Even without a political solution, the US could forge a Mideast legacy
Even without a political solution, the US could forge a Mideast legacy

The political deadlock between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not be resolved any time soon.

Israel demands that the PA recognize it as a Jewish state and put an end to its war-inciting education, which the PA will not do.

The PA demands that Israel commit to withdraw to the 1949-67 armistice lines before continuing negotiations, which Israel will not do.

Such an irresolvable impasse frustrates the current United States administration, which would like to leave office next January with a Middle East legacy.

This also frustrates a generation of US policy makers who have invested the prestige of four US administrations in these negotiations (launched under US auspices with the genesis of the Madrid summit in 1991 – a quarter of a century ago). 

With no political solution in the offing, the US could instead invest its energies and resources in something actually achievable: a humanitarian solution for millions of descendants of the approximately 700,000 original Arab refugees who fled, for whatever reasons, from the newly proclaimed State of Israel in 1948, and have lived ever since in 59 “temporary” refugee camps (hosted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, unintegrated by their Arab host countries).

The current situation in the "refugee" camps:

The US provides 33 percent of UNRWA’s budget (it donates $400 million to UNRWA each year), thus assisting to prolong the “refugee status in perpetuity” paradigm that UNRWA drums into the minds of half a million UNRWA students. (All the other considerable numbers of refugees in the world are lumped into one other UN agency.)

Hamas has gained control over the UNRWA workers unions and teachers associations in Gaza over the past 18 years, which means that “humanitarian funds” actually flow to what has been designated by the US as a terrorist organization, where there is not even an expectation of transparency or accountability.

Over the past 28 years the Israel Resource News Agency and the Center for Near East Policy Research have covered UNRWA education, documenting and filming classrooms with teachers and texts that promote the “right of return by force of arms” to new generations of UNRWA students – blatantly opposed to the peace process that the US seeks to promote.

As UNRWA’s largest donor, the US could ask all donor nations to reconsider the curriculum in UNRWA schools, which emphasizes the “values” of Jihad, martyrdom and the “right of return by force of arms.”

(The pathetic excuse used by UNRWA is that they follow the host entity’s syllabus.)

Would this not be the right time to reinstate standards that conform to the UNRWA slogan of “Peace Starts Here?”

How can an agency that operates under the aegis of the United Nations train children for hate, terrorism and combat?

Over the last two years, our agency filmed children’s military training camps, and interviewed Hamas leaders who praise the cooperation of UNRWA in their military training.

Hamas Minister of Religion Ismael Radwan, told us on camera in our documentary film UNRWA goes to War that “The Hamas relationship with UNRWA is good, very good. Now a direct connection exists between UNRWA and Hamas.”

What can and should be done by the current US administration:

The US could demand that UNRWA dismiss employees affiliated with Hamas, in accordance with laws in the US, Canada, the EU, the UK and Australia, which forbid aid to agencies that employ members of a terrorist organization. After all, the US Congress enacted strict laws in 2003 in this regard, but they have never been enforced.

The US could ask that paramilitary training of UNRWA students be brought to an end.

It could also demand to audit donor funds that flow to UNRWA from 68 nations and examine reports of wasted resources, duplicity of services and the illegal flow of cash to terrorist groups. 

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is that UNRWA has renewed a special contract with its youth ambassador Mohammad Assaf, who won “Arab Idol” in 2013 at the age of 22.

Assaf now travels the world encouraging lethal violence.

The lyrics of Assaf’s songs are rife with calls to war, Jihad and martyrdom. Here is an example:

O soils of beloved forgotten land

With precious blood precious, you’re irrigated. 

We have all the rights, we are all for it. 

My land is from the river to the sea. 

...We will protect the land

It’s either victory or martyrdom, the men of this land said.

Take my blood and give me freedom. 

My land is from the river to the sea.

This would be an opportune time for the US to ask UNRWA to cancel its contract with this advocate of militant intolerance whose videos on YouTube got more than 36 million hits over the past year.

How the US could improve the future of those in the refugee camps:

What about the US finally pushing UNRWA to adapt Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) principles that direct UNRWA to engage in permanent resettlement of Arab refugees from the 1948 war?

UNRWA was established in December 1949 by UN General Assembly resolution 302 (IV), with the mandate to provide “direct relief and works programs” to Palestine refugees, to “prevent conditions of starvation and distress… and to further conditions of peace and stability.” 

The UN General Assembly established UNHCR in December 1950 “to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.” It works “to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees,” and to “ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.” 

Since 1949, the 500,000 to 700,000 original Arab refugees have ballooned into five million who covet and wallow in their refugee status, waiting, as Assaf’s song says, to retake what they consider their land “from the river to the sea.”

Are descendants of refugees counted as refugees? Not by UNHCR, but yes by UNWRA. Duration: indefinitely.

The US, which covers a third of UNRWA’s budget, could address the madness of continuing to create more and more refugees – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond – and instead apply UNHCR standards of resettlement to UNRWA, to resolve the problem instead of expanding and perpetuating it.

There is much that the US administration can do if it really wants to establish a Middle East legacy that will last a lifetime. 

Now is the time to launch a courageous initiative to remove the stain of refugeehood from millions of Palestinian Arabs who have been labeled and burdened with that indignity since 1949. 

The writer is author of Roadblock to Peace – How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNRWA Policies Reconsidered and has been active in efforts to reform UNRWA for the past 28 years. He runs the Israel Resource News Agency and the Center for Near East Policy Research, which has produced books, monographs and movies filmed on location in UNRWA.