National Jewish leaders have pulled back on their long-standing campaign against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides humanitarian services for Palestinian refugees — an early sign of caution in confronting a new administration, and of Congress’s determination reshape the country’s stance toward the U.N. more favorably.
The Jewish leaders’ push to reform UNWRA was once seen as a key component of their Middle East lobbying agenda. But last month, a congressional resolution calling for reforming the agency — though toned down from previous years — received a lukewarm welcome from Jewish organizations.
The administration, meanwhile, has sent out clear signals that it is supporting the agency, and that it views it as the central channel for providing aid to Palestinians. Last month, UNRWA received a $13.5 million cash boost from the Obama administration in order to help Gaza refugees rebuild after the devastation left by Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s recent military onslaught in Gaza.
More recently, UNWRA’s humanitarian efforts in Gaza came to a brief halt for reasons that seemed to undercut, at least partially, the Jewish establishment’s claim that the agency condones extremism. On February 6, UNRWA announced that it was suspending its Gaza work because Hamas — the Islamist group that rules the district and opposes Israel’s very existence — had seized 10 truckloads of aid that were to be distributed by the aid agency. The aid work was resumed February 9, after Hamas returned the stolen supplies.
The agency and its practices in the West Bank and Gaza have been a subject of continuous criticism in the Jewish community, which had widely supported previous legislative efforts to curb UNRWA’s actions and enforce stricter scrutiny on its operations.In the past, AIPAC hosted a presentation on the issue and supported efforts to take the debate over UNRWA’S work to Capitol Hill. This year, a congressional proposal on the issue is taking a more moderate approach, yet the community remains wary.
On January 28, New Jersey Democrat Steven Rothman introduced a nonbinding resolution calling for better accountability in UNRWA and ensuring that the agency does not serve terrorists either as employees or beneficiaries. As of February 10, the resolution had 11 co-sponsors, a relatively small number.
The resolution calls on the secretary of state to ensure that American funding for UNRWA does not pay salaries for terrorists. It stops short of threatening to halt American funding for the agency.
A recent study of UNRWA that is sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank generally perceived as sympathetic to Israel, found no evidence of direct involvement of employees in terrorist activity, but it criticized its screening process for such people.
In 2006, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk introduced similar legislation that not only used much harsher language, but also attempted to condition American support to UNRWA on an annual report that would examine the group’s work. That bill had 20 co-sponsors, but it did not make it to a vote on the House floor.
The current, more moderate approach reflects a change in attitude toward the organization in Washington. Indeed, a January 28 letter, signed by more than 60 members, urged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to provide post-conflict emergency funds for Gaza via UNRWA. The letter came after meetings held on Capitol Hill with Israeli human rights groups and with John Ging, director of UNRWA’s Gaza operation.
The Obama administration’s decision to grant $13.5 million to UNWRA also influenced the agency’s critics in Congress and among Jewish groups to move more cautiously. In a January 30 conference call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Rothman acknowledged, according to participants, that the time is not ripe for threatening to cut aid to UNRWA altogether, since members of Congress feel there are already “too many hurdles” that limit aid to Palestinians. The Presidents Conference did not issue an official endorsement of the resolution.
Still, a letter from Rothman’s office that circulated in the House, seeking support for the resolution, stressed, “This measure is endorsed by AIPAC and ZOA,” referring to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee and to the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.
But according to a congressional staff member, AIPAC’s lobbyists “are not very active on this.” The staffer said he had not seen “any kind of pressure” from AIPAC to co-sponsor or approve the resolution.
The ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said he understood the political constraints and that he supported “a moderate language” compared with that of past years. “Politics is the art of compromise,” said Klein, who speculated that the Jewish groups are trying to avoid a conflict with the administration over this issue.
Nevertheless, the detailed report on UNWRA that was published last month by James Lindsay, general counsel of the group from 2000 to 2007, showed that debate is far from dead. Lindsay, who wrote the paper as a fellow at the Washington Institute, blasted UNRWA’s practices and questioned the scope of its operations.
The 67-page report revisits some of the issues that have been the focal point of American criticism of UNRWA. Most significant is the claim that UNRWA’s employment practices do not effectively screen members of terror groups. Lindsay found claims of prevalent terror activity conducted by local UNRWA employees to be inaccurate, but argued, “[T]he agency makes no effort to discourage supporters or members of Hamas from joining its staff.” The report further claimed that UNRWA did not conduct proper pre-employment security checks.
Christopher Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman in Jerusalem, said Lindsay’s report “misrepresents” the group’s work with Palestinian refugees. Gunness pointed to UNWRA’s practice of checking each applicant’s name against a U.N.-issued list of terror activists, and of requiring a signed affidavit from each employee to ensure that he or she has no affiliation with a terror group.
UNRWA began operating in 1950, with a mandate to provide relief to Palestinian refugees who were displaced following the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s establishment as an independent state. The initial number of Palestinians treated by UNRWA was fewer than 1 million, but with the arrival of succeeding generations of Palestinians, this has ballooned over the years to 4.6 million. And the scope of the agency’s work, which was providing humanitarian aid, broadened, to UNRWA becoming the major supplier of education, health care, development and micro-financing for Palestinian refugees.
Lindsay’s report argues that instead of expanding, UNRWA should be seeking to end its own mission. “There should be a gradual and orderly transfer of responsibilities to the local authorities,” Lindsay told the Forward. “Eventually, UNRWA needs to work itself out of its job.” He added that the process should start with Jordan, where Palestinian refugees have full citizenship.
Lindsay debated his report at the Washington Institute with a senior UNRWA official during a February 3 public dialogue that at times became testy. “When I finished reading the paper,” said Andrew Whitley, director of UNRWA’s representation office, at the presentation, “I came to an unhappy reminder of the ladies of Place Pigalle in Paris.” This was a reference to the prostitutes known to work the Paris neighborhood.