The prolonged existence of UNRWA and the vast resources that have been invested in the highly exposed refugee issue makes the agency an excellent model for present and future complex aid operations. This thorough and in-depth study reveals serious hitherto unknown, unexpected and disturbing facts. Most of the criticism concerns the UNRWA showing the pathology of  “aging”, including symptoms of inflexibility, resistance to adjust to the changing political environment and refusal to phase out and transfer its responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority. The first phase of any humanitarian operation is a short emergency endeavor, carried out as a fire-extinguisher mechanism. The second phase, the agency develops working norms and bureaucratic procedures. UNRWA was highly successful in the first and second phases, supporting the refugees during the critical emergency period, and later during the resettlement and rehabilitation processes.  However, UNRWA failed in the third phase. The agency has been resisting any contraction of its operations, never took any steps to fold up, and to date, service responsibilities were never transferred to the legitimate Palestinian Authority. UNRWA continues to act as a “non-territorial government” competing with the elected Palestinian Authority for funds and responsibilities. Other problems involve a hastily drawn mandate resulting in lack of proper accountability and management procedures, and lack of clarity concerning UNRWA’s involvement in the human rights of the refugees.  Our study shows that when a short-term crisis turns into a long-term assistance operation, the hastily adopted mandate becomes a recipe for mismanagement. While UNRWA has contributed significantly to the resettlement and rehabilitation of the refugees in the countries of refuge, the agency’s prolonged operation has actually perpetuated the politicization of the refugee issue. It has also curtailed and undermined the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy and capability to govern the community. According to Olof Rydbeck, Commissioner- General of UNRWA between 1979 and 1985, “Either dissolving UNRWA or making it permanent would be an admission by the United Nations that there was no solution to the Middle East struggle. That leaves us with a permanently jerry-built structure to keep the fiction alive.1

General observations

Nearly fifty-five years ago, in the wake of the establishment of Israel, the General Assembly of the United Nations created a temporary relief agency, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for the Palestinian Refugees,2 as a separate entity within the United Nations system. UNRWA was initially conceived to be short-lived, as was the unsettled status of between 600,000 and 760,000 Arabs of Palestinian origin who in 1948 fled, or were expelled, to neighboring Arab countries.3 UNRWA’s long existence is a clear acknowledgment of the failure of the international community, Israel and the Arab states to resolve the political aspect of this issue.

The General Assembly, that has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate,4 hardly regulates the agency. A Commissioner-General, who holds the rank of Under-Secretary-General and is appointed for a term of five years by the UN Secretary-General, heads the agency. The Commissioner-General enjoys unparalleled autonomous authority over the finances, policy and operations of UNRWA. For example, UNRWA’s pension fund (“Providence Fund”), with a total funds of about one $ 1 billion, is under the ultimate authority of the Commissioner, who makes all the final decisions including all investment decisions. No external audit or a non-UNRWA review board exists. The Providence Fund is not included in the Commissioner General’s annual report.5 In our partial review of the Fund’s documents we could not find any information concerning the large Fund’s investment policy, or any data on disbursement of funds to retired employees.

Unlike most other United Nations agencies, the appointment of UNRWA’s Commissioner-General does not require any approval or confirmation from the General Assembly or ECOSOC. The Commissioner-General reports directly to the General Assembly by way of the Fifth Committee (Political and Desalinization), which is another uncommon procedure in the UN system. After the Commissioner-General’s report has been discussed in the Fifth Committee, it is forwarded to the General Assembly for a resolution and a vote. UNRWA’s Advisory Committee of ten member nations has no executive or operative authority. Its duties are vaguely defined, and its functions are limited to non-compulsory recommendations.6

Due to the lenient supervision of its activities and the lack of structural accountability procedures, UNRWA could use its broad and vague mandate to adopt policies that exceeded its initial duties to provide assistance to the Palestinian refugees. Indeed, “the exact meaning of ‘assistance for the relief of the Palestinian refugees’ was never defined, and some UNRWA stakeholders felt that the agency’s projects went beyond the mandate set down in resolution 302(V). Refugees’ opinion about UNRWA’s early economic development projects, ranged from suspicion to outright hostility.”7 Moreover, UNRWA’s vague mandate commissioned the agency to assist the refugees until their status was politically resolved, thus making UNRWA a party to the political process. Soon the agency became a symbol of the international community’s responsibility for the creation of a Palestinian state, and its existence supported and legitimized the Palestinian political claim for the “right of return”. UNRWA’s involvement in the political controversy concerning “the right of return” is contrary to its mandate that “UNRWA is not mandated to address repatriation.” 8

The politicization of UNRWA was the result of the deep bond that united the Palestinian community and the UNRWA bureaucracy, creating an environment of mutual dependence. The Palestinian community became dependent on UNRWA’s services, support and employment, while UNRWA became dependent on its clients for its bureaucratic survival and operational growth. During its 55 years of operation, UNRWA made substantial inroads into the Palestinian political, territorial, and economic sovereignty. This mutual dependence influenced UNRWA to espouse policies and  strategies favorable to its own survival, while eclipsing the powers and sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority.

While UNRWA was committed for over half a century to provide temporary emergency assistance, its operations, in full cooperation with the refugees, have actually implemented a strategy of resettlement of the refugees. As early as 1952, UNRWA began to initiate a program of “reintegration” and “rehabilitation”. The project included “development of water resources, short-term and long-term employment projects, and granting the refugees small loans to become self-supportive.”9 “UNRWA itself became a channel for efforts to solve the refugee problem as well as a channel for technical assistance such as educational and vocational training.”10 In the long run, UNRWA’s operation contributed to the de facto resettlement of the refugees in all the host countries.

An examination of UNRWA’s operations reveals disturbing facts regarding the Agency’s decision-making and policy implementation procedures and processes. UNRWA’s vast resources were mainly spent on salaries.11 The agency has become the largest non-government employer in the West Bank and Gaza, employing 11,900 persons, all but 69 of them Palestinian “refugees”. UNRWA’s works program has been costing five times as much as keeping a refugee on relief. However, this policy resulted in little improvement in what UNRWA referred to as the “absorptive capacity of host countries”,12 or the creation of employment opportunities in the host countries. UNRWA’s policies resulted in the creation of a large bureaucracy that was staffed by refugees and worked toward the perpetuation of its role, while reducing services to the refugees. UNRWA’s assistance created “a highly developed international refugee regime that could sustain a large-scale civilian population in exile for years”.13

One of the most disturbing results was the Agency’s unintentional facilitation of  the creation of “refugee-warrior communities” in the refugee camps. The camps became a fertile ground for the manipulation of the refugees into “warriors” and inevitably, to participate in acts of terror. UNRWA looked the other way when the “refugee-warrior communities” militarized the camps and turned them into guerrilla-like strongholds.  Stedman and Tanner’s argument that “International assistance strengthens the hold of the militia on the camps, where they recovered strength, imported arms, and then attacked”14 refers to Rwanda and Afghanistan, but it also describes very accurately what happened in the Palestinian refugee camps.

The manipulation of the refugees has an additional harmful dimension. UNRWA’s prolonged existence and the fact that it provided the refugees with housing, education, health care and regular social services, facilitated the intransigence of Israel and the Arab states and allowed them to shirk responsibility for reaching a permanent solution to the problem. UNRWA’s “support” boomeranged and created an atmosphere of frustration and helplessness among the refugees. The incongruity between the Palestinian aspirations and dreams of their “lost paradise”, and the indeterminate conditions in the camps, caused frustration, that led to aggression and to violence.15 Under UNRWA, four generations of refugees have nurtured a hostile narrative; dwelling on the myth of “lost paradise” and vanished property. UNRWA’s existence strengthened the frustration of the refugees and supported their deep feelings of relative deprivation. They felt that a final solution to their problem was becoming a mirage. It was not surprising that the two main uprisings (the 1987 and 2000 Intifadas) deeply involved the refugee population, and many of the suicide bombers are residents of areas designated “refugee camps.” It should be emphasized, however, that the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza have at no stage been the only or main concentration of resistance fighters.

As mentioned earlier, UNRWA’s prolonged vast operations in the field of education, health and social services represent a powerful economic challenge to the sovereignty and the political legitimacy of the fragile Palestinian Authority.  Indeed, our research shows that UNRWA has been competing with the Palestinian Authority for resources generated from foreign assistance, and it gradually came to identify with its clients and assuming the role of a political trustee, not a United Nations agency  providing emergency humanitarian assistance. This condition occurs when an international organization or other provider of aid fully adopts the wishes and identity of the clients. The results are loss of objectivity, politicization of the mission, and carrying out the mission in a biased and prejudiced manner.16

During UNRWA’s fifty-five years of operation, significant changes occurred in the areas set up as “refugee camps”.  First, most camps have become fully integrated in neighboring cities. Houses in camps have been greatly improved and are now fully owned by their occupants and they are out of UNRWA’s reach. Second, the camp population has become mobile and now includes many non-refugees. Third, UNRWA still maintains a complex school system, but until the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000, had curtailed most of its other services. The number of UNRWA employees, practically all of them holders of UNRWA refugee ID cards, has stabilized at the high level of 24,000, and their wages are now on a par with those of their counterparts in the Palestinian civil service. Indeed, UNRWA employees enjoy greater job security and better pension schemes than their counterparts in the civil service. The overall picture, up to the beginning of the second uprising in 2000, was one of growing autonomy and even a modest prosperity among the resettled camp-dwellers. But in two areas there has hardly been any change: people still consider themselves to be refugees, and practically the whole outside world, with the exception of their fellow-citizens, views the urban neighborhoods in which they reside as poverty-stricken and crime-ridden refugee camps. The following discussion examines and explains both the changes and the continuities.

