New report says UNRWA should promote "normalization", end refugee status for Palestinians

With impeccable timing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has published a polemical new paper — vainly described one of the few (if not the only) “dispassionate examination” [in English] — by an American former legal adviser of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Near East refugees.

This study can be read in full or in summary by clicking here.

The paper’s Executive Summary goes even further, and says that this new paper is the only one “written [n.b., again, in English] by a senior staff member with actual knowledge of UNRWA’s daily functioning”.

The author, James G. Lindsay, served with UNRWA from 2000 to 2007, the paper says.

The paper also informs us that Lindsay took “early retirement from the Justice Department [in 2000] to join UNRWA in Gaza”, and he served “as legal advisor and general counsel for the organization from 2002, [overseeing] all UNRWA legal activities, from aid contracts to relations with Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority”

This bit of biography fails to inform us about what he did for UNRWA between 2000 and 2002 — but perhaps it isn’t important.

Before joining UNRWA, the paper explains, “Mr. Lindsay spent twenty years [doing the math, that means from 1980-2000?] as an attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, with assignments in the Internal Security, Appellate, and Asset Forfeiture Sections, as well as in the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Washington, D.C., and Miami”.

It is not clear how he counts this time, but if it is inclusive, then during nearly half the time he was with the U.S. Department of Justice, the author was “seconded to the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, serving as the force counsel for legal and treaty affairs”.


There have been periodical attempts to expose, denounce and condemn UNRWA’s alleged flaws and wrong-doings for as long as I can remember. In the early 1980s, for example, there were accusations that UNRWA schools in Lebanon were used for after-hours activities including training of aspiring future fighters. During the major IDF operation in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin in 2002, journalists filmed Palestinian fighters commandeering an UNRWA ambulance to escape a fire-fight. In 2004 or 2005, a big fight broke out between UNRWA officials and the Israeli government over accusations that a rocket-launching team in Gaza were getting around in an UNRWA ambulance. UNRWA said that the IDF video of this activity actually showed medics moving a folded stretcher. At about the same time, there were accusations that some UNRWA employees were members of, or sympathizers with, Hamas. UNRWA’s former Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said at the time that the agency did not vet its employees for their political views — but that it expected the staff to behave responsibly and wisely both on and off duty.

It is somewhat curious that Lindsay’s term of appointment coincided with a number of these heated disputes and alleged scandals — but he apparently found no problem in continuing to work for UNRWA at the time.

(He does recommend, in this new paper, that UNRWA’s ambulance services should be discontinued…)

Now, Lindsay writes in an epilogue to his paper, UNRWA has making vague accusations about his misusing information to which he had privileged access during his employment on staff.

He says, however, that he submitted a draft to UNRWA in advance — in conformity with “UNRWA International Staff Regulation 1.5, which requires clearance by the commissioner-general for ‘information known to [staff members] by reason of [their] official position [and] which has not been made public”.

And in response, Lindsay reported, UNRWA replied only that “in conformity with the staff rule you cite [International Staff Regulation 1.5] and as a matter of professional integrity, you might wish to be more cautious about including issues known to you only by reason of your position in the Agency at the time.”

Lindsay says he did request a further explanation, with examples, from UNRWA — but that nothing was provided.

He does note, in his epilogue, that “The commissisoner-general [nowadays, Karen Konig Abu Zayd] did indicate that UNRWA had “called upon one of our local academic contacts to begin work on a thorough critique of the paper.”

The response that Lindsay describes from UNRWA reveals a somewhat limited communications strategy.

Lindsay writes in his introduction that “UNRWA refused to provide detailed feedback on a draft of this paper. The agency’s official readers were, inter alia, ‘struck by [the draft’s] inaccuracies, its selective use of source material, its failure to understand or even acknowledge many of our current activities, its flawed analysis of our mandate and its misunderstanding of UNRWA’s political and historical context’. Despite repeated requests from the author, the agency declined to identify the alleged weaknesses on the grounds that ‘our views—and understanding—of UNRWA’s role, the refugees and even U.S. policy are too far apart for us to take time (time that we do not have) to enter into an exchange with little likelihood of influencing a narrative which so substantially differs from our own’. Thus, the paper has not benefited from any input by UNRWA, whether a discussion of policy or even correction of alleged errors”.

Another peculiarity is that, while one of Lindsay’s recommendations is to consider — on the basis of a future cost-benefit basis — doing away with UNRWA’s liaison offices in New York, Geneva, Brussels and Cairo. even though he says they probably don’t cost very much. Equally peculiar is the fact that the only public response to Lindsay’s paper, so far, has been from Andrew Whitley, Director of the New York liaison office at UNHQ/NY.

At a February 3rd luncheon in Washington to announce the publication of Lindsay’s study, Whitley was the listed second speaker. According to a rapporteur’s summary of his remarks, Whitley said, among other things, that UNRWA found Lindsay’s paper “to be tendentious and partial, and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used. The study ignores the context in which UNRWA operates and the tight line the agency walks due to various pressures. Someone reading this paper with no background would assume that the Israeli government was a benign actor. No mention is made of the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”.

