Israeli Propaganda Blames UNRWA For “Refugee Problem”

by James M. Wall

The headline on a Miami Herald column began, “Time to Start Planning….”.

A Florida newspaper with that headline? Surely, this story will be about finding a place to retire.

Not so fast. “Time to Start Planning . . .” had something else in mind. It was time to plan for RESETTLEMENT.

That sounded rather ominous. Had Sarah Palin’s Death Panels become Resettlement Camps for Florida Old Folks living with the alligators deep in an Everglades swamp?

Turns out this column by Kenneth Bandler, Communications Director for the American Jewish Committee, is not about Florida retirement homes. It is part of AJC’s mandate to support Israel with its own version of reality.

Bandler’s column gives UNRWA–the United Nations Relief and Works Agency–instructions on what it must do next: Start planning for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees. He writes:

With Israeli-Palestinian talks aiming for a permanent peace agreement in a year, shouldn’t UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — start planning to evolve from a refugee support agency to one devoted to resettlement? After all, the final status talks will need to resolve refugees along with borders, security, water and other issues to end the conflict.

Bandler is not alone in attacking UNRWA in the pages of a major American newspaper. Two writers for the Philadelphia Daily News have been reading from the same script as Bandler.

Rex Brynen comments on the Daily News column on his personal blog, PRRN:

In an opinion piece today in the Philadelphia Daily News, Nicole Brackman and Asaf Romirowsky assert that illegal Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories (or, as they prefer to term it, “construction in Israeli towns in the West Bank”) isn’t the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East. No, the real obstacle is the refugee issue, which in turn is kept artificially alive by UNRWA.

The Daily News column begins:

UNRWA is the primary bureaucratic culprit responsible for prolonging and exacerbating the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Canadian government has announced that Canada would defund UNRWA following a report commissioned by the European Parliament documenting that Hamas terrorists have been chosen by the UNRWA labor union to actually administer its facilities, thereby becoming the first Western nation to begin withdrawing support for the agency.

The US would do well to follow that example and use our tax dollars to promote independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth.

If the current Palestinian leadership is truly concerned about changing the status of Palestinian society, it should work to remove all the obstacles that are preventing change and democratization. UNRWA – while on its face a progressive nongovernmental organization that provides needed services – is in fact itself obstructing progress in the peace negotiations.

UNRWA benefits as long as the refugee crisis can’t be solved.

The picture at the top of this page appeared on the web site, on February 4, 2010, The Palestinian schoolchildren in the picture are shown outside their Beit Lahia UNRWA school in in the northern Gaza Strip before the UNRWA center and several schools were destroyed by Israeli bombing during Israel’s three-week invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009.

Geisweiller writes about the Canadian government and UNRWA, from a different perspective than the pro-Israeli version of the same story in the Daily News. Here is Geisweiller:

When the Conservative Canadian government announced it would no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in January, the caretaker agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendents, many deplored how far we’ve strayed from the Canada of Lester B. Pearson, prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner—Canada the peacekeeping nation, the globally respected middle power.

Organizations critical of Israel, or supportive of Palestinian rights, such as the Canadian Arab Federation, the Christian group Kairos, the Parliament’s Rights and Democracy, and UNRWA, have all felt the sting of an unabashedly pro-Israel Canadian government.

Kenneth Bandler’s Miami Herald column on UNRWA includes some harsh criticism of the agency’s “exclusivity” and, of course, the usual distortion of Israel’s “innocence” in the creation of the refugee “problem”. Here is Bandler:

UNRWA is the only international refugee agency dedicated to exclusively benefit one population group, the Palestinians. All other refugees worldwide are covered by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which not only provides sustenance but, importantly, also strives to resettle them, to ensure that their refugee status is not a permanent condition.

Originally envisaged as a temporary agency, UNRWA’s mandate, which does not call for resettlement, has been regularly renewed. UNRWA’s original roll of 700,000 refugees grew to include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, some 4.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The agency’s staff, some 27,000, is four times the size of the UNHCR workforce, deployed in every other conflict where refugees need help.

Sadly, this human tragedy was preventable. Arab leaders squandered the first opportunity to establish an independent Palestinian state by rejecting the 1947 U.N. plan to divide British Mandatory territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean to create two states, one Jewish, the other Arab.

The 1948 war Arab nations launched to snuff out the fledgling Jewish state produced the refugees.

I don’t have first hand experience with the two UN agencies, but I do know that in his version of “preventable” history Bandler is well outside the version of that history which is available in the writings of many Jewish scholars.