In summary, UNRWA’s operations seem to be highly controversial and their effects on the wellbeing of the Palestinian community are mixed. Interestingly, Israel has consistently been supportive of UNRWA, while the Palestinian Authority has been more critical, believing that UNRWA prevents the PA from assuming full control over vital services, such as education, health, recreation, and economic development.  “Priority needs to be given to strengthening Palestinian national institutions generally, rather than sustaining refugees as a distinct body whose aims and aspirations are fundamentally incompatible with the basis”.17 Thus, while UNRWA has improved the refugees’ fortunes and caused them to settle in their new environments, the Agency has perpetuated the myth of the Palestinian refugees, hindered a political solution, and today infringes on the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

What happened to UNRWA flies in the face of stated donor policies and oft-expressed good intentions of the international donor community. UNRWA’s record shows a major discrepancy between the vast resources invested in its operation over half a century, and the conditions in areas under UNRWA’s control.18 However, the integration of the refugees in the economy of the host countries, the conversion of the refugee camps into urban quarters, and the settlement of many refugees outside the refugee camps prove that UNRWA has to some extent fulfilled its mandate. While it deserves praise for this accomplishment, it is now time for the agency to wind up its operation and allow the Palestinians to gain full and autonomous control over their lives.  So far there has been no indication that UNRWA is likely to take this step in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, UNRWA has, like so many other bureaucratic organizations, altered its targets and sought to increase its financial resources. To some extent it has become a self-sustaining organization. In light of the experience accumulated in half a century of operation, an immediate thorough review of UNRWA’s record is due. The future existence of UNRWA should not be beyond discussion.


A long-term view of the refugees living in the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza may show how the camps and UNRWA reached their present state. When UNRWA was founded (1949), some UN officials estimated the refugee population to be between 330,000 and 500,000. 19 Many of the 1948 refugees had lost everything and set up temporary encampments on the outskirts of towns. The international community rushed in assistance and soon set up tent camps, distributed food and provided medical services to the refugees. This emergency aid alleviated the refugees’ sufferings and probably saved many lives. As we follow the refugees’ life in the camps over the years, we find that the camps have gradually become similar to other working-class urban neighborhoods, and the migrants quickly became fully integrated in the region’s socio-economic systems.

How the refugee camps were set up

The 1948 refugees expected to return to their homes within days or weeks. Many of them moved in with relatives or rented temporary accommodation in towns. Those who had nowhere to go squatted under trees in the countryside or on the outskirts of towns, as close as possible to their region of origin. Most of them were villagers, often clusters of relatives and neighbors, who camped together for mutual protection. Within weeks the International Red Cross and other welfare organizations began to operate in the camps, providing tents, food and first aid. The United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees, set up in 1948, co-coordinated these activities. In 1950 it was succeeded by UNRWA, which rapidly became the chief purveyor of aid and welfare to the refugees, displacing almost all other welfare organizations. At first UNRWA too sought to provide only emergency relief, such as food rations, tents and medical aid. But as the hostilities went on, and hopes for the refugees’ speedy return faded, the makeshift camps gradually became permanent features in the landscape. The realization that the refugees’ return to their homes would not be possible in the foreseeable future caused UNRWA to shift its emphasis towards rehabilitation. Housing and education became the major means to this end. Permanent houses would induce the refugees to settle in the new surroundings, while education would facilitate their integration either in the local economy, or elsewhere in the Arab world.

UNRWA adjusted its operations to the changing political situation in each of the host countries. The most important change took place in a very gradual manner, when the agency ceased to be a purveyor of emergency assistance, and became a permanent service organization. UNRWA gradually extended its range of services to numerous areas of life, such as education, social welfare, water supply and sanitation. It recruited thousands of temporary staff from among the refugees. In 1955 the camps were re-planned on a more permanent basis. Streets were laid out on a grid, and UNRWA services were located on the margins. The land was parceled into plots of between 70 to 100 sq meters, on which concrete or mud cubicles of 3 by 3 meters were built. Each household was assigned a plot with a cubicle. Large families were given a slightly larger dwelling. These structures barely kept out the cold; they had roofs of corrugated tin sheets, but neither floors nor windows. At first the refugees put up some resistance, fearing that permanent dwellings would tie them down and weaken their determination to return to their former homes.20 UNRWA officials told us years later that they persuaded the camp-dwellers that the concrete cubicles were being built for reasons of economy only: it was simply cheaper to maintain houses than to replace tattered tents year after year. In order to stress the temporary nature of the dwellings they called them “shelters” (malja), and the camp inhabitants soon adopted the term themselves. The crux of the matter is, of course, that both the camp-dwellers and the UNRWA officials knew that these new camps were there to stay, and welcomed the improvements, but could not publicly approve of them.

Now, after more than fifty years of operation, UNRWA’s operational structure has become highly bureaucratic and, until the outbreak of the 2000 Intifada, most of its services, with the exception of education, were reduced or discontinued.  Yet UNRWA’s bureaucratic staff grew and became permanent and came to control the agency.  Today, 24,000 men and women are employed in a variety of occupations, including teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses, and clerical workers. UNRWA’s $400 million annual budget is unparalleled in humanitarian assistance operations. In comparison, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to 19.9 million refugees in 120 countries, and his annual budget (2002) was

$881 million! The UNHCR employs a total of 5,000 persons, at the ratio of one staff member per 4000 refugees, while UNRWA employs one staff member per 170 refugees! While UNRWA never conducted a census, it reported over 4 million registered refugees in 2003. 21 These numbers are highly questionable and are not based on reliable data.

Table 1

Registered Palestinian Refugees in Camps and as a Percentage of the

Total Registered Refugees    1953- 2002

YEAR Total Refugee Population Refugee Population in Camps Refugee Population in Camps (%)
1953 870,158 300,785 34.6%
1960 1,136,487 409,223 36.0%
1965 1,300,117 508,042 39.1%
1970 1,445,022 500,985 34.7%
1975 1,652,436 551,643 33.4%
1980 1,863,162 613,149 32.9%
1985 2,119,862 805,482 38.0%
1990 2,246,044 697,709 28.3%
1995 3,246,044 1,00,7375 31.0%
2000 3,737,494 1,211,480 32.4%
2002 3,973,360 1,262,867 31.78%

Table 2

Annual Growth Rate of Registered Palestinian Refugees   1953-2000

YEAR Total Refugee Population Annual Growth Rate
1950 914,221
1960 1,120,889 2.3%
1970 1,425,219 2.7%
1980 1,844,318 2.9%
1990 2,422,514 3.1%
2000 3,737,494 5.4%
2002 3,973,360 3.1% (22 )

(Source: UNRWA annual reports)

As the number of UNRWA’s registered clients grows, its expenditures increase:

1998-1999             Expenditures $ 533,033 million

1999-2000        Expenditures $ 611,283 million

2001-2002        Expenditures $ 674,829 million

(Source: UNRWA annual reports. UNRWA regularly runs budget deficits and regularly appeals for additional finances.)

From temporary to a permanent status

The 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was a watershed that changed life in the occupied territories forever. Following the Six-Day-War most Israelis and Palestinians believed that peace negotiations with the Arab states would soon begin. It was clear to both sides that the issue of the Palestinian refugee and their “right of return” would occupy the center space of the political agenda, right next to the issue of Jerusalem.  An in-depth field-study was launched to gain insight into the Palestinian refugees’ socio-economic systems, their relations to their environment, their levels of integration in the local population, and their attitudes toward political solutions. The study was carried out in Jalazun, a refugee camp north of Ramallah. During three months of intense fieldwork in the camp, every fifth household head in the camp was thoroughly interviewed.23 In the wake of the Jalazun study, the researchers visited almost all the refugee camps on the West Bank in order to find out whether the Jalazun data were applicable to other camps.

The Jalazun study provides a base line, against which the evolution of the refugee camps stands out. Data for the 1980s have been drawn from Marx’s field study in the Gaza Strip in 1987. More recent data derive from interviews, documents and newspaper reports. All the information showed that UNRWA, the temporary relief agency, was actually resettling the refugees by constructing solid houses, providing permanent employment, and setting up permanent systems of local social services.

