The 65-year-old United Nations agency charged with providing humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants has long been a target for criticism from Jewish and pro-Israel groups. Now its most vociferous critics include a prominent Palestinian.
Bassem Eid has accused the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) with failing the Palestinian communities it is tasked to serve while tolerating use of its facilities by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Officials and refugee policy experts dispute both claims.
Eid’s very public campaign is taking place just as UNWRA begins to collect international pledges for reconstruction of destroyed homes in Gaza.
“By allowing Hamas to hide the rockets, when UNWRA knew very well that these will be shot toward Israeli cities and civilians targeting Sderot and Ashqelon, that’s the war crime,” Eid said in an interview with the Jewish Journal.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Eid’s parents fled the coastal plain town of Lydda, today known mainly by its Hebrew name, Lod. Eid lived for 33 years in the Mascar and Shuafat refugee camps at the northern edge of Jerusalem.
“UNWRA has no right to represent the Palestine refugee diaspora. It is now time for the Palestinian refugees to decide for their own future and their own children’s future,” Eid said.
Eid began his career as reporter for the pro-Jordanian East Jerusalem newspaper Al Nahar and the Hebrew weekly Kol Ha’Ir. He spent the early ’90s as a researcher for the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem and left the group to found his own institute, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), in 1996.
The PHRMG issued several reports fiercely criticizing the Palestinian Preventative Security Services, and Eid shut down the organization last year.
“I closed the organization one year ago due to a lack of funding, and because the policy of the organization doesn’t fit with the policy of European, Scandinavian and even the United States governments,” Eid said.
Eid acknowledges he now lives on speaker’s fees and honorariums including events with groups campaigning to abolish UNRWA, such as David Bedein’s right-leaning Center for Near East Policy Research.
Bedien made frequent appearances on network television during Operation Protective Edge, butting up against UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunnes in several exchanges over the storage of rockets at the agency’s schools and disputes about Islamist penetration of the curriculum in refugee camps.
Last month, Eid joined Bedein at a forum titled “Perpetuating Statelessness? UNRWA, Its Activities and Funding,” hosted by the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society in London.
“Just because I’m invited to London to share a platform with David Bedein, who is calling for the full transfer of the Palestinians, it doesn’t mean I support his ideas. Of course I don’t,” Eid said.
“What I am trying to do is get out my own message that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and UNRWA have kept the conflict going, and my people are still suffering.
“I want UNRWA to declare to the international community and to the donors that Hamas is controlling Gaza, and that UNRWA can’t manage its programs and should have to close it down until the international community and the donors take measures against what Hamas is doing,” Eid said.
UNRWA’s defenders are quick to disagree.
“The fact that David Bedein has been so discredited by Jewish and Israeli journalists and has been caught lying so many times, he’s now had to hire a Palestinian to do his bidding,” said Sami Mshasha, UNRWA’s chief of communications and Arabic-language spokesperson in Jerusalem.
“If the curriculum taught in UNRWA schools is so objectionable, why does Israel allow the same syllabus to be taught in UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem, an area that is completely under the control of the Israeli authorities?” Mshasha added.
Bedein has been forced to retract claims against UNRWA as far back as 2011, when he said the agency was seeking to impose a “Fourth Reich upon the Jews” and that its “raison d’etre” involved “a genocide against the Jews.”
During the Gaza War, UNRWA proactively alerted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the rocket stockpiles and demanded their removal by Hamas.
“These charges of collusion are particularly unfair since it is well known that UNRWA’s international staff in Gaza were subjected to serious intimidation by Hamas,” a senior U.N. official told the Jewish Journal on background.
Riccardo Bocco, a professor of anthropology and the sociology of development at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, who has conducted several surveys of the Palestinians served by UNRWA, contends the organization has a nearly impossible task of providing assistance while the donor countries, Israel and the Arab states have failed to facilitate either the return of refugees or payment of compensation as called for in the original charter establishing the organization in 1949.
“UNRWA is a nonpolitical organization whose actions have political implications, so what happens is that UNRWA directors may continuously recall different teachers, inspect what they do and try and refrain them from using UNRWA facilities or using certain textbooks as propaganda tools, but at the same time Hamas, as the PLO did before them, see themselves as national resistance organizations, so they will do as much as they can to push for their agenda,” Bocco said.
This week, German and U.K. governments moved to transfer $27.2 million in emergency funds for temporary shelter and housing reconstruction for Gaza.
“This is about people providing the tools for people to improve their lives until a political solution to their plight can found,” Mshasha said.
“With winter and the rainy season underway, the population in Gaza is increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of reconstruction.”