Book Review: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created in 1949, after the Arabs rejected the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine, and five Arab armies attacked the nascent State of Israel and lost their bid to destroy it. However, the UNRWA’s role in enabling the ongoing Arab War on Israel is not readily understood nor publicized.

This is the essence of the new book, Roadblock to Peace, How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNWRA Policies Considered, by David Bedein.

Bedein, a prolific Jerusalem-based investigative journalist, author and director of the Israel Resource News Agency, is eminently qualified to report first-hand the workings of this unique U.N. agency, whose exclusive mandate is for one ethnic group. This stands in sharp contrast to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which works on behalf of millions of refugees from the rest of the world.

More after the jump.
The book is extensively sourced with interviews, citations, graphs, photographs, and footnotes.

Bedein explains that the UNRWA was spawned in response to the displacement of about 540,000 Arab refugees upon Israel’s repulsion of the invading Arab armies between 1948 and 49. Unlike the U.N. mandate for all other refugees on the planet, from its beginnings, UNRWA has avoided any permanent solution to the predicament of these refugees, and instead focuses on their so-called right to “return” to Palestine.

As Bedein says, the UNRWA’s mandate is ostensibly “to provide humanitarian aid (education, health care, welfare assistance, social services) but it has instead absolved itself from any responsibility to resolve the plight of the Arab refugees and their descendants, thus transforming their plight into a political tool.”

This is key to comprehending why the Arabs cannot and will not end the conflict: A theological component, which Westerners often ignore, encompasses a portrayal of victimization and “occupation” by the hated Jews, whom they treat as dhimmi, “proteges,” in Muslim countries.

The assumption that the UNRWA would have a limited lifespan has been proven woefully incorrect. Instead, it is a behemoth, operating 59 refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, Judea and Samaria (defined as the “West Bank”) and Jerusalem. As of 2011, it had 29,000 staff members. By contrast, the UNHCR has 7,200 employees who serve 15.4 million refugees.

The UNWRA is funded through voluntary contributions from 116 donor countries, of whom the U.S. is the largest contributor, with 30% of the money donated.

In 2011, the U.S provided almost $267 million to the UNWRA. Since then, the UNRWA’s budget sky-rocketed to $1.2 billion. This assistance exceeds that of all other refugees in the world.

The number of refugees UNRWA served as of 2011 has swelled to 4.681 million, because unlike how the UNHCR, which counts only the actual refugees, UNRWA counts descendants of refugees as well.

Most problematically, the UNRWA holds that return to their place of origin is considered an inalienable right. This is also in opposite to the UNHCR, which protects the right to find asylum or resettlement in a country of refuge or a third country. The UNHCR’s goal is to help refugees get on with their lives; most consequently are resettled, not repatriated.

Two chapters of the book are potent in particular. In chapter five, “UNRWA Refugees and the Terror Connection,” Bedein writes about how it has circumvented stringent requests from donor nations to weed out Hamas from its ranks.

In chapter six, Bedein describes the UNRWA’s educational system, which uses half of the UNRWA’s budget, and the use of school books which contain material that contradict is professed mission — the ideal of peace.  

With numerous examples, Bedein shows how UNRWA school books often advocate armed struggle against Israel, deny Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign state and demonize it. He demonstrates how Hamas maintains control over its staff union and keeps it a hotbed of anti-Israel radicalism.

This type of behavior has been going on for more than six decades, and has clearly contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict. Accordingly, per Bedein, “UNRWA should not continue its policy of absolute submission to the political, ideological and propagandist lines of the host governments in its areas of operation whenever these lines contradict UNRWA’s principles and mission. These are things that UNRWA must not teach.”

As U.S. taxpayers, we should all be very concerned that we are in essence funding terrorism, not peace.

Bedein concludes with sensible policy suggestions on improving UNRWA’s accountability. The status quo, he says, is “neither desirable nor acceptable” and ultimately “detrimental to the long-term well being of the refugees and to the possibilities of peace in the Middle East.”

Bedein’s final moral argument is the most powerful one: It is simply inexcusable and humane for the UNRWA to continue to cultivate expectations of the “right of return” and “confer on them a limbo status that prevents them from getting on with their lives.”  

For anyone truly interested in understanding the UNRWA’s largely-invisible but looming and forgotten role in preventing a genuine reconciliation and peace in the Middle East, this is the book for you.

Lee S. Bender is co-President of the Zionist Organization of America — Greater Philadelphia District, and co-author of Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z (Pavilion Press, 2012).

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