Israel Drops Bid To Curb Palestinian Refugee Body

After Hamas Election, Jerusalem Finds UNRWA Has Many Uses

By Ori Nir

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — In a sudden, unheralded reversal of policy, Israel and its allies here are dropping their campaign to curb the activities of the United Nations agency charged with aiding Palestinian refugees.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups have long accused the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem rather than helping to resolve it through resettlement. The agency, with an annual budget of $339 million, serves 4 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, including 1.4 million in the West Bank and Gaza.

For months following the Israeli pullout from Gaza last year, Israel argued that the U.N. agency’s activities in the territories should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. But thinking in Jerusalem changed following the victory of the terrorist organization Hamas in January’s Palestinian legislative elections. With Hamas poised to take control of the P.A., Israeli officials have decided it would be better to work with the U.N. agency than with the new Palestinian government.

“We were aiming at diminishing UNRWA’s infrastructure, but what happened with Hamas has now disrupted our plans and has created a dilemma with which we are trying to cope,” said Ronni Leshno-Yaar, deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry for the U.N. and international organizations.

Sources said that Israel is in dire need of reliable international bodies to deliver increased humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population. Those sources cited Jerusalem’s desire to maintain stability in the West Bank and Gaza and avoid being forced to assume responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians if the U.N. agency were forced to leave.

According to UNRWA Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd, Israel recently went as far as toying with the idea of extending the agency’s responsibilities. At a press conference in Jordan earlier this month, AbuZayd said that UNRWA was “approached by many countries, even Israel, asking us to continue our services to Palestinian refugees and perhaps even extend these services to do things we haven’t done before.” A State Department official confirmed that Israeli diplomats in fact discussed with UNRWA officials the possibility of extending the organization’s mandate in order to serve the nonrefugee population in the West Bank and Gaza. One source told the Forward that a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official urged UNRWA to take on an enhanced role in the Palestinian territories. The source suggested that Israel might have to take up the matter at the U.N. General Assembly to ensure that the agency’s mandate is expanded.

Leshno-Yaar, the Israeli foreign ministry official who handles contacts with U.N. agencies, flatly denied that Israel had any interest in expanding the mandate of UNRWA or had discussed the issue with officials at the agency. That said, Leshno-Yaar added, Israel is no longer trying to scale back the agency’s mandate or responsibilities. He also confirmed that Israel has been consulting with the United States and with other international players about involving other U.N. agencies in the territories.

Pro-Israel lobbyists appear to be following Jerusalem’s lead, as support among Jewish groups for immediate congressional action against UNRWA has decreased.

“The legislation that is aimed at getting rid of UNRWA is slowing down,” said an official with a pro-Israel organization in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Among other things, the official was referring to a bill that Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said he intends to introduce in the House of Representatives. He recently told a cheering crowd of activists at the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the measure would demand rigorous audits of UNRWA as the first step in a process that would lead to the dissolution of the agency. “We’ll demand [an] audit. UNRWA will just tell us to jump off a cliff, and that will make a case for shutting down UNRWA,” Kirk said during his talk at the Aipac gathering earlier this month. At the time, Ester Kurz, Aipac’s director of legislative strategy and policy, complimented Kirk for his initiative, calling it a “terrific effort.”

Now Kirk’s effort seems to have lost steam. A source close to the initiative said that draft legislation is not imminent. A spokesman for the congressman said that the bill is still “in the planning phase” and that it isn’t clear if and when a bill will be introduced. The spokesman added that at this point, Kirk “is not talking about it.”

The Bush administration and the European Union have indicated their intention to divert aid money — which in the past went directly or indirectly to the P.A. — to foreign entities providing humanitarian assistance. Israel supports such steps, Leshno-Yaar said.

“We are looking for the appropriate conduits to deliver such aid, in ways that do not go through the corridors of the Palestinian government — and we have not found them yet,” the Israeli diplomat said.

American charitable organization officials who are familiar with similar deliberations on the issue within the Bush administration said that the State Department and the National Security Council are also far from coming to a conclusion. The Forward has learned that some of the U.N. agencies being considered for an expanded role in Gaza and the West Bank are the World Food Programme; the United Nations Children’s Fund; the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. A step that both Israeli and American officials are considering is to form a coordinating body of several U.N. agencies that will pool resources and expertise in delivering humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the territories.

The need for increased humanitarian aid to the P.A. may be imminent. A memorandum published last week by the World Bank forecasts a bleak economic future for the West Bank and Gaza under a Hamas government. According to the World Bank memorandum, if Israel continues to impose economic sanctions and the international community continues to withhold the robust economic support that it had delivered directly to the Palestinian government in past years, unemployment could jump to 40% from 23% and the poverty rate could surge to 67% from 44%.

Despite the expected urgent need for aid, it appears that the new alignment in Palestinian politics and the refusal of the West to fund a Hamas-led government will make it difficult to deliver emergency assistance.

The World Bank memorandum states that “it would be difficult to ramp up emergency/humanitarian assistance levels quickly if humanitarian flows require new verification procedures” to make sure that funds do not go to the coffers of Hamas.

Efforts to deliver aid could be complicated further by the way in which Hamas responds to efforts by the West to bypass the new ruling party.

One State Department official told the Forward that Hamas “would obviously resent” international attempts to establish a parallel, competing apparatus for supplying services to Palestinians, especially one aimed at discrediting and undermining the terrorist organization. One concern is that Hamas will respond by limiting the services that outside agencies and organizations are allowed to deliver to Palestinians.

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