The Refugee Camps

Most refugee camps are situated in, or on the outskirts of, existing towns, and were gradually absorbed in the urban framework. In the last twenty years the local authorities took over some of the municipal services, which had hitherto been provided by UNRWA, such as garbage collection and street cleaning, and extended the water and electricity network. But when the Israeli authorities encouraged them to formally incorporate the camps, they did so only reluctantly. In the Gaza Strip this resulted in the representation of the camp-dwellers on the city councils of Gaza, Khan Yunis, Deir al-Balah and Rafah. Only the village council of Jabalia-Nazla refused to incorporate the adjacent Jabalia refugee camp, while willing to provide all municipal services. This was a reasonable attitude to take, as the 15,000 townspeople did not wish their council to be taken over by the (then) 45,000 inhabitants of the refugee camp. In the West Bank a similar situation prevails.

The camp-dwellers were divided as to the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating as legitimate townships. They knew that municipalities could provide more comprehensive services than UNRWA, but also realized that they would have to pay for them. As camps were established either on state or privately owned land leased to UNRWA, they were loath to leave UNRWA’s protective umbrella. Under a new landlord they would both be less secure and would pay taxes or rent. UNRWA employees among them were concerned about the possible loss of jobs, although their tenure was relatively secure.

Both the local authorities and the camp-dwellers also feared the possible political implications of incorporation. Did it signify the abandonment of the hope of a “return” (´auda) to the lost homeland? How would the leaders of the PLO and the governments of the Arab world react? They were also uncertain how the new population would affect local politics. The political questions often dominated the discussions on the subject of incorporation, and the town councils procrastinated for as long as possible. In the end, the Israeli authorities virtually coerced the local authorities to incorporate the refugee camps. At the time we gained the impression that some of the mayors and councilors were not displeased with this solution.

Up to the Oslo accords, each camp had a lively main street lined with a variety of businesses. In the daytime the streets were filled with jostling crowds and cars. A wide range of economic activities was carried on. There were coffee-houses frequented only by men, food stores, bakers, butchers and greengrocers, pharmacies, bookstores, haberdashers, stores selling hardware, furniture and electrical appliances, and a variety of small workshops. Some camps had specialties, such as the boat builders in Shati camp in Gaza, or the vineyards planted by the people of Nuserat camp on wasteland. While many of the refugees have become professionals, only a few doctors and lawyers opened offices in the camps. As UNRWA neither built commercial premises, nor encouraged refugees to set up in business, many shops were really converted front rooms. Some of these were used as bedrooms at night, when the main street was almost deserted and looked like any other street in camp.

The administration and service centers were usually concentrated near the main access road to the camp. While the buildings are unpretentious, they are bigger and made of better materials than the dwellings. The largest structure was always the school. Most of UNRWA’s clerical and unskilled employees resided in camps, though not necessarily in those they worked in. They wanted to be close to the camp-dwellers, the source of their employment. In the 1960s, the professional employees, the teachers, nurse and doctors, tended to live in towns as they had alternative employment opportunities. In the 1970s some of them moved back into the camps. They preferred to work for UNRWA, which then paid salaries according to government standards, but provided greater job security and improved pension schemes.

The Houses

No sooner had the refugees moved into their new shelters, when they began to improve them. In Jalazun camp, which at the time of our study had no supply of running water or electricity, some of the inhabitants had dug their own well. The Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem camps were already connected to electricity and running water, and some refugee households had installed water closets. The refugees had enlarged and improved their shelters by paving floors, glazing the windows, and building kitchens. Rooms were added, second floors were built, walls were constructed to enclose spaces to grow vegetables, and some residents even acquired adjacent plots in order to expand their houses even further.  Until the first Intifada funds for construction came out mainly of the earnings of workers employed in Israel. While fewer people worked in the Arab Gulf states, the number of migrant workers in Israel grew year by year. At that time 50 per cent of the labor force in the Gaza Strip and 40 per cent of that on the West Bank were working in Israel, a total of about 120,000 men. The demand for manual workers was so great that workers earned the same wages as Israelis, in spite of attempts by the Israeli Employment Authority to create a wage differential. With the steady flow of funds consumption went up. But as the local economies declined for lack of workers, there were few investment opportunities. House construction was generally viewed as the best way to invest savings. Land prices rose rapidly; a 1,000 sq meter building site in Gaza cost about $ 40,000 in the 1980s. The demand was so great that buildings went up all over the region, often on agricultural land where the builders knew that no building permission would be granted. The Israel licensing authorities tried to curb illegal construction and took offenders to court, but gradually lost control of the situation. UNRWA did not get involved and looked the other way.

After the first Intifada, the number of men working in Israel declined to an estimated 90,000, still a very large figure. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority more construction workers returned to work in the occupied territories, and construction was accelerated. While the Israeli authorities applied planning regulations even more strictly, they could no longer enforce regulations. A great deal of construction in urban and rural areas ensued, the number of two or three storey houses increased rapidly especially in the centers of the centrally situated camps.

At the time of the Jalazun study, UNRWA had almost abdicated control of building activities, and therefore no longer carried out repairs on private dwellings. Refugees who intended to leave the camp sold their property almost freely. UNRWA only insisted that the buyers should be bona fide refugees. The owners not only received full payment for the additions and improvements they had made, but also charged “key money” for the shelter built by UNRWA. No part of the payment was handed over to the camp authorities, but sometimes a camp guard received some money for his connivance. Because UNRWA has not been concerned with property sales in the camps, the free market has brought into the camps many non-refugees, who nonetheless enjoy UNRWA services. . According to an Israeli official estimate in the 1980s, about 25 per cent of the dwellings in the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip were inhabited by non-refugees. This is a very high figure, considering that over half the population in the Gaza Strip are refugees. The number of non-refugees was higher in the urban camps, such as Shati, than in those distant from the cities. There seem to be few non-refugees in Nuserat camp. While accurate comparable figures for the West Bank are lacking, there too the camp-dwellers seem gradually to merge with the rest of the population. This trend was accelerated since the setting up of the Palestinian Authority.

In today’s camps practically all houses have electricity and running water and indoor water closets. The camp-dwellers either turned the original shelters into kitchens and storerooms, or pulled them down. They built one room after another until most of the plot was built up. All the available space was used, and wherever possible the built up area was enlarged at the expense of the public streets, turning them into narrow alleys. The view commonly held by visitors that refugees are poverty-stricken slum dwellers may be grounded in the visual aspect of the camps: the narrow unpaved alleys littered with refuse. However, these contrast sharply with the clean, well-kept and modestly furnished interiors. When measured by local standards, houses in the refugee camps compare favorably with accommodation in other working class neighborhoods. The owners of the houses keep them well maintained; the low buildings permit repairs and conversions; and municipal services are the same as in other neighborhoods, as well as being supplemented by certain UNRWA services. As the population in the occupied territories grows rapidly, and as there is a constant influx of money, the demand for houses is great and land values are rising. The high land values are not fully reflected in house prices in refugee camps, because the question of land ownership is still open to discussion. The dwellings in refugee camps therefore make an important contribution to the lower end of the housing market in the occupied territories.24

Socio-economic changes

The research showed that between 1948 and the early 1970s significant changes took place in the socio-economic systems of the Palestinian refugees. The findings of the Jalazun study provided the first insight into the socio-economics systems of the residents of the refugee camps. Perhaps the most interesting and important finding was the obvious one that most of the camps were situated in or on the outskirts of towns, and have become an integral part of the neighboring cities. This fact enabled the temporary camps to rapidly become urban working class neighborhoods. The plots provided by UNRWA became permanent housing and the refugees established full ownership rights on the houses in the camps. The owners greatly improved their housing conditions; they did away with the original shelters, installed water, electricity and sanitary facilities, and later on added second floors. Moreover, the residents and the occupants were completely out of UNRWA’s reach.25 Following the construction of permanent housing it was only natural that the refugees became fully integrated in the local economy. However, they occupied the lower ranks of the occupational ladder. Finally, the camp population was very mobile and many refugees who did well sold their homes on the free market and moved out. Soon, the camps came to include many non-refugees, who became an integral part of the social fabric.