It was a war started by those fearsome Arab nations that “produced the refugees”? This propaganda line is not new. It first arrived on US movie screens in 1945.

A March of Time episode, released in the US after the end of World War II, adopted the Zionist propaganda term in its title, the “Palestine Problem”. The documentary was first shown in American movie theaters in September, 1945. Talk about your long-range planning.

Since I had  recently met Karen Abuzayd, I turned to her for a response to Bandler’s smug and false conclusion that UNRWA, not Israel, is the obstacle to Middle East peace.

As Commissioner-General of UNRWA, based in Gaza from 2005 through 2010, she knows the refugee situation from the inside. She also knows her UN agencies.

She served as the UN Undersecretary-General, as well as Commissioner-General, of UNRWA until her retirement, and return to the United States, in 2010.

Before moving to Gaza, Abuzayd  worked with UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) for 19 years, in Sudan, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Geneva, Bosnia and Washington.

This is part of the response she gave me to the Bandler column. I include it here, with her permission:

His column is so full of inaccuracies and nonsensical propaganda, that I’m not sure where to start. These are very old and very tired (and repeatedly refuted) arguments. The AJC knows very well what they are doing in injecting refuted arguments into the discourse yet again.The comparisons between UNHCR and UNRWA are particularly egregious and wrong on several counts.

Settlement is a very small part (few thousand a year) of UNHCR;s mandate. Settlement is the least favored option only for the most vulnerable. All descendants of  all refugees remain refugees until a political solution is found to their plight.The UNRWA staff that Bandler describes as ‘four times’ (actually more than that) of UNHCR’s, are the Palestinian teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, sanitation workers, etc. who offer education and health services.

UNRWA, in fact, has only 130 or so international staff, compared to UNHCR’s 1,500 or so (i’m not up to date on the latter number), but I assume it has grown since I worked for UNHCR, since their budget has trebled.

As you point out in your note to me, the peace process has not concluded, so the parameters of voluntary choice for Palestine refugees have not been determined, though it should be their right to make the choice given to other refugees, that of return, integration in their countries of asylum or resettlement in a third country.

Too bad the Miami Herald did not ask Karen Abuzayd to provide a different reading on the role of the UN agencies who have done such valuable work with Palestinians.

An uninformed public is an easily duped public.

If the American media were not such an integral part of the Israeli propaganda machine, it would have reported on Karen Abuzayd’s speech, “Jerusalem City of Dispossession”, delivered in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, on international Human Rights Day, 2009.

Had this UNRWA leader, an American woman born in Ohio, given her final speech in any other major world city on any topic other than the Palestinians, it would have been an important American news story. The full text of her speech may be found by clicking here. Early in her speech, she said:

It is fitting that on my last official visit to Jerusalem as UNRWA Commissioner General, and on International Human Rights Day, I should come to the Sheikh Jarrah, where the failure of the international community to fulfill the promise of the Universal Declaration is so acutely felt and where the pain and ugliness of dispossession and occupation are so tragically in evidence.

I have said before that “Palestine” is a metaphor for dispossession and that dispossession, along with displacement, is a key feature of the Palestinian experience, indeed of Palestinian identity.

This derives not only from the initial dispossession and displacement of the Palestine refugees in 1948, but more from the fact that 61 years later they and their descendents remain in forced exile, struggling to maintain their very presence on the remnants of their homeland.

Last week, President Jimmy Carter came to Sheikh Jarrah, along with former Irish President Mary Robinson, to participate in a peaceful demonstration against Palestinian dispossession.

Carter and Robinson were part of an Elders delegation, chaired by Robinson, which traveled in the West Bank and Gaza. Joining them on the October 16-22 trip in the region were India’s Ela Bhatt and former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

The picture at top is by Mohammed Abed. It is from AFP-Getty Images. The picture of Karen Abuzayd was taken as she delivered her final lecture in Jerusalem.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Israeli Propaganda Blames UNRWA For “Refugee Problem”

  1. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim: The problem is that Kenneth Bandler, Communications Director for the American Jewish Committee, is obviously not able to be objective in regard to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees and the work of UNRWA. But the bigger problem is that our American news media seems too lazy to objectively report the facts when it comes to Israel and Palestinian issues. And that is so unfortunate.

  2. Robert H. Stiver says:

    I surely agree; and can one imagine how Congressional Israel-firsters of the ilk of Howard Berman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will latch onto this apparent new front on the “bash UNRWA” field, carrying Zionist-media pressure into the workings of our government? Sigh…the Palestinians can’t catch a break. Still, principled commentary such as Wallwritings is crucial….

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