by Elliott Abrams

A Palestinian rides his bicycle as he passes the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) headquarters at Shati refugee camp in Gaza April 26, 2008. (REUTERS/Ismail Zaydah).

Since the end of the Second World War, millions of refugees have left refugee camps, and refugee status, and moved to countries that accepted them — quickly or slowly — as citizens. Post-World War II Europe was an archipelago of displaced persons and refugee camps, housing 850,000 people in 1947 — Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Latvians, Greeks, and many more nationalities. By 1952, all but one of the camps had closed. Hundred of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe went to Israel after 1948, and then hundreds of thousands more arrived from Arab lands when they were forced to flee after 1956 and 1967. The children and grandchildren of these refugees, born after their arrival, were never refugees themselves; they were from birth citizens of the new land, as their parents had become immediately upon their own arrival. In this process many nations and agencies have played wonderful roles, not least the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The exception to this refugee story is the Palestinians. In most of the Arab lands to which they fled or travelled after 1948 they were often treated badly, and refused citizenship (with Jordan the major exception) or even the right to work legally. And instead of coming under the protection of UNHCR, they had a special agency of their own, UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency. In the decades of its existence, it has not solved or even diminished the Palestinian refugee problem; instead it has presided over a massive increase in its size, for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees are considered to be refugees as well. Once there were 750,000; now there are five million people considered by UNRWA to be "Palestinian refugees." And UNRWA is now the largest UN agency, with a staff of 30,000. UNHCR cares for the rest of the world with about 7,500 personnel.

The political background to this story is simple: only in the case of Israel was there a determined refusal to accept what had happened during and after World War II, with the establishment of the Jewish state and the increase in its population by the acceptance of refugee Jews. Of all the world's refugees, whom UNHCR tries normally to resettle, only the Palestinians are an exception. UNRWA presides over generation after generation of additional refugees, and Arab states and leaders make believe that some day they can turn back the clock and send them — and their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — to Israel.

To say this is not necessarily to criticize the day-to-day activities of UNRWA, for it was handed a mission by the UN. There are and have always been many UNRWA officials who are reliable international civil servants. And no doubt, any change in UNRWA's role should come slowly and carefully so as not to harm innocent people caught up in international political struggles. But UNRWA should cease to exist, and Palestinian refugees should be handled by UNHCR with the intention of resettling them. That process should begin with a redefinition of who is a refugee entitled to benefits, so that benefits are based on need rather than on status. Moreover, Palestinians who have citizenship in other countries should not be considered refugees at all — the standard practice for every other group of refugees in the world. Why, for example, should the nearly two million Palestinians in Jordan, over 90 percent of whom have Jordanian citizenship, today be considered refugees by UNRWA at all?

Lest that position seem idiosyncratic, consider this: in 2010 Canada cut off its funding of UNRWA, and just now the Netherlands government has said it is considering the same action. How did they explain this? The foreign minister told parliament that Holland would "thoroughly review" its policy and the ruling party called UNRWA's refugee definition "worrying." UNRWA, said the party spokesman, "uses its own unique definition of refugees, different to the UN's. The refugee issue is a big obstacle for peace. We therefore ask the government acknowledge this discrepancy, which leads to the third-generation Palestinian refugees." Correction: fourth-generation, actually.

It is worth noting that there are many other criticisms of UNRWA: that it overlooks terrorist group activity in some camps, or allows members of Hamas and other terrorist groups to hold UNRWA staff positions. But those are criticisms of how UNRWA is carrying out its mission, while the deeper problem is the mission itself. That mission might accurately be described as enlarging the Palestinian refugee problem forever and thereby making any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement tremendously more difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Closing UNRWA would in the end be a great favor to Palestinians who live outside the West Bank and Gaza, assuming that the needed services it provides them could be provided by other agencies or the governments of the countries in which they live. Some of those individuals will some day move to the West Bank or Gaza, but they do not need UNRWA to do that. None of them will ever move to Israel, and the existence of UNRWA helps to maintain the cruel myth that they will.