The literacy rate of the refugees was approximately the same as that of the rest of the population. About 50 per cent of the adult men and 80 per cent of the women were functionally illiterate.26 UNRWA hoped that schooling could give at least the children of refugees a good head start. It put great efforts into building up a good system of elementary schools. It also established a few vocational schools and two teachers’ colleges. The school system grew rapidly, and while the resources allocated to food rations gradually declined, those devoted to education continuously went up. By 1966 UNRWA’s expenditure on education had outstripped that on food rations and amounted to about $13 million. Since then education has become the single most important activity of the agency — $179 million out of a total budget of $344 million — about 52 per cent of its expenditure in 2002 .27

The camp population changed dramatically as it experienced a continuous stream of new arrivals. The Jalazun data show that half the camp’s households arrived from 1950 onwards (54 out of the 104 households in the sample). Some people moved from an outlying camp to a one situated close to a larger city, in order to improve their chances of employment. But most of the newcomers, while officially designated as refugees, had never been in a camp. They typically had been living in towns and their circumstances had changed. Some had lost their livelihood, others had grown old and weak or had no one to take care of them. They moved into the camp because of the advantages to be gained: no rent, no municipal taxes, and water supply and sanitation were also free. While all refugees had access to UNRWA services, the camp-dwellers were better placed to make proper use of them. Health clinics, for instance, were mostly located in camps, and their free services available to all the inhabitants. The monthly food rations, which the heads of refugee households had to collect personally, were distributed in camps. From 1955 onward, the new houses became an added inducement to move into camps. Thus we find that between 1951 and 1967 the camp population in the West Bank grew by two thirds, from 94,000 to 144,000. At the same time the total West Bank population grew by only 12%, from 768,000 in 1951 to 871,000 in 1966. 28

In the Jalazun study all the newcomers were still bona fide refugees, who either sought permission from UNRWA to take over a shelter or rented rooms from the original owners. By the 1980s UNRWA had lost control of the houses. They were freely sold, even to non-refugees, and no one took the trouble to notify UNRWA of the change in ownership. As the Israeli military administration insisted on the conception that the refugee camps should be abolished and the refugees resettled, it did not permit the camp-dwellers to add a second floor to their homes. Building activity in the camps accelerated rapidly after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993. Today there are many two and three-storey houses in all the camps, so that there is nothing to distinguish the camps from other city quarters.

Although of all the host countries only Jordan granted the refugees full citizenship, the refugees’ freedom of movement and employment (as distinct from permanent settlement) was never seriously restricted in the other Arab countries.29 This permitted them to seek employment and to become economically independent and, incidentally, to contribute to the economy of the host country. This relative freedom can be partly attributed to UNRWA’s presence: it brought in a constant flow of resources, so that the host governments looked favorably upon UNRWA and allowed the agency to continue to provide services to the refugees. The host governments, including Israel, were thus released from dealing directly with the refugee problem, and therefore did not impose special controls on the movement and employment of refugees. But they kept tab on the political implications of UNRWA’s plans and projects. And because of the relative economic autonomy of the refugees, UNRWA did nothing to impede their integration in the new surroundings.

The refugees were rapidly absorbed in the labor market, until their rate of employment was nearly the same as that of the rest of the population. They did however occupy the lower rungs in the economy, and in the Jalazun study their per capita income was about 40 per cent below the average.30 Only men went out to work, generally outside the camps. Many worked in construction, in small industrial enterprises and in services. Not a few found employment in UNRWA, which exclusively hired people with an UNRWA ID card. Thus, UNRWA became the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some UNRWA employees worked in their own camps and became the largest category of those employed in camps. Although most of the refugees had been villagers, only a few engaged in farming, as they had no access to land. Only in outlying camps did some men become farm laborers. Many men found better paying employment as migrant workers in other Arab countries, and sent remittances to their families back home. As work of some kind was usually available, most refugees stopped relying on food rations and relief. These services were used and appreciated by the camp-dwellers, but provided just one fourth of their income. Only in households without any breadwinner was relief aid critically important. This condition, however, changed dramatically following the 2000 Intifada.

Based on the Jalazun study findings, the authors recommended that the Israeli authorities speed up the resettlement processes by assuming full responsibility for the refugees and releasing UNRWA of its duties. UNRWA services would be taken over by Israel, UNRWA’s employees would become part of the Palestinian civil service, and these changes would facilitate the full incorporation of the camps into the urban fabric. The process would require substantial improvements in the camps’ infrastructure and the extension of municipal services to the camps. The Israeli government discussed and rejected the recommendations, on the grounds that the refugee problem should be resolved in the framework of a comprehensive peace treaty with all the Arab states.  For the next 35 years all Israeli governments adhered to the principle that no refugee policy was needed, reasoning that a de facto population exchange had taken place between the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish emigrants from the Arab countries. At the same time they claimed that the property left behind by the Palestinian refugees equaled that left behind by the Jewish emigrants in their countries of origin, and that the two debts cancelled each other out. Both the Palestinian refugees and the Jews from Middle Eastern countries were thus to be left without any compensation for their lost land and property. This policy, or rather lack of a policy, was never submitted for approval to the parties concerned. It reinforced the Palestinians’ conviction that the “Return” to their homes (´auda) was the only acceptable solution, to the extent that it became a fundamental and inalterable tenet of Palestinian nationalism. The Jewish emigrants from the Middle East were for many years relatively quiescent, and have only recently begun to blame the Israeli authorities for neglecting their claims for compensation. 31

Continuity and change: from humanitarian agency to a “non-territorial government”

UNRWA is the oldest, largest, and most expansive temporary UN humanitarian agency.  It is far larger than the other two United Nations sponsored humanitarian relief agencies, UNICEF and UNHCR.32 Moreover, from the start, it has been a unique case both in its mandate and its modus operandi. While the Palestinian refugees represent less than 18% of the total number of refugees in the world, UNRWA spends a third of all the resources donated to refugees. Per capita annual support for a Palestinian refugee is more than twice the amount of support allocated by the UNHCR.33 But perhaps the most unique feature in UNRWA’s operation is its mandate. UNRWA was created to support one particular national group, namely, the Palestinian refugees. To date, “No other (such) intergovernmental international organization exists.”34 The Palestinian refugees were set apart from all other refugee categories and the General Assembly took direct responsibility for them. In the rush to provide emergency assistance to the refugees, UNRWA’s founding resolution was loosely drawn up, resulting in major inadequate personnel and budgetary provisions. In fact, unlike most other agencies, UNRWA was established as an operational agency, incorporated under Article 22 of the UN Charter and not based on an international treaty or convention.35

Who is a refugee?

The General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of December 11, 1948 drew a very significant distinction between Palestinian and Convention refugees. A Palestinian refugee is “a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years [our emphasis] before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and who lost both home and livelihood as a result of the conflict and took refuge in one of the areas which today comprise Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Direct descendants of registered refugees were also eligible for UNRWA assistance. This definition differs from the UNHCR definition that does not include the “two year” provision, and considers a “refugee” a person uprooted from a land where he and his ancestors lived since time immemorial.  In the case of UNRWA, any person who lived in Palestine for only two years (prior to 1948) was entitled to a refugee ID. The validity of the two year residency standard may well be questioned, given the documented massive migrations of population groups from Syria, Lebanon, and Trans-Jordan to Palestine a few years before 1948, and the emergence of many of these groups from a historic nomadic existence. The two year residence provision enabled transients to be treated as if they had been permanent residents of Palestine, rendering them eligible for resettlement, repatriation or financial compensation. The effect of this distinction was to inflate the number of Palestinian refugees well beyond the number they would have reached under the more conventional definition.36 Moreover, three qualifying requirements (residence, livelihood, and the abandonment of same) were necessary to collectively define the refugee status. However, UNRWA never required the claimants to provide proof of having suffered all the above-mentioned disabilities. Instead, a mere self-declaration, asserting the existence of all or just some of the three qualifying requirements, was accepted by UNRWA from the beginning as the sole necessary condition for granting refugee status.

UNRWA’s original mandate largely reflected suggestions of Count Folke Bernadotte who, in his letters and reports, expressed deep concern for the plight of the refugees and believed that “for humanitarian reasons and because I consider the danger to Jewish security slight”, the international community could and should coerce Israel to allow them the right of return.37 Israel rejected Bernadotte’s proposal because “Israel is still beset by enemy armies…and [this] would relieve the aggressor states of a large part of the pressure exerted on them by the refugee problem.”38 However, Israel’s response did not preclude future repatriation, if this solution to the refugee problem were tied to a lasting peace.39

In its early years, UNRWA spent 70 per cent of its budget on food rations and schools. As UNRWA services continued to expand, the share of food rations declined.40 Every card-carrying refugee was entitled to food rations, and in the eyes of the refugees the ration card became the emblem of refugeehood, more important than the food itself. While the food rations provided 1,500 calories daily in summer, and 1,600 in winter, quite a substantial proportion of the caloric requirement, the refugees did not rely on this food. At the monthly food distribution the recipients transferred much of it to traders. This had some deleterious effect on the symbolic significance of the ration cards. As against the decreasing importance of food, the share of education grew annually, from 9 per cent in 1954 to 34 per cent in 1966.41 UNRWA not only ran a system of elementary schools, but also trained teachers, gave grants to refugee children who attended state schools and scholarships to college students. It provided the camps with municipal services, such as water and sanitation. It also offered a variety of social services: there were health centers, mother and child clinics, social welfare offices and youth clubs. And in the course of the Jalazun study we found that new services were still being introduced: UNRWA was just constructing a basketball court, and it had begun to serve school meals. UNRWA’s district director explained the policy in these terms: “We are providing so many services, that no refugee will ever be able to use all of them”.42

But in the late 1970s budgets became tighter, and medical and welfare services were gradually discontinued. Camp services were handed over to municipalities and people were now expected to pay for them. Even the food rations became smaller and finally stopped in 1982. Only the school system still operated at full strength, and became the justification for the continued existence of UNRWA. The growing importance of education is reflected in UNRWA’s budget. UNRWA Commissioner-General Giacomelli stated in a public lecture, May 1990, that by 1989 the share of education had risen to 60 per cent of the budget.43 The first intifada brought some relief to UNRWA. The donor nations raised their contributions, in order to supply emergency services to the population in the occupied territories (and not only to the refugees). Even food was again distributed on a limited scale.

