UNRWA deserves support, not vilification by political pygmies

UNRWA deserves support, not vilification by political pygmies

UNRWA deserves support, not vilification by political pygmies
UNRWA employees protest job cuts, Gaza City, Sept. 19, 2018. (Reuters)
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Not many outside Israel have heard of Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the UN and a former interior security minister. His main political attributes converge into his loyalty to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was was not always reciprocated. When Erdan became surplus to requirements for forming a government, Netanyahu appointed him ambassador to both Washington and the UN. It might have been a tribute to how highly Netanyahu thought of him, but more probably how much he wanted him over the ocean and far away, instead of being another disgruntled politician omitted from the Cabinet.

One of the favorite pastimes of Israel’s right-wing politicians is vitriolically attacking the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, whose UN mandate is to provide 5.7 million Palestinian refugees assistance and protection to ensure they reach their full potential in terms of human development. Since its inception, UNRWA has been operating under some of the most challenging conditions and circumstances in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on what can only be regarded as a shoestring budget, which is approved annually, leaving it, by design, very little opportunity for genuine long-term planning.

Given this situation, Erdan’s most recent accusations against UNRWA don’t deserve any serious attention. However, since they were deliberately put to the UN General Assembly in order to cause maximum damage, it is imperative for his remarks to be exposed for their utter disingenuousness, and for the sinister motivation behind them. On this occasion, Erdan attempted to display a placard quoting an UNRWA teacher’s online post that glorified the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler, in order to discredit the entire organization — one that employs 28,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinian themselves — because of the actions of one of them. Any glorification, even the slightest of expressions of appreciation of Hitler, is contemptible, and should be condemned in the strongest manner. What Erdan failed to mention was that this teacher and six other UNRWA personnel are under investigation, and have been suspended from their work for the duration of the inquiry, for using language that contains incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination. This sounds to me like good practice, which any organization could adhere to.

As UNRWA’s commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini, said last week, the organization has “a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Over the years there have been cases of regrettable behaviour by UNRWA employees, but the quality of the organization, as of any other, must be judged by how it deals with such situations, instead of subjecting the entire organization to a summary trial. Viewed in this light, Erdan has no leg to stand on. He himself had no misgivings about serving in government under a prime minister being investigated and then indicted on the most severe charges of corruption, or of being appointed by that person to his current position, and he did not agree that Netanyahu should have done the right thing and suspended himself from political office for the duration of the trial.

The issue of the Palestinian refugees, many of whom have been languishing in camps for more than 70 years in some of the most difficult conditions and circumstances, such as the war in Syria or the blockaded and frequently bombed Gaza Strip, is one for grown-up and responsible politicians, not for populists whose main aim is to appeal to Likud party members and their votes when the job of leading that party becomes vacant. Israel’s attitude to UNRWA suffers from a contradiction, or worse, hypocrisy.  If the agency were to be dismantled, a disaster for millions of Palestinian refugees would ensue, with dire consequences for the Jewish state, including the fact that it would inherit the responsibility to ensure their wellbeing, at least in the West Bank and Gaza. But the existence of UNRWA is also a constant reminder of Israel’s failures — in creating the refugee tragedy in the first place, and in its active and crucial part in blocking moves towards achieving a fair and just peace with the Palestinians. Israel’s fantasy is that the issue will somehow miraculously evaporate, or be resolved by anyone but itself.

Gilad Erdan attempted to display a placard quoting an UNRWA teacher’s online post that glorified the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler, in order to discredit the entire organization — one that employs 28,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinian themselves.

Yossi Mekelberg

UNRWA is an anomaly, but not of its own making. More than anything else, it is compensating for the failure of others. In the meantime, until there is a solution by which the right of Palestinians to self-determination is recognized, and every Palestinian refugee becomes a citizen of a country and is compensated for the loss incurred as a result of wars and expulsions, it is UNRWA that under almost impossible circumstances is guaranteeing the education, and successfully so, of more than half a million students, that provides healthcare, protection, and micro-finance, and builds infrastructure for the Palestinian refugee population scattered across the region. Is there any other body — maybe even Israel? — willing or able to take the mantle from UNRWA on any of these issues, let alone all of them?

The issue of curriculums and textbooks taught in UNRWA’s schools is decided by the host country, not by the agency. In all cases UNRWA meticulously reviews every single page of every book to identify inappropriate language that might amount to any kind of discrimination, in line with UN principles and values. As Lazzarini said in his address to the UN last week, teaching staff are trained to address any deviation from these principles and values and not to pass them on to the students, and not to tolerate passages that praise any form of violence. There are cases of deviation from these guidelines, but when reported they are dealt with according to UN guidelines.

As with any other organisation, UNRWA should be judged by its achievements in relation to the magnitude of the issues it is dealing with, the objectives set for it and the resources made available to achieve these objectives — and not in isolation from the realities under which it must operate. By such criteria, this is one of the more successful UN agencies, one that deserves more support, including a multiyear budget and protection from unwarranted attacks by populist Israeli politicians disguised as diplomats, until peace prevails and there is no longer a need for it.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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