With the violence only starting to escalate, emotions were unusually high when the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) met on Capitol Hill recently. After one guest stood up to personally criticize Sen. Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.) for never having visited a Palestinian refugee camp (and to invite him to one), a Philadelphian rabbi rose from his chair to respond forcefully: “They invite you to the refugee camps because you’re a United States senator,” he declared. “But as a Jew who would love to help out, I can’t walk into a camp without getting my neck slit open.”
The topic at hand was the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the UN organization created in 1949 to manage the administration of healthcare, education, housing, and food for the 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel’s war of independence. Originally envisioned as a temporary organization, the UN General Assembly continues to renew UNRWA’s mandate, and today’s operation cares for more than 4 million descendents of the original refugees, as only 150,000 displaced Palestinians remain alive.
For many years, UNRWA has been mired in controversy. Critics point to the organization as yet another example of the UN’s double-standard regarding Israel, as the rest of the world’s refugees are helped and resettled with the assistance of the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (last March, the UN moved to replace the commission with a newly-created UN Human Rights Council). UNRWA, on the other hand, doesn’t exist to resettle the few remaining Palestinian refugees. Rather, the agency is tasked with keeping Palestinian descendents in refugee camps while they await a “political solution” and their “right of return.”
Regardless of whether or not it’s intentional, this allows the forever-dependent refugees to serve as continued justification for the Arab world’s infinite conflict with Israel. Moreover, while the High Commission for Refugees has one employee for every 2,977 refugees, UNRWA has one staffer for every 169 displaced Palestinians. With more than 25,000 employees—of which more than 99% are resident Palestinians—UNRWA is the UN’s largest agency, and on a per refugee basis, UNRWA greatly outspends the High Commission.
Other critics point to UNRWA’s many ties to terror as reason for grave concern. In the last five years, Israel has arrested and indicted 17 UNRWA employees, one of whom was convicted of using his UN vehicle to transport Palestinian militants to launch attacks. Another convicted UNRWA employee admitted to using his UN ambulance to transport arms and messages to Hamas militants. In the spring of 2002, after a series of assaults, the Israeli military uncovered bomb factories and arms caches in a raid of the UN-managed refugee camps at Jenin and Balata. In UNRWA-supported schools, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is presented as a historical document containing the confidential resolutions of the first Zionist Congress, and jihad and martyrdom are glorified ubiquitously. And throughout the refugee camps, Palestinian militants are recruited, trained, and sent out to fight the Israelis.
And the U.S. taxpayers foot most of the bill.
Because UNRWA was created as a temporary relief organization, its funding doesn’t come from the UN’s general system of allocation. Rather, the agency is supported by voluntary contributions. As its largest donor, the U.S. sends UNRWA more than $120 million each year, constituting more than 30% of the organization’s annual budget.
That’s why, when Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk took the podium at the JINSA event, he declared that for the Palestinian relief organization, it was time for “welfare reform.”
“My concern is bipartisan,” Kirk explained, echoing the sentiments that Coleman had lain out moments earlier. “I just want to find out what the American taxpayer is paying for, because right now, there’s no transparency and there’s no accountability. And as someone who comes from Chicago, I know about corruption. And when you look at the UN under Kofi Annan, the similarities are striking.”
“According to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,” Kirk continued, “we may only fund UNRWA if it takes ‘all possible measures’ to ensure that U.S. funds aren’t going to refugees who engage in terror. But the State Department has no definition of what ‘all possible measures’ even means, and we know for a fact that members of Hamas have received aid in the past. ”
As the commissioner-general of UNRWA casually told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. less than two years ago (his reappointment was blocked by the Bush Administration), “I’m sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime.”
And it’s not as if Coleman and Kirk are seeking to eliminate Palestinian aid. Rather, they’re seeking to use American money more wisely—and to make sure the Palestinians are actually being helped. After all, in the 56 years since its creation, the U.N High Commission for Refugees has helped an estimated 50 million people restart their lives. With UNRWA, on the other hand, the number of refugees they’re supporting has increased by nearly 600 percent.
In the weeks and months after September 11, American foreign policy was often criticized because so many of today’s enemies were yesterday’s friends. From Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Mujahideen to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, our money once supported today’s terror masters. In the Palestinian territories, however, we continue to fund a system that supports terror. Why haven’t we learned?