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The Fierce Urgency of UNRWA

At tomorrow’s hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider recommendations that the U.S. end its funding for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). An even more urgent issue, however, relates to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Some argue that the U.S. should stop funding UNRWA as well, but the urgency involves more than UNRWA’s financing. Its latest three-year mandate comes up for renewal in June, and the U.S. needs to decide soon what its position should be.

UNRWA is a “temporary agency” currently in its 62nd year. It was established in 1949 to serve approximately 700,000 Arabs and more than 800,000 Jews who became refugees as a result of the Arab war against Israel. In 1952, UNRWA stopped assisting Jewish refugees, since they had been resettled in Israel and other countries. But in its 62 years, UNRWA has yet to resettle a single Arab refugee. It is instrumental in keeping them in squalid camps, generation after generation, expanding their numbers with a unique definition of “refugee” not applied in other refugee situations.

Forget the controversy over how many Palestinians left at Arab urging to make way for the promised destruction of Israel by the invading Arab armies; how many fled the horrors of war on their own initiative; how many were pushed out in the course of the war. That issue is the subject of faux Palestinian scholarship, but the fundamental fact is there would be no refugees at all if the Arabs had accepted the UN’s two-state solution in 1947 instead of starting a war – and trying it again in 1967.

It is a human-rights violation of the first order that Arab refugees and their descendants have not been offered citizenship in the Arab countries where they have now lived most or all of their lives. But UNRWA rules out such resettlement – unlike the remedy used for all other refugees in the world. As Jonathan D. Halevi has demonstrated in a compelling analysis, and as Michael Bernstam has shown in his extraordinary article in the December issue of COMMENTARY, “The Palestinian Proletariat,” the refugee problem is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and UNRWA is part of the problem.

Before the “temporary” agency’s mandate is renewed again, that mandate needs to be reconsidered. Instead of holding refugees in camps for decades, hoping to force them on Israel — the state that resettled an even greater number of Jewish refugees resulting from the 1948 war — Arab states should finally assume moral and financial responsibility for the refugees their war created, and UNRWA should start resettling them there. After 62 years, the time is now.


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