The "peace process" seems stalled today; no negotiated final settlements is on the horizon. But there are many things that can be done that move toward peace, such as the building of Palestinian institutions and improvement of the economy in the West Bank. Starting the process of closing down UNRWA would be a move toward peace, as it would replace the permanent perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem with a process designed to reduce it in size and some day solve it.


These are some of the comments that added useful information. The conversation was dominated by some excellent analyses by anti-UNRWA readers and comments by Rex Brynen, who appeared to speak as an "insider." There has been an occasional U.N. administrator that has spoken up publicly about the corruption in UNRWA and its share in promoting terrorism (See, e.g., here.) But Rex Brynen seems more representative of the pro-Palestinian 'experts' in the U.N. administration and in academia. He's quite right that the General Assembly would not want to solve the refugee problem in a way that didn't destroy Israel. But the U.N. doesn't have money. It's the Western countries that support the U.N. and they can -- and have -- cut funding to U.N. agencies, when enough people have become sufficiently indignant.

Posted by Rex Brynen

While it is true that UNHCR would not consider refugees in Jordan to be refugees, it would certainly consider Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and the WBG to be refugees with "derived status" (much as it considered second and subsequent generation Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran to be refugees).

Moreover, UNHCR has a strong bias not towards third country resettlement (as this article implies), but rather to return and repatriation:most years, resettlement accounts for 10% or less of "durable solutions" for refugees, while very much larger number of refugees are assisted to return to their homelands. Chapter 1, paragraph 6 of the UNHCR Handbook explicitly states that "the right of refugees to return to their country of origin is fully recognised in international law."

Incidentally, it is also not correct to say that Palestinian refugees do not fall under UNHCR. They are do when they are outside UNRWA's area of operations. Palestinians fleeing Iraq were assisted by UNHCR, for example. As Mr. Abrams is undoubtedly aware, requests were made at that time to allow Palestinians fleeing violence in Iraq to be allowed to resettle in the West Bank and Gaza. While the Palestinian Authority was willing to absorb them, the Israeli government was not prepared to let them enter. (Israel has also refrained from implementing its commitments under both the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the 1993 Oslo Agreement to allow Palestinians displaced in 1967 to return to the WBG.)

Finally,it isn't entirely accurate to say that Canada cut off funding to UNRWA. Rather, Canada ended support for UNRWA's general budget, but not all of its activities. Israel subsequently requested that Canada reverse that decision and RENEW its funding of UNRWA (

Posted by N. Friedman

Mr. Brynen,

If UNHCR would not consider refugees in Jordan to be refugees, how can it, logically speaking, claim that refugees in the WBG are refugees? Moreover, how can anyone with a straight face claim that displaced persons living in the WBG are refugees when such persons, to a man and woman, all consider WBG to be part of their homeland? Are people displaced from New Orleans refugees?

Further, how can anyone with an ounce of morality claim that the children of refugees are refugees? That is an outrage.

Posted by Art Cohn

In the decades of its existence, UNRWA has not solved or even diminished the Palestinian refugee problem; instead it has presided over a massive increase in its size. UNRWA presides over generation after generation of additional refugees,and the Arab leaders make believe that some day they can turn back the clock and send them — and their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren — to Israel. UNRWA overlooks terrorist group activity in its camps, and allows members of Hamas and other terrorist groups to hold UNRWA staff positions. Eliott Abrams is correct, UNRWA should cease to exist, and Palestinian refugees should be handled by UNHCR with the intention of resettling them.

Posted by Rex Brynen

"If UNHCR would not consider refugees in Jordan to be refugees, how can it, logically speaking, claim that refugees in the WBG are refugees?"

Because refugees in the WBG are stateless, they would likely be considered by UNHCR as refugees until such time as a Palestinian state was established. They could also be considered IDPs, but UNHCR increasingly also assists IDPs and other "persons of concern."

Moreover, were responsibility for Palestinian refugees somehow magically transferred from UNRWA to UNHCR, it would be almost certain the UNGA would direct that the latter maintain their current status, and reiterate their "right to return." Anyone who thinks otherwise clearly hasn't looked at the current voting balance in the General Assembly.

