Palestinian activist calls to reform UNRWA
Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, has launched a crusade against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), tasked with providing “assistance and protection” for five million Palestinian refugees around the world. In Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, UNRWA gives food, aid, and runs schools.
Eid said a recent study by well-known Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki shows that 70 percent of Palestinian refugees are seeking financial compensation rather than the “right of return” to their former homes in what is today Israel. He said that UNRWA has an interest in perpetuating the right of return, to justify its large budgets. It is part of Eid’s blistering attack on UNRWA, which operates with a $1.2 billion budget from donor countries including the United States.
“Palestinians in refugee camps are suffering while UNRWA is gaining power and money,” Eid, who grew up in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, told a small group of journalists. “In Gaza you hear more and more voices saying that UNRWA is responsible for delaying the reconstruction of Gaza (after the heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last summer).”
In an article in The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Eid called for a five-point program to reform UNRWA including a call for an audit of all funds allocated to UNRWA and a demand that the organization dismiss employees affiliated with the Islamist Hamas, which controls Gaza.
“Hamas has never denied that the majority of UNRWA employees are affiliated with Hamas and coordinate with the organization,” Eid said.
During the past summer’s fighting in Gaza, Israel accused UNRWA of allowing Hamas to use its schools to fire rockets at southern Israel, a charge UNRWA denied. Over the summer, UNRWA twice found rockets in two empty schools and issued a strong condemnation.
“UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” the group wrote in a statement published on its website. “The Agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
UNRWA officials declined to comment on the allegations. But a UN source provided The Media Line with a list of 16 “errors” in Bassem Eid’s original article to the Jerusalem Post. The rebuttals were brief. For example, in response to Eid’s charge that UNRWA staff in Gaza are affiliated with Hamas, the source said, “UNRWA staff are not affiliated with Hamas.” In response to Eid’s call for an audit of UNRWA, the source wrote that Eid “insinuates no audits take place—they do.”
UNRWA has long been a target of the right-wing in Israel, and they have happily embraced Eid. He told The Media Line that he is not paid by any of these groups and is currently seeking independent sources of funding.
“I have only started this project three weeks ago and I will be meeting with many people trying to get it funded,” he said.