The picture regarding UNRWA’s staff does not reflect the declining budgets and services. In the 1960s UNRWA employed about 12,000 staff, nearly all recruited from the refugee population. Only a handful of the top positions were reserved for the “international staff”. The Jalazun study found that staff members were totally devoted to their work and their wards. The clerical and manual workers lived in camps, even when their income permitted them to move elsewhere. Their wages were lower than those of their counterparts in the Jordanian civil service, and their jobs were not safeguarded. They did however receive severance payments and were negotiating a pension scheme. The salaries of professionals, such as teachers, doctors and nurses, were roughly the same in both organizations. These people also tended to live outside camps, even when they worked in them. We concluded that clerical and manual workers were in plentiful supply, and could easily be replaced. Therefore they earned lower wages, and felt a deep attachment to the camp-dwellers, the sources of their livelihood. For that reason they also resided in the camps. Professionals were in scarce supply, and could easily move from one organization to the other. Their livelihood did not depend on the existence of refugee camps and they had no qualms about residing outside.44

In the 1980s UNRWA staff had grown to 18,000, including a mere 130 “international staff”. The number of teachers in the system in 1986 was 9,990, of whom 1,300 worked in the West Bank and 2,400 in the Gaza Strip.  Only some of this increase can be explained by the greater emphasis on education, the growing population of school children, which required more teachers, and by the fact that education is probably more labor-intensive than food distribution. Indeed, the number of administrative workers increased at the same rate as that of teachers.45 The Israeli occupation hardly disrupted UNRWA’s growth. In the Gaza Strip the conditions of work had improved considerably. The salaries of all types of employees were higher than those of their local colleagues in the civil service, in many cases twice as high. Their jobs were more secure than those of government employees, and they had a retirement scheme. They even organized strikes, in order to obtain improved retirement benefits. The link between the demand for workers and their wages had been severed. All types of workers, whether unskilled, skilled or professional, were in plentiful supply. They were eager to work for UNRWA, not only because of the conditions of pay, but also because they did not wish to become civil servants and be suspected of collaborating with the Israeli authorities. All these factors should have depressed the wages of UNRWA employees. But they had such a strong hold over the organization that they could secure relatively high wages. Whenever UNRWA had to make cuts, it curtailed services, but did not dismiss employees.

UNRWA representatives often stress their continuing obligation toward the Palestinian refugees. Commissioner-General Rydbeck is quoted as saying: “There is no prospect of terminating UNRWA’s mandate. The Palestinian issue is so basic to the Middle East conflict that any effort to change UNRWA would open the doors to a debate on every aspect of the Arab-Israeli relationship, and bring the Big Powers in with it.”46 His view can only be understood in the context of UNRWA’s responsibility for an army of employees, whose integration into the national economies of the host countries may be fraught with difficulties.

UNRWA’s pursuit of self-preservation created competition between the agency and other UN agencies, such as the CCP (Conciliation Commission on Palestine), over the question of “which of the two subsidiary organs was primarily responsible for action on the question of repatriation and/or resettlement of the refugees.”47 Since its mandate could be subject to various interpretations, UNRWA decided in its early days to focus on resettlement rather than repatriation as its primary objective. Typically, it “appears clear from the records that personnel were concerned primarily with protecting the status of their organ.”48 During the 1950s, the CCP and UNRWA hardly coordinated their activities, although both these United Nations organizations were dealing with the same issues. “CCP-UNRWA meetings during 1950 [were] characterized by friction. …The origin of the conflict was basically a matter of institutional jealousy.”49 UNRWA feared that the CCP would establish itself as an executive organ; superior to UNRWA in the matter of resettlement, and this possibility UNRWA’s officials were determined to scotch. The CCP, on the other hand, was angered by what it considered an encroachment on its sphere of competence and warned UNRWA against hindering its work. What made coordination between two agencies even more unlikely was that the setting of their agendas and priorities, as well as their decision-making processes, took place in the field rather than at United Nations headquarters. The unnecessary and possibly destructive conflict between UNRWA and CCP amply demonstrated (a) the lack of clarity of UNRWA’s mandate, (b) the Advisory Commission’s lack of interest in UNRWA’s activities and operations and, (c) the General Assembly’s inability to guide, regulate and control its agencies.

Even in its early years, UNRWA alienated its own Advisory Committee. This body, in which representatives from France, Britain, the United States and Turkey originally took part, was later enlarged to a membership of ten nations by adding representatives from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Belgium and Japan.50 The incorporation of the Arab states in the Committee was a major impediment to efficient operation, 51 since the members’ disparate interests would not permit that minimum of consensus needed for the Committee to function properly.  Herein lies a partial answer to the troubling question why, in the “highly political context in which UNRWA operates, the Commissioner-General receives little guidance from either the Advisory Commission or the General Assembly.”52 It made itself inaccessible by establishing its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon (between 1950 and 1978). While it was close to its areas of operation, UNRWA was far removed from the headquarters of most United Nations agencies, and it required complex and long lines of communication.53 While UNRWA was operating in an acute political context it lacked any guidance or control from its Advisory Commission, the UN Secretary General, or the General Assembly. The Commissioner-General and his staff are left with the burden of making political decisions, determining priorities, raising funds and managing the expenditures. The lack of a governing or an overseeing body is equally disturbing. The miscalculation at the time of the formation of UNRWA – that it would be a very temporary, short-lived agency – led to the mistaken assumption that a responsible, business-like oversight apparatus would not be necessary. It is unclear why the G-A has since left in place this administrative and policy-making void.

In 1991, the autonomous authority of the Commissioner-General was further broadened. The General Assembly agreed to eliminate the provision in UNRWA’s mandate requiring the Commissioner-General to reach decisions “in consultation with the Secretary General.”  Rather, he was now expected to consult and work with the Advisory Commission. However, the structure of the Committee impeded the development of the minimal consensus needed to reach operational decisions. The Commission was also hostile to Israel and invited antagonist relationships with the contributing governments and often with the Commissioner-General. The paralysis of the enlarged Commission turned UNRWA into a self-contained organization, its staff appointed or removed by a Commissioner-General who promulgated his own regulations and rules without interference, as long as they did not openly conflict with UN rules and regulations. UNRWA’s autonomy was supported by the fact that the agency was shaped by the General Assembly as an operational organization with a unique corporate status, “capable of engaging in commercial transactions and establishing legally defined relations with governments, other international organizations, and employees.”54 UNRWA officials make no secret of the fact that both the Commissioner-General and the staff enjoy their autonomous status and feel that additional bureaucratic controls are unnecessary. 55

UNRWA’s vast permanent bureaucracy functions as a de facto, non-territorial government working parallel and competing with the elected Palestinian Authority. UNRWA’s work force has stabilized at the high level of 24,000, and their wages are now on a par with those of their counterparts in the Palestinian civil service. UNRWA employees, however, enjoy greater job security and better pension schemes. Donors seem to support UNRWA with complete disregard to the adverse consequences of their generous assistance. Indeed, since 2000, donors have pledged vast additional amounts to support UNRWA’s operation with scarcely any control.56 As UNRWA expenditures grew, its control of its clients decreased. The agency lacks basic information concerning eligibility the distribution of its services and goods.  Because UNRWA never conducted a census, it lacks any knowledge about how many refugee families or how many individual refugees are recipients of its services. Worse still, UNRWA has been pursuing a policy of not checking clients’ eligibility for service. Its policy of offering services with “no questions asked” resulted in an unrealistic increase in the number of eligible “refugees.” This will go some way towards explaining why the number of refugees has grown over the years and why so many people live in “refugee camps”.  The crux of the issue is to what extent are the four million persons holding refugee ID cards bone fide refugees? Also, UNRWA does not know whether the least fortunate persons are enjoying its services or whether the system is being manipulated to support the better-connected persons.

The study revealed the disturbing fact that UNRWA has an unreliable electronic documentation system for scanning and filing of data, and is therefore unable to ascertain the actual number and status of the individuals registered in its files as “eligible refugees.” UNRWA’s executives could not explain why the agency  does not cooperate or coordinate its data with  the Palestinian Authority that conducted in the 1990s a very reliable census.  Many UNRWA registered refugees who died or emigrated to another country  were never removed from the files.57 Following criticism from donors, UNRWA promised in its 2002 Annual Report  to reform these structural flaws and “to seek greater efficiency through an internal restructuring and reform program, including a  reform of the Agency’s financial systems, improving educational planning mechanisms, and improving procurement policies and procedures.”58 In the case of UNRWA, the voyage from commitments to implementation has hardly begun.