I'm doubtful that more than a token number of refugees would return to Israel under any possible peace agreement, but that's another issue. The issue of UNRWA vs UNHCR is also separate from the issue of Palestinian claims against Israel regarding the refugee issue, which are rooted in national experience, and are broadly shared by refugees, non-refugees, and even Palestinian citizens of Israel alike. Much the same as the Zionist movement pressed for Jewish return to the land of Israel and an "in-gathering of the exiles" without the benefit of some sort of legal refugee status, it seems likely that the refugee issue would not fade in the Palestinian collective consciousness regardless of what happens to UNRWA.

Finally, I can't help but be amused by the ebb and flow of the current debate. Those of us with long memories on the issue remember how, in the mid-1990s, a transfer of the issue to UNHCR was favoured by many Palestinian refugee activists on the grounds that it gave the Palestinians a much stronger legal protections and a much stronger political position vis-a-vis Israel!

Posted by Jake in Jerusalem

UNRWA *IS* the problem. So-called "Palestinian" so-called "refugees" are quite happy having 15 children per family and without ever finding a job because they know that UNRWA will feed and clothe them — forever. This is part of what has driven the population exposion among "Palestinians", and the anger and frustration of the large proportion of idle youth in that society. This makes for prime recruiting grounds for Islamo-fascist fundamentalists like Hamas. UNRWA is feeding permanent terrorism, not peace.

Once the perpetual coddling by UNRWA is ended, they will have to face the realities of life just like the rest of the world. Only THEN will peace even be possible. UNRWA *IS* the problem!

P.S. Why is it that the US and EU are the main financiers of UNRWA? The proceeds of a single day's pumping of oil would solve the financial needs of the "Palestinians" for 100 years. Do ANY Arabs take responsibility for themselves?

Posted by Naomi Mann

Mr Brynen,

When you say, "Moreover, UNHCR has a strong bias not towards third country resettlement (as this article implies),but rather to return and repatriation," are you deliberately ignoring the facts about refugees from many countries stated in the first paragraph of Mr. Abrams' article, and are you also deliberately forgetting the total impossibility of return and repatriation for the nearly 1,000,000 Jews who were forced to flee from Arab lands in 1956-57? All who wished were immediately absorbed by tiny Israel. There was then and is not now any chance of repatriation for those Jews who were forced out of Arab/Muslim countries in those years. They and their descendants are not considered "refugees," but citizens of Israel, or the US, or wherever else they chose to go or could find safe haven.

Evelyn Fabrikant's succinct statement above on the subject of 4th and 5th generation Palestinians being supported as "refugees" is rather the correct point of view on this subject. It is simply mind-boggling to think that the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out of the newly minted state of Israel, and their now millions of descendants, can still be rationally seen as the lone remaining refugees of the immense population movements and dislocations caused by the events of WWII.

Just as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees, so should the Muslim states have absorbed their own refugees. None of this has anything to do with current disputes about territory, the 1967 borders, or anything else having to do with the tortured issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Rather, it concerns a nearly maniacal energy directed at preserving "refugee" status for what was once, relative to other dislocated persons, a tiny number of people.

Posted by Moshe Sphardi

Since Herzl, the Arab leadership has been apprehensive about the possibility of a Jewish state. Beginning in 1902, landless farmers from Egypt and Syria were settled on absentee owners' barren lands and malarial swamps in what is now Israel. Their numbers increased tremendously after the 1917 British mandate with its need for construction workers. From 1902-48, whether it was the Arabs or the British, riots and restrictions made Jewish settlement difficult.

I submit that it has been a calculated strategy beginning in 1902 to prevent the creation or survival of a Jewish state that has always been in question, and the Arabs are determined to win somehow. UNRWA is a signal success for them: a glorious invention to further their cause.


Elliott Abrams is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations (CRF). This appeared December 19, 2011 on the CRF website ending-unrwa-and-advancing-peace/

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