Whitley added, according to the summary (which can be seen here), that “UNRWA defines who is a Palestine refugee for the practical purpose of identifying who is entitled to its services, not to define who is entitled to return to their former homes … UNRWA does not have a resettlement mandate. It does, at the same time, recognize the impracticality of the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes. The agency has followed accepted principles of international law and not attempted to force the refugees to give up choices for the sake of a particular agenda”…

Lindsay noted in his epilogue that “The only specific criticism mentioned in the [UNRWA] response was that the draft failed to address a relatively recent UNRWA initiative: a kind of management regeneration program entitled ‘Operational Development’ (OD). I have long been skeptical as to whether the millions of dollars invested in this program have produced benefits commensurate with the cost; although some OD expenditures have clearly been useful, I doubted whether the program’s exhortatory meetings and retreats were really necessary. Nevertheless, I offered to include some mention of the program if UNRWA would provide examples of ‘OD achievements in terms of better policies or procedures (i.e., services delivered more efficiently) that could not have been achieved by simply examining existing programs and making the requisite changes—i.e., normal management initiatives undertaken without the OD expenditures and meetings’. No such examples were ever provided”. This, however, is a somewhat esoteric argument — and Lindsay’s expertise is more in the legal field, while his objections, however intense, appear to be framed as a cost-benefit analysis.

Another sore spot Lindsay reported in his epilogue was a response — from the present Commissioner-General, with whom he had worked for years when she was the Deputy Commissioner-General under Peter Hansen — that “the draft reflected ‘little appreciation of [Palestinian refugees’] needs’, harbored ‘scorn for international humanitarian principles and the structures established to uphold them’, and was ‘disdainful of [the refugees’] condition and, indeed, their humanity’.” Lindsay said that he was “baffled” by this, and here, too, requested requested specific examples — but said that, again, none were provided.

He does write, however, that “UNRWA has gradually adopted a distinctive political viewpoint that favors the Palestinian and Arab narrative of events in the Middle East. In particular, it seems to favor the strain of Palestinian political thought espoused by those who are intent on a ‘return’ to the land that is now Israel. UNRWA’s adoption of any political viewpoint is undesirable, but the one it has chosen to emphasize is especially regrettable. In addition to clashing with the objectives of the United States, this view has detracted from UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance, encouraged Palestinians who favor refighting long-lost wars, discouraged those who favor moving toward peace, and contributed to the scourge of conflicts that have been visited upon Palestinian refugees for decades”.

Lindsay makes a surprising suggestion: “To a considerable extent, UNRWA’s donors—particularly the United States, its main source of funding for many years—share responsibility for the agency’s gradual adoption of such views. The United States could have put a stop to UNRWA’s politicization, but chose not to”.

I wonder why he thinks the U.S. would have been complicit in such a thing?

At the end of January, the U.S. Congress adopted a resolution urging that “the United Nations should take immediate steps to improve the transparency and accountability of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Near East to ensure that it is not providing funding, employment, or other support to terrorists” … The resolution said that “since 1950, the United States has contributed more than $3,400,000,000 to UNRWA and is the largest single donor to this United Nations organization”. The resolution also said that “Said Sayyam, the Hamas Minister of Interior and Civil Affairs, who was a teacher in UNRWA schools in Gaza from 1980 to 2003” … Sayyam was recently killed by an Israeli bomb attack on a building he was visiting, just before the end of the three-week Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Lindsay’s principle recommendation is to change the status of any Palestinian refugee who has obtained citizenship elsewhere, during the sixty years that this problem has remained unsolved: “The most important change, the one most required and least subject to rational disagreement, is the removal of citizens from recognized states—persons who have the oxymoronic status of ‘citizen refugees’—from UNRWA’s jurisdiction. This would apply to the vast majority of Palestinian ‘refugees’ in Jordan, as well as to some in Lebanon. If a Palestinian state were created in Gaza and/or the West Bank, such a change would affect Palestinian refugees in those areas”.

In this, Lindsay goes well beyond the current Israeli position, which was first enunciated by the government then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Camp David talks in July 2000, and subsequently embraced by the United States, that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is their resettlement in the territory of a future Palestinian State [but not in Israel]. Lindsay’s recommendation appears to rule out any option of movement of Palestinian refugees who are now in Jordan, or in Lebanon, to Palestinian territory.

Lindsay writes approvingly of UNRWA’s program to help provide loans to buy or build housing for the more that 24,000+ Palestinian staff members working for the Agency in its five “fields of operation”: the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria.

While it is hardly disputable that most if not all Palestinian refugees would want normal lives, as Lindsay suggests, they would probably not agree that the most effective way to do this would be to end their refugee status. But, he dismisses this by saying it would only be a momentary discomfiture.

His argument, again, is primarily a financial one — and he suggests that the decision should be made by the donors on this basis alone: “for those who are still defined as refugees, UNRWA’s move toward greater emphasis on need-based assistance, as opposed to status-as-refugee-based assistance, should be accelerated. No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services. In addition, UNRWA should make the following operational changes: halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA schools. With the above changes, UNRWA would be better aligned with what should be its ultimate objectives. For the Palestinians it serves, this means ending their refugee status and returning, after nearly sixty years, to what most of them so desperately seek: normal lives”.

It would not be arrogant for donors to pull the plug, Lindsay writes: “Palestinian refugees are provided with assistance not because they have an inherent right to the resources of Western taxpayers, but because sixty years ago the West (principally the United States and Britain) chose to provide it…”

No — this is not entirely true. It is rather misleading. Western taxpayers have been involved because their governments agreed, in the United Nations, at the end of the Second World War, to partition the Palestine Mandate that they had previously assigned (in the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War) to Britain — and which Britain then handed over to the newly-created United Nations to decide.

And in November 1947, the UN General Assembly decided to partition Palestine into two states — one Jewish and one Arab. So far, only one of those states has come into existence — the Jewish State of Israel. The United Nations — both the secretariat and its entire membership — has not yet fulfilled their responsibility.

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