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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why UNRWA isn't going away anytime soon

In the current issue of Commentary, Michael S. Bernstam makes a credible argument for abolishing UNRWA, the UN agency that handles 'Palestinian refugees' (Hat Tip: Elder of Ziyon).
Though pundits and foreign-policy experts focus on the question of settlements or the current temperature of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA’s institutionalization of refugee-cum-military camps is, in my view, the principal obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The chances of achieving peace and security in the Middle East will continue to be remote as long as UNRWA is, in effect, underwriting a self-destructive Palestinian cycle of violence, internecine warfare, and a perpetual war against Israel.

The core issue is a phenomenon we can call “refugeeism.” For 60 years, UNRWA has been paying four generations of Palestinians to remain refugees, reproduce refugees, and live in refugee camps. It is UNRWA that put them in refugee cages and watched the number of inhabitants grow. The Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza has exploded from 726,000 in 1950 to 4.8 million in 2010. About 95 percent live under UNRWA care. The unprecedented nature of this guardianship is rooted in the unusual nature of this institution. UNRWA is a supranational welfare state that pays its residents not to build their own nation-state, for, were they to do so, they would forfeit their refugee status and its entitlements of cash, housing, health care, education, credit, and other largesse.

It is these perverse incentives above all that have undermined efforts to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, such as those measures aimed at fostering economic development in the West Bank undertaken by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the Israeli government. If the international community truly wishes to serve the needs of the Palestinians and improve their lot, its first task would be the abolition of UNRWA.


UNRWA has been one of the most inhuman experiments in human history. Since UNRWA creates incentives for war and disincentives for peace, conditions for Palestinian misery and disincentives for economic development, it cannot be reformed and must be removed. The change in the Palestinian incentive structure is necessary for both peace and statehood. Palestinian sovereignty will only be achieved by liberation from UNRWA and, like peace, cannot be truly achieved without this liberation. The first order of business, then, is to dismantle the UNRWA welfare-warfare state. If this were to be done, the future Palestinian state, or at least the West Bank, would be able to join the family of prosperous nation-states. To juxtapose President Carter and the last canto of Dante’s Inferno, open the cage and enter the world.

But given the intractable nature of the problem and the strong support this destructive program retains in the international community, how can this end be achieved? One possible first step is to merge it with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Such a measure could allow UNRWA to be abolished immediately. If the new, merged agency adopted UNHCR’s program of short-term emergency relief, it would signal the beginning of the end of the world body’s support for continuance of the Palestinians’ ­agony. Alternatively, UNRWA could be held in place and phased out gradually, say, over three years.

The process is not important. What is important is the change in mission. The new mandate should be resettlement, integration, and naturalization—or at least the former two or the latter two, with integration being a central and necessary component. The task is, in short, to transform 4.8 million people from dependent refugees into productive citizens.

Another option is for UNRWA funding to be converted into international subsidies earmarked exclusively for resettlement, integration, and naturalization. The funds could be applied in the countries of current residence (reimbursing, too, those countries’ expenses), in Palestinian jurisdictions, or in whatever country would admit refugees on an individual basis. Israel is obviously unsuitable as a country of resettlement because integration there is not feasible, and such a plan would defeat the whole purpose of the scheme.

Most important, the transfer of UNRWA funding to the Palestinian Authority and local authorities would dispose of the very institution of the refugee camps. They would become regular neighborhoods and dwellings once their refugee status is removed. Integration would also become easier once the refugee stigma is removed from these neighborhoods. UNRWA schools, medical facilities, financial institutions, and all social services could be given outright to the Palestinian Authority, which would enhance its status, scope, and power as a sovereign government of a new nation-state, and to local governments elsewhere.

In fact, the dismantling of UNRWA would, by itself, facilitate and accelerate the task of resettlement, integration, and naturalization. This process has been forestalled in many places by the very existence of UNRWA and its refugee designation of the Palestinians.
Read the whole thing.

Bernstam's theory is undermined by two underlying assumptions. First, he assumes that the 'Palestinians' themselves wish to escape their 'refugeeism,' when in truth what many (maybe even most) of them yearn for is not a state, but the destruction of the existing state of Israel.

Second, he assumes that Jordan, Syria and Lebanon would agree that the 'Palestinian refugee problem' be resolved by making all of the 'refugees' citizens of the countries in which they currently reside. But there is little or no chance that will happen. In Jordan, it would mean that the little rump king would have even more votes in his 'country' go against him, while in Syria and especially Lebanon, the economic consequences of allowing the 'Palestinians' to be employed in areas in which they are currently not allowed to work, would be severe for the existing local population.

If the West really wants to solve the 'Palestinian refugee' problem, the way to do it would be to force the Arab states to allow the 'refugees' to emigrate to the West. But the West doesn't want to solve the problem badly enough to allow so many ticking time bombs to live in its midst.

The only other way the problem could be resolved would be for Israel to annihilate the Arab world, including the 'Palestinians,' militarily. But there is little chance the West would not come to the 'Palestinians' rescue, and there is probably even less chance that Israel's leadership would actually allow the IDF to finish the job.

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At 1:14 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There's no chance the UN's pro-Arab majority will ever abolish UNRWA and scant chance the West will stop financing it. The reason the Palestinians are on the international welfare dole is because its a way of life for them and they prefer it to building their own state. They want Israel to hand everything to them on a platter without their ever having worked for it.

That's also a good reason why a Palestinian state won't solve the real problem, which is Arab opposition to Israel's existence. Haaretz's leftist Aluff Benn blames Netanyahu for the absence of progress on the peace front but conveniently overlooks the fact that Israel has no peace partner on the other side.

Given all of the above, its safe to say no peace agreement will happen in 2011 absent a real change in the Palestinian ideology and that won't happen in our lifetime.


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