Following the creation of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Ilter Turkmen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (1993), stated: “In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the situation in principle will be no different.”59 Commissioner Turkmen’s position seems to confirm that UNRWA, like most established bureaucracies, is attached to its power base and is reluctant to yield any part of its authority. UNRWA follows the “iron law of bureaucracy”, and rejects any thought of transferring its responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority. It is ironic that the signing of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP) did not change UNRWA’s activities as a “non-territorial government”. Indeed, in the 1990s, instead of preparing to transfer responsibilities for civil services to the newly created Palestinian Authority, UNRWA took the initiative of moving into new realms. In 1995, while the PA was struggling to establish legitimacy and credibility, UNRWA launched new income generating, job creation, micro finance and micro-enterprise programs. In the financial year 2000 UNRWA dedicated $13.2 million in loans to Palestinian owned businesses, and since the program began, in 1995, it provided about $30 million in micro-economic loans.61 UNRWA demanded an increase in its budget and responsibilities instead of contracting its operation so as to lead to its termination, as could have been expected. The overall picture, up to the beginning of the second uprising in 2000 was one of growing UNRWA involvement in guiding the camp-dwellers toward economic autonomy and even a modest prosperity. But in two areas there was hardly any change: almost all the Palestinian people still consider themselves to be refugees, and practically the whole outside world, with the exception of their fellow-citizens, view the urban neighborhoods in which they reside as poverty-stricken and crime-ridden refugee camps. In fact, it can be argued that UNRWA’s policies encouraged the perpetuation of the refugees’ dependence on the international community, alienated them from the Palestinian Authority, and contributed to the eruption of violence both in 1987 and in 2000.

In conclusion, an examination of the operational and policy revisions that UNRWA initiated since its inception shows a policy of cementing the Agency’s status as a “non-elected non-territorial government.”  As the de facto governing body, UNRWA exercises an informal veto power on any project or operation planned in areas designated “refugee camps.” Neither the European Commission nor other multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors can execute any project in the areas under the control of UNRWA. The international community has been very careful in avoiding clashes with UNRWA and making sure that their aid operations skirt areas designated “refugee camps.” Undoubtedly, UNRWA’s formal and informal authority hinders cooperation with the donor community and creates unnecessary, destructive bureaucratic feuds. 60

Should Humanitarian assistance include protection of human rights?

While Arab states were able to command passage by the General Assembly of almost any resolution, they chose to reiterate the rhetoric about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. However, they did not press the General Assembly or the Advisory Commission to appoint a special custodian, such as UNRWA, to protect Palestinian human rights. Only in the late 1980s, as a result of the Intifada, were these claims put forward in a serious manner. Until that point, the objective of the Arab states was to provide selective support for the refugees, primarily financial and political, and to block their resettlement in any Arab country. Expressing this approach, Khouri stated: “UNRWA must be given the support to promote the improvement in the psychological and political climate that is essential to the attainment of any permanent Arab-Israeli agreement … to extend relief, education, and other essential services … to carry out major economic development projects, and to expand and accelerate the existing refugee training program ….”62 Ignoring the existence of UNRWA, the General-Assembly adopted on November 10, 1975, a resolution establishing the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people, composed initially of twenty member states, later raised to 23.63 This committee submits annual reports to the Secretary General who, in turn, submits them to the Security Council for consideration. No action has ever taken on these recommendations.

Following the Israeli occupation of 1967, the people of the Gaza Strip felt “surrounded and occupied, with a real sense of helplessness and isolation.”64 UNRWA witnessed the changing of the guard and the political problems that ensued. “It would be disingenuous to claim that UNRWA can perform its tasks without reference to politics”, said Giorgio Giacomelli, an Italian diplomat who served as ambassador to Syria between 1978 and 1980 and UNRWA Commissioner-General from 1985 to 1991: “We exist because of politics. However hard we try, we cannot avoid it.”65

Giacomelli expressed an opinion probably common in UNRWA: “I believe UNRWA’s mandate is flexible, not explicit. We provide the refugees with the help they need, when they need it … We know statistically that several dozen humans will be killed in demonstrations each month, and hundreds will be injured by tear gas, beatings and bullets … Our medical responsibility must address the needs that exist.”66 The changing social and political environment greatly affected the work of UNRWA, especially in the realm of human rights. On October 11, 1978, at UNRWA’s initiative, the General Assembly passed a resolution urging the Israeli government to “desist from further removal of refugees and destruction of their shelters.”67 This resolution criticized Israel’s plan to move camp-dwellers in Gaza camps to government-supported housing projects outside the camps, provided that the residents’ previous camp housing is demolished thereafter. UNRWA viewed the project as a major human rights violation, and the Agency tried to intervene on the grounds that the General Assembly had given UNRWA a mandate to protect the refugees’ security and legal rights. Israel argued that the Housing Settlement Project was necessary for the refugees’ own health care and safety. Moreover, the Palestinian refugees actually favored the project and, in 1988, “the waiting list of applicants wishing to join this Israeli housing project is full for the coming three years.”68

However, until 1988, after the outbreak of the Intifada, UNRWA did not have an explicit mandate to deal with human rights. It could and did expand its duties to include welfare, health and education services, but not politically charged issues such as human rights. The outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987 causes the Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, in January 1988, to urge the General Assembly to intervene through UNRWA, to help the people “cope with day-to-day difficulties of life under occupation, such as security restrictions, curfews, harassment.” 69 The proposed enlargement of UNRWA’s international staff would help monitor human rights violations in the occupied territories covering Palestinians, irrespective of whether or not they were refugees. Indeed, “the Secretary General’s proposals were more of what UNRWA had already found itself doing.”70 Perez de Cuellar’s proposal was vetoed in the Security Council by the United States. However, the General Assembly adopted later that year Resolution 1988 43/57 I, authorizing UNRWA to “uphold the safety, security, legal and human rights of Palestinian refugees”. The resolution, which was never endorsed by the United States and Israel, created of a new function within UNRWA: the “Refugee Affairs Officer” (RAO), a title usually referring to UNRWA observers, whose duty was to report on trouble spots. The assumption was that the RAO would serve a dual purpose:  prevention, to observe and report trouble before it happens (they report to UNRWA’s local legal advisers), and deterrence, as their mere presence might deter violations of human rights. Later, the RAOs’ duties were extended and they were authorized to perform mediation and third party negotiation services, often being the only party in the field who could negotiate with both sides in good faith.71 The RAO function was terminated in 1991, however, after the outbreak of the second Intifada, in 2000, the Palestinian community demanded a renewal of the function.72 Since the RAO function has not yet been renewed, UNRWA declared that its 10,000 employees in the West Bank and Gaza would assist in this respect.73

Until the mid 1980s, neither Israel nor the Arab states wished UNRWA to become involved in the issue of human rights. It should be noted that the Arab states and the Commissioner-General, for reasons of their own, repeatedly complained to the United Nations about Israel’s violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.74 In reality, it was UNRWA that seemed most concerned about the political rights of the Palestinians or the violations thereof. In their reports, all the Commissioners-General repeatedly complained about Israel’s treatment of the refugees. The reports continuously lament the fact that “the agency’s mandate does not extend to all the ramifications of the problem.”75 The Secretary-General also claimed that prior to the Intifada, economic conditions might have improve the human and legal rights enjoyed by refugees, but these were being violated by the Israeli authorities.76 Following the reports of the Commissioner-General and the Secretary General, the General Assembly adopted annual resolutions (1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and onward), all of which maintained that the problem of human rights arose from Israel’s denial “of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that the full respect for those rights was indispensable for the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”77

Israel consistently tried to confine UNRWA’s mandate solely to humanitarian operations. The agency’s extended agenda has been viewed in Israel as a source of unrest – as part of the problem, not of the solution. Israel and UNRWA often collided on issues concerning detention of local Palestinian employees of UNRWA, searches and seizures of UNRWA offices and facilities, and the issue of relocation of camp dwellers in Gaza to government-supported housing projects outside the camps.78 For instance, on October 11, 1978, at UNRWA’s initiative, the General Assembly passed a resolution (32/90 C), urging the Israeli government to “desist from further removal of refugees and destruction of their shelters”.  Israel’s position was that UNRWA should stay out of such controversies since it was a matter of neither security nor human rights for the refugees. However, UNRWA asserted that by virtue of a number of United Nations resolutions, it had a responsibility to provide wider protection to the refugees than its original mandate warranted.79  Israel pointed out that UNRWA’s environment was by definition hostile to Israel. Ninety nine percent of its personnel were Palestinians from the region, while the international bureaucracy consisted of only 130 persons, most of who worked at UNRWA headquarters in Vienna, and Amman, Jordan. This seemed hardly an environment that was likely to be impartial or indifferent to the grievances of the Palestinians.80 It is unclear why the outbreak of violence and terrorism in the Occupied Territories (2000) did not raise the issue of the role of UNRWA in human rights either in the General Assembly or the Advisory Commission.

