The Trump administration’s decision to suspend payment of contributions that had been scheduled to be disbursed to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) has drawn special attention to this U.N. agency. Given that fact, it is important to understand UNWRA’s history as well as its current operations.
There is, of course, compelling evidence that UNRWA uses the schools it maintains to instill anti-Israel sentiments in students and that it has otherwise engaged in anti-Israel activities. But beyond that, we need to note that this agency, which was created in 1949 to provide temporary relief and resettlement assistance to an estimated 750,000 refugees of the Israeli/Arab war — Jews as well as Arabs — has been transformed into a perpetual aid program for the descendants of Arab refugees who fled from land that in 1948 became the State of Israel. UNRWA now serves about 5.3 million people, less than 1 percent of whom are original refugees, while more than 99 percent are the descendants of refugees.
Refugees who fled in 1948 to adjacent Arab states were not resettled, as originally anticipated. Instead, they and their descendants have been kept in “refugee” status to support the Palestinian claim of a “right of return” to Israel. Their mass migration to Israel would create an Arab majority in the State of Israel, leading to an end of a majority-Jewish state. What advocates of a “right of return” anticipate is that the United Nations will compel Israel to accept these immigrants.
The intentions of the founders of UNRWA are quite clear and are perfectly reasonable. The refugee problem which UNRWA was to address arose in territory that had until May 15, 1948 been a U.N. Mandate. As the mandate terminated, the State of Israel was established and immediately attacked by the neighboring Arab states. The resulting war, in which Israel prevailed, created the refugee problem with which we are still dealing today. As the United Nations tried to negotiate an end to the conflict, it considered it to be its special responsibility to deal with the refugee problem as well.
The Israeli/Arab war, known as Israel’s War of Independence, was still ongoing when the U.N. General Assembly, on Oct. 8, 1948, adopted Resolution 212, which called for action to deal with “the problem of the relief of Palestine refugees of all communities.” These last three words make clear that the term “Palestine refugees” originally referred to refugees of all ethnic backgrounds, including Jews who had been driven out of the area that became part of Jordan — in particular, East Jerusalem, which had a substantial Jewish population.
Resolution 212 did not as yet establish UNRWA, but it called upon the U.N. secretary-general to provide the needed assistance and “to establish such administrative organization as may be required for that purpose.” The secretary-general followed these instructions. On the basis of his work, the U.N. General Assembly adopted on Dec. 8, 1949 — after the war had come to an end — Resolution 302, which created UNRWA.
What is critically important is that UNRWA was to provide only temporary relief. Its fifth paragraph states that “constructive measures be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance and relief.” The seventh paragraph, which actually established UNRWA, provides explicitly that UNRWA is to “consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available.”
It is clear that the resolution that established UNRWA contemplated the resettlement of the original refugees and not the inheritance of refugee status by their descendants. The government of Israel certainly understood that, and by 1954 had arranged for the resettlement of Jewish refugees from the area that had become part of Jordan, as well as those Arab refugees who had lost their homes in Israel during the war but had remained in the area that became the State of Israel. UNRWA thus stopped functioning in Israel in the early 1950s.
By contrast, the states that had received Arab refugees from Israel did not provide for resettlement. Jordan — including what is now known as the West Bank — Syria, Lebanon and Egypt (which controlled Gaza) deliberately prevented it. Instead, over time, they manipulated UNRWA to change its policy and allow refugee status to be inherited along the male line. As a result, the “refugee population,” which in 1948 was about 750,000, has now grown to 5,300,000.
Why are people on the UNRWA assistance list being forced, by their own leadership, to bear the burden of life as refugees, rather than being resettled and integrated into Arab communities? The answer is that these Palestinians have been held in limbo to support the claim of a “right of return” to Israel. This claim means that the “moderate” Palestinian Authority will not enter into a peace agreement under which they would give up the claim that Israel must be compelled to accept the mass migration of all UNRWA beneficiaries to the territory of the State of Israel. That would, of course, provide a Palestinian majority in the State of Israel and thus lead to the creation of a Palestinian State “from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea.”
No Israeli government would accept a peace agreement that reserves the “right of return” and thus the liquidation of the State of Israel. But given the continued existence of UNRWA and the U.N. endorsement of the “right of return,” the “moderate” Palestinian leadership is not prepared to give up that claim. Thus UNRWA, which is a U.N. agency, functions in a way that contravenes the basic principle of the U.N. Charter: “to develop friendly relations among nations.” It is the major obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Richard Schifter is the chairman of the board of directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute in Bethesda.