East in 2008. A helpful contribution by the United Nations would be to abolish UNRWA, which has long been an obstacle to a just resolution of the problems of the Palestinian people.