Why are there still Refugees?

In 1948 there was hardly any difference between those Palestinians who had fled from areas occupied by the advancing Israeli forces and those who seemingly remained unscathed. Many people in both categories had lost most of their possessions, while many others kept some of their property and quickly established a new life. The Gaza Strip can illustrate this argument. In 1948 a local population of 100,000 suddenly was saddled with 190,000 refugees. Many of the local people lost their land and other sources of livelihood. Others were poor and homeless, and looked on helplessly when the international welfare organizations gave assistance to “refugees”. Some of the new arrivals had friends and resources, and soon re-established their homes and businesses. The welfare organizations recognized the anomaly, and included in the register of refugees another 21,000 local people.80 Since 1949, UNRWA has been issuing refugee ID cards to millions of persons with hardly any controls or verification of eligibility. No effort is made to erase names of deceased persons. No action has been taken to stop the selling and buying of refugee ID cards.  The holders of the cards are entitled to housing in camps, to food rations, to medical services, and their children are eligible to UNRWA’s free education. In 1965, UNRWA’s director adopted a new definition of the term “refugee” that would allow the inclusion of all persons who resided in Palestine before 1948, who suffered loss or damage to property and livelihood, as well as their descendants.81 The tendency was to include the greatest number of persons in the refugee category, including those who had successfully resettled. As we showed, the range of services grew continuously, and encouraged people to retain their refugee status even when their situation improved. Thus UNRWA keeps the refugee identity alive and tends to keep the numbers of refugees high. The donors were expected to adjust their contributions to the growing numbers of refugees.

The Israeli authorities accepted UNRWA’s policy and they too have contributed towards the preservation of the refugee status and identity. For a long time, Israel’s basic position was that UNRWA should be allowed to run its own affairs and to provide essential services to the refugee population. This policy was considered advantageous, since it saved the Israel government money and kept the highly controversial refugee issue on the back burner. By allowing UNRWA to continue and expand its operations Israel gave a hand to the growth in numbers of refugees and to the increasing number of situations in which people would assume their refugee identity. With the rise of Palestinian nationalism it became less important to be a refugee.  The Palestinian identity gradually became more important than the refugee identity. However, generally, they overlap.

In 1972 Israel unintentionally revived the value of being a refugee by setting up housing schemes for camp-dwellers in the Gaza Strip. While there was a housing shortage throughout the Gaza Strip, only bona fide refugees were allowed to join the program. Over the years some 8,500 households moved into ten new housing schemes reserved for refugees. Thus a new incentive was given to people to revive their status as refugees. They sold their homes in the towns or in the camps (which by then had become mixed neighborhoods), in order to resettle in exclusive “refugee” environments. However, the first Intifada (1987) put an end to the Israeli re-housing program for refugees. But the Israeli military occupation gave another boost to the refugee identity by assuming, probably incorrectly, that the refugee camps were the centers of the uprising. Therefore to be a refugee now meant to be in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for national independence. The refugee identity had merged, for the moment, with the Palestinian one.

We do not imply that people are just refugees, and nothing else. They have a number of ethnic identities, which are manifested, singly or in various combinations, in appropriate situations. They are ethnically organized as Palestinians, Muslims, and members of a village, region or patronymic group, refugees, and so forth. We argue that UNRWA and certain Arab states intentionally, and Israel unintentionally, provided numerous situations which brought to the fore certain elements that strengthened the refugee ethnic identity.82 The fact that the number of registered refugees has been growing in the past years by 3.1 per cent annually is a testimony to this adverse process.83

But there is yet another strand in refugeehood that is generally manifested in informal intercourse: the memories of a lost home, land and property left behind and the social upheaval that accompanied their flight, are indelibly etched in the refugees’ minds. This past is recorded in legal documents, such as tax receipts and land registration documents, which have become symbols of the past, and in detailed itemized accounts of the property owned. People are resentful about the abrupt loss of life chances; they feel that they might have done great things, which had now become impossible. Similar experiences have been reported in various studies of other refugees. These studies attest to the length of time these attitudes are maintained and to their pervasiveness.84 While this smoldering resentment rarely shows in bureaucratic encounters, it is never far from the surface. It frequently crops up in meetings of people from the same village, or in conversations with well-meaning strangers. The existing official refugee ID card strengthens and perpetuates the self-identity of the fourth generation of refugees.


In 1995, two years after Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat signed the historic Declaration of Principles (DOP) in Washington, UNRWA published a document entitled “The Horizon Plan”, in which it announced its intention to dissolve in 2000. The document stated: “For the first time since UNRWA was established in December 1949, it is possible to see on the horizon the end of the Agency’s mission.” 85 However, the agency never took any steps in that direction. On the contrary, UNRWA hired more employees, moved into new ventures, developed new programs and continued to hold the power to veto the activities of other organizations that engaged in economic and humanitarian assistance programs, including the Palestinian Authority.86 It is clear that UNRWA’s practices and attitudes played a major role in the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Criticism of UNRWA’s continued role as a “non-territorial government” was directed at its historic ineffectiveness, “due in large part to high overhead costs”87 and other bureaucratic problems. The Palestinian Badil research center recently called for the following steps for the phasing out of UNRWA: The Palestinian authority should gradually assume responsibility for the whole Palestinian community, including the operations of UNRWA. The agency would then engage mainly in symbolic activities, such as to ensure the international community’s commitment to the fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations for redress. Also, the Palestinian Authority should use UNRWA’s database and archives, including documents related to property ownership. The Palestinian Authority’s assumption of responsibility should be coordinated with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel (in the framework of an agreement). As for the thorny issue of the ‘right of return’, the Palestinian leadership has long recognized that while, on principle, this right could not be abandoned, the aspirations of a return could not be fulfilled in practice. The role of UNRWA must change in order to reflect contemporary realities in the region. The changes must allow “the PA, host governments and NGOs to play a growing part in the services currently provided by the Agency.”88 We concur with these recommendations, but wish to add our appreciation for UNRWA’s immense contribution to the resettlement of the refugees. Now it has completed its task it should bow out gracefully.

With the withering away of UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and Israel should occupy the center stage, with the participation of those neighboring Arab states hosting Palestinian refugees. While the Palestinians cannot forget the traumatic experiences of refugeedom, their significance can be transmuted by a negotiated settlement that transcends the direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. It should bring to the negotiating table individual Israelis and Palestinians, as it must respond to the losses of the individuals who bore the suffering. The agreement must contain clauses providing for compensation and restitution for individual refugees. While the settling of debts must be an integral element in any negotiated peace treaty, it need not have to wait for the negotiations. A generous offer of compensation could rather become an auspicious preliminary to negotiations. A compensation program extending over several years may foster trust between the parties. It may eventually take the sting out the bitter past and ultimately lead to a resumption of relationships between the two peoples.


1 Milton Viorst, UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East, (Washington DC: The Middle East    Institute, 1984), p.6

2 General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949

3 Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 1 298

4 Each time for a term of three years (see resolution AC.4/58/L.9/Rev.1), 14 November, 2003

5 Information based on documents supplied by UNRWA’s New York office, and an interview with UNRWA officials, Jerusalem, July 2003

6 The Advisory Committee meets once a year, to review UNRWA’s activities. The members are: Belgium, Egypt, France, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Britain, and the US

7 Discussion paper, prepared by BADIL, Resource Center for Palestinian Refugees and Residency Rights, February 2000, p. 9

8 Ibid., p. 5

9 Ibid., p. 4

10 David Forsythe, United Nations Peacemaking (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1972), p. 32

11 According to UNRWA, 54 per cent of project expenditures are being spent on salaries

12 Discussion paper, BADIL, p. 10

13 See discussion in Stephen J. Stedman and Fred Tanner, (eds.) Refugee Manipulation,  Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), pp. 6-7

14 Ibid.,  p. 13

15 See John Dollard et al., Frustration and Aggression (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963). The frustration-   aggression theory assumes a causal relationship between a condition of frustration and aggressive behavior.

16 Robert D. Kaplan defines this syndrome as “Clientitis”. See discussion in his book: The  Arabists, (New York: The  Free Press, 1993), p. 123

17 Bob Bowker, “The Political Management of Change in UNRWA”, discussion paper, Badil, p. 16

18 “West Bank Gaza had the highest illiteracy rate with 35% followed by Jordan 24% and Lebanon 11%”. Dr. Shkaki  PSR  –Survey Research Unit: January-June 2003; 18 July 2003

19 Milton Viorst, UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East, (Washington DC: The Middle East Institute, 1984),  p. 5. In the second edition of the book, however, the author says that ‘In 1950, the rolls [of refugees] were about 1 million”. Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East, (Washington DC, The Middle East Institute, 1989), p. 50

20 Yoram Ben-Porath, E. Marx and S. Shamir, A Refugee Camp in the Mountains, (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Shiloah Institute (Hebrew) 1974), p. 9

21 This is an increase of over 500 per cent in half a century.  Roughly every second Palestinian in the world is a recipient of UNRWA services. Data is based on UNHCR and UNRWA annual reports.

