January 31, 2009
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees does little to check whether its staff or clients are terrorists, its former chief attorney, James Lindsay, says in a newly published report.
Allegations linking terrorists to UNRWA are not new. Israel has said many times its troops were fired on by gunmen using UNRWA facilities, that UNRWA vehicles transported weapons and that some of its staff members were terrorists.
UNRWA has denied those charges and Israel has often retracted them or found them hard to prove.
This latest claim against UNRWA, contained in a 67-page critique of the organization published at the end of January by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has more authority behind it, because Lindsay was a senior lawyer for UNRWA from 2000 to 2007.
The issue, Lindsay wrote, is not intention but oversight.
“UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations such as Hamas from joining its staff,” he wrote.
“These failings have occurred not because UNRWA consciously supports terrorism but rather because it is not particularly concerned about the issue. Its main focus [is] the provision of services and protection of Palestinian refugees,” he wrote.
UNRWA’s Jerusalem spokesman Chris Gunness said in response that his organization had “a rigorous approach to ensuring that its staff are not involved in militant or political activity” and that it took the matter very seriously.
Lindsay wrote that UNRWA did not have the means to ensure there was no terrorism in its midst.
“Even if terrorism constituted a greater concern, the agency is not equipped to undertake the extensive security investigations that a thoroughgoing anti-terrorism effort would require,” he said.
Lindsay cited examples of past charges against UNRWA staff, including a 2002 UNRWA driver who was accused – but never charged – with carrying weapons in an ambulance and a Gaza headmaster employed by UNRWA who was also an explosives experts for Islamic Jihad. The headmaster was killed by Israel last year.
UNRWA has no preemployment security checks and does not monitor off-time behavior to ensure compliance with the organization’s anti-terrorist rules, Lindsay wrote.
“Evidence of area staff members who have had second jobs with Hamas or with other terrorist groups does occasionally come to light,” he wrote.
Even so, Lindsay noted, of the 5,000 UNRWA staff who worked in the West Bank and the 10,000 in the Gaza Strip, most of whom were Palestinians, few had been convicted of terrorism-related charges.
Staff members, however, had been involved in political activity, wrote Lindsay. In particular he quoted the organization’s past commissioner-general Peter Hansen, who in 2004 said, “I am sure there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”
UNRWA has said in response that its staff were prohibited from any political involvement.
The bulk of Lindsay’s report, however, focused on operational suggestions to de-politicize and change the organization’s mission and to cut down on its list of 4.5 million refugees.
UNRWA was created in 1949 by General Assembly Resolution 302 and began operation in May 1950 to service what at the time was 957,000 refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, many of whom been rendered homeless or jobless by the 1948-49 war with Israel, according to Lindsay.
That number was higher than the initial UN list of 726,000 refugees recorded in the immediate aftermath of the war, he wrote.
Initially, UNRWA provided immediate relief with an aim to integrate the refugees into their host countries.
Both the refugees and the Arab states opposed the idea of integration. By the late 1950s it had been disregarded in favor of servicing the refugees, including offering developmental services in areas such as education, health, welfare, microfinance and urban planning.
UNRWA also expanded its definition of a refugee to include those patrilineal descendants of the original refugees.
Since the 1970s, more than half of the organization’s budget has gone to education. In 2007, for example, $282 million of UNRWA’s $545m. budget went to educate 480,000 children, according to Lindsay.
Similarly, 21,962 of its 29,000 staff members work in UNRWA schools. Fifteen percent to 20% of its budget goes to health services, for which $106m. was earmarked in the 2007 budget.
But not all those serviced by UNRWA need the organization, Lindsay wrote in his study, particularly given that a majority of them have been resettled.
In Jordan, where 2 million Palestinian refugees live, all but 167,000 have citizenship, and are fully eligible for government services including education and health care.
To continue to call citizens of recognized states refugees is suspect and suggests “that the agency’s continued existence is due at least in part to political purposes” even though UNRWA was not designed as a political organization, Lindsay said.
Eliminating UNRWA services in Jordan to all but the 167,000 noncitizens could reduce its refugee list by 40%, Lindsay said.
In deciding to whom UNRWA provides services, it assesses “refugee status,” not need, he wrote.
Some recipients of aid could afford to pay for the services they now received for free, he wrote.
The decision to allow for a growing refugee population had become a political statement that fostered and supported the Palestinian demand to return to Israel, he wrote.
UNRWA, he said, did this even though the United States, its largest single donor, did not support the right of Palestinian return to within Israel’s pre-1967 border.
While some critics have demanded that the organization be disbanded, Lindsay called for it to be reformed. UNRWA’s programs, he said, had insured that the population it serviced did not suffer from lack of basic needs.
As a large donor, the US should do more to push for changes within UNRWA, including a return to a needs-based operation, he said.
It should ask that its staff stop making “one-sided political statements” and limit themselves to comments on humanitarian issues.
A better system to check staff and clients needed to be installed, and it needed to better define its policy against “terrorism,” he said.
Textbooks used in UNRWA schools had improved but should be provided by a neutral body like the United Nations rather than by the local governments, and an independent monitoring group should be established to examine the teachers’ work, he said.
Gunness said Lindsay’s study was inaccurate and misleading.
“The life-saving, human value of UNRWA’s work was in evidence during the recent Gaza conflict, as it has been in previous crises for the past 60 years.
“This work has made a positive difference in Palestinian lives not only in the occupied Palestinian territory, but also across the Middle East,” the UNRWA spokesman said.
The article “makes selective use of source material and fails to paint a truthful portrait of UNRWA and its operations today… and does not detail the organizations three year process of reform,” he said.
“The article also avoids highlighting the many relevant aspects of UNRWA’s rules and management practice,” Gunness said.
Lindsay, he said, knew these facts but avoided presenting them.
“For all these reasons, UNRWA rejects the article and its findings and is preparing a detailed response to it,” Gunness said.