by Dr. Einat Wilf
It was quite ironic that during the fighting in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces was shot at from facilities of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, and had to return fire, as over the years no one defended the existence of UNRWA more than the IDF and the Israeli defense establishment. But now, with the fighting over, it is time for Israel to do what it should have done decades ago -- remove the layer of protection and legitimacy it grants to UNRWA. Israel should recognize UNRWA for what it is -- a hostile Palestinian organization that perpetuates the dream of the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel -- and treat it accordingly.
Israel's policy on UNRWA was set by the defense establishment. It was based on the premise that UNRWA was "the lesser of two evils" -- or as a Defense Ministry official put it to me, "UNRWA is crap, but Hamas is more so." This is a narrow view of the issue. Even if UNRWA itself does not attack the IDF directly, it ensures that there will always be someone to do so in the future. Under a thin veil of humanitarian activities, UNRWA acts with a clear political agenda, aimed at perpetuating the situation of Palestinian refugees and fostering the dream of their return to Israel. This is how UNRWA builds the ideological foundation for the next generation of fighters against Israel.
Officially, UNRWA provides educational, health and social services to the around 5 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In reality, UNRWA is directly responsible for the fact that 5 million people are registered as Palestinian refugees, a large number of whom continue to live in refugee camps. UNRWA works to inflate the number of registered refugees in two ways. First, the descendants of refugees from 1948, already the fifth generation, are automatically "entitled" to refugee status. And second, UNRWA thwarts any attempt to absorb refugees where they currently live or in third countries. If UNRWA operated the same way as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is responsible for all other refugee groups in the world, today there would be only tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, rather than millions.
When Israel changes its policy and removes the protection it grants to UNRWA, it will be possible to bring about a dramatic change in the organization and its political activities. The reason for this is that UNRWA does not get its budget directly from the U.N., but rather its continued existence depends on donations totaling around $1 billion per year from Western nations, including around $250 million from the U.S. and more than $500 million from Europe.
Over the years, various Western officials have asked the obvious question: Why do Western taxpayers fund an organization which acts in stark contrast to the policy of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? But every time even the slightest possibility arises of cutting funding to UNRWA, Israel intervenes to ensure that the funding continues to flow, due to the defense establishment's concern that any decrease to the funding will lead to a conflagration on the ground and a new intifada.
If Israel expects, as it should, that any future peace agreement with the Palestinians include final recognition of the Jewish people's right to their own state in their historical homeland, then it must act in accordance with that principle and cease its protection of UNRWA -- an organization whose goal is that Israel will never win legitimacy as the state of the Jewish people.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and a former member of Knesset.
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