22 UNRWA Annual report, 2002. The annual growth rate is an approximation, as the refugees do not immediately report new births and deaths

23 The study was done by Yoram Ben-Porath, an economist at the Hebrew University; Shimon Shamir, a historian at Tel Aviv University; and Emanuel Marx, a social anthropologist at Tel Aviv University, Israel

24 Viorst incorrectly believes that houses are rent-free and therefore in great demand. 1989, p. 52

25 In the early 1950s UNRWA constructed brick single-family units, of about 300 square feet each.

26 Yoram Ben-Porath and E. Marx, Some Sociological and Economic Aspects of Refugee Camps on the West Bank, (Santa Monica CA: Rand, 1971), p. 37

27 UNRWA Annual Report, 2003

28 Michael K.  Roof and K.G. Kinsella. Palestinian Arab Population: 1950 to 1984.  (Washington D.C., Center for International Research, Bureau of the Census,  1987) , p. 26

29 See discussion in Laurie A. Brand, The politics of passports: Palestinian legal status in the Arab host states, 1949-1986, in Reeva S. Simon, The Middle East and North Africa: Essays in Honor of J.C. Hurewitz. (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990)

30 Ben-Porath and Marx, 1971, p. 55

31 Yehouda Shenhav,”The Jews of Iraq, Zionist ideology, and the property of the Palestinian   refugees of 1948: an anomaly of national accounting.”  International Journal of Middle East Studies 31 ( 1999),  pp. 605-630

32 In 2002 UNHCR had 268 offices in 114 countries. UNHCR employs 5,523 people world wide, and the ratio of staff to clients is: 1 per 3,582. UNRWA’s ratio is 1 per 83 clients. UNHCR has 510 NGOs working as implementing partners (July 2002). UNRWA has none. (UNHCR FY 2002 documents)  UNHCR budget (2002) for about 2 million Afghan refugees and Iraqi Kurds in Iran (similar number of refugees aided by UNRWA) was $ 25,555 million compared, with UNRWA’s  $ 400 million. Interaction activity report, December 2002.

33 UNHCR annual budget for FY 2002 was $1,044 billion. This provides $47.6 per capita assistance annually, in services. UNRWA’s budget provides about $100 per person annually, in services

34 Benjamin Schiff, Assisting the Palestinian Refugees, in: Emanuel Adler and Beverly Crawford (eds.) Progress in the Post War International Relations, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 363.

35 It was assumed that the establishment of UNRWA by a treaty, requiring a ratification process, would unduly delay the establishment of the agency. UNICEF and the UNHCR, also set up by the General Assembly, provide interesting comparisons. On the other hand, UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) was founded by a treaty (1943)

36 The raison d’être of UNRWA is to provide services to the Palestinian refugees, that is, persons or the descendants of  persons whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two  years preceding the Israeli-Arab conflict in 1948. Introduction to the Report of the Commissioner-General of  UNRWA, July 1, 1977.  Official Records of the General Assembly, UN doc. A/33/13,  June 30, 1978

37 From a proposition to Moshe Sharett, the Israeli Foreign Minister, July 26, 1948. Quoted in Buehrig, pp 11-12

38 Sharett’s reply to Bernadotte, July 30, 1948. Quoted in Buehrig, p. 12

39 See, e. g., Milton Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East, 1984

40 In 1954 food rations and education had amounted to 55 per cent of UNRWA’s total expenditure. In 1966 it went down to 36 per cent. Ben-Porath and Marx 1971, p. 61

41 Ibid., p. 61

42 Ibid., p. 61

43 According to Viorst the figure is 65 per cent. Viorst, 1989, p. 54

44 Ben-Porath and Marx, 1971, pp. 25-27

45 UNRWA, Annual Report, 1988, p. 25

46 Viorst, 1989, p.107

47 Forsythe, p. 73

48 Ibid., p. 79

49 Ibid., p. 79

50 Original resolution establishing the Advisory Commission, G-A Res. 302 (IV) Paragraph #8

51 Israel is excluded from the Committee and is not even considered a “host” country; rather, it is categorized as a government controlling “occupied territory”

52 Buehrig, p. 57

53 UNRWA’s headquarters were moved from Beirut to Vienna only after Beirut was destroyed   by the civil war. Currently, headquarters are divided between Vienna and Amman, Jordan

54 Buehrig, p. 6

55 Interview with Mr. William Lee, UNRWA’s liaison in New York, November 30, 1993

56 For example, the European Commission approved in July 2003 a special grant of 100 million Euros to supplement the EC regular annual contribution. Total EC contribution for 2002-2003 was 570 million Euros. EC document   IP/03/1040, Brussel, 17 July, 2003. Over half of this contribution was discretionary, lacking any guidelines or references to specific projects

57donor-funded technical expertise mission made a series of recommendations with regard to the  preservation of  the  Agency’s extensive archives which contain historical data on the refugees.” UN A/55/13 of 30 June 2000

58 The donors have recently created an Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary questions,  focusing on  result-oriented objectives and  higher transparency. UNRWA Annual Report, 2000

59 Commissioner-General Ilter Turkman’s statement to the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fifth Committee) of November 15, 1993

60 A case in point is the Gaza Hospital, that was built by the EC in a refugee camp, and after its completion was not    operational for several years because UNRWA insisted on being in charge of the hospital. After years of bitter disagreements, the management of the hospital was given to the PA Ministry of Health

61 UNRWA Annual reports, 2001, 2002

62 Fred J. Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press,  1968), p. 179

63 G-A resolution 31/318.[3376 (XXX]

64 Paul Cossali and Clive Robson, Stateless in Gaza, (London: Zed Books, 1986), p. 28

65 Quoted in Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch, p. 9

66 Ibid., p. 11

67 United Nations  Res. 32/90 C,  Doc. A/33/285, October 11, 1978

68 Statement by Ambassador Uri M. Gordon to the Special Political Committee, 43 G-A  regular session, 15 November 1988

69 Viorst, Reaching for the Olive Branch, pp. 14-15

70 Ibid., pp. 14-15

71 In 1990, UNRWA had about 12 RAOs in the West Bank (Hebron) and about 19 in Gaza. They were mainly from the USA, Western Europe, Australia and Canada

72 The demand was expressed in an exchange of letters between BADIL, Palestinian Resource Center and Mr. Richard    Cook, Director of UNRWA’s operation in the West Bank, 25 October 2000

73 See BADIL-UNRWA exchange of letters, 28 October, 2000

74 See, for example, the Report of the Commissioner-General, July 1, 1992 – June 30, 1993: “At the end of the year in review [1992], there were an estimated 13,000 Palestinians in detention in the occupied territory as well as in Israel, the latter in violation of the prohibition contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

75 Report of the Commissioner General of UNRWA, September 15, 1978. UN document A/33/13

76 The Commissioner –General report of October 11, 1978, UN document  /33/285

77 Report of the S-G regarding Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, October 11, 1978. UN Document A/33/285

78 See General Assembly resolution (32/90 C), urging the Israeli government to “desist from further removal of    refugees and destruction of their shelters”. United Nations Doc. A/33/285, October 11, 1978

79 UNRWA’s executives never denied the fact that they are trustees of the Palestinian people

80 UNRWA report to the United Nations, 1949, p. 23

81 Buehrig, 1971, pp. 139-40

82 It seems that as long as the international community continues to provide services or discriminate against people on the basis of their refugee status, people will have a good reason to hang on to this part of their identity

83 See Table 2

84 Renee Hirschon,  has shown that Greeks evacuated from Asia Minor in 1920 still considered themselves refugees fifty years and several generations later, although they ostensibly returned to Greece their mother country. The refugees argued that this was due largely to the unfulfilled promises of compensation.  See 1998, p.45. Baskauskas has poignantly described the grief felt by Lithuanians in America some forty years after they went into exile.L. Baskauskas,.” The Lithuanian refugee experience and grief.”  International Migration Review 15 (1-2), 1981, pp. 276-291

85 “The Horizon Plan”, UNRWA, 1995, p.1

86 Major international organizations such as the UNDP, and the European Commission, avoid all programs in areas   designated “UNRWA territory.” The dispute over the control over the EC hospital in Gaza is a case in point

87 “According to UNRWA, 54 per cent of the project’s expenditures were spent on salaries. The work program cost five times as much as keeping a refugee on relief with little improvement in what UNRWA referred to as the ‘absorptive capacity of host countries.’ Moreover, the projects tended to build up a separate refugee economy     countering UNRWA’s attempts to ‘reintegrate and rehabilitate’ the refugees.”  Discussion paper prepared by BADIL, Resource Center for Palestinian Refugees, on the future of UNRWA, February 2000, p. 4

88 Ibid., , p. 16

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