Their own agenda

UNRWA is an obstacle to change

UNRWA provides Palestinians separate privileges that no other refugees are entitled to.

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Ayal Marek.

UNRWA was founded in 1949 as a temporary organisation to settle Arab refugees after Arab countries declared war on Israel in 1948.

Another temporary organisation that was formed soon after was UNKRA, with the mandate to settle refugees from the Korean conflict. The reasons for these two temporary organisations was that at the time, the UN refugee agency UNHCR was predominantly preoccupied with refugees from Europe, so the presumption was that a temporary organisation could help settle refugees from other conflicts.

Indeed, the approximately two million Korean refugees (three times more than the refugees from the Israeli-Arab conflict at the time) were settled within three to four years, with a third of the budget provided to UNRWA, and we can see the result in South Korea today.

The Arab refugees (today called Palestinians) refused resettlement, due to the understanding that if they resettled, the Jewish state would become a reality, which they refused to accept. Therefore, since its early days UNRWA was hijacked to become a Palestinian organisation for their own agenda – to oppose the partition plan for two states – one Jewish and one Arab.

The Arab countries refused attempts to close UNRWA, as their motivation was to leave a question mark over the existence of the Jewish state. Due to various other interests such as the Cold War and access to oil in the Middle East, Western countries appeased the Arab lobby and kept UNRWA, assuming it would not cause any harm. History has proven them wrong.

The organisation maintains the concept of “refugees” in perpetuity, and the illusion of return, and that the Jewish state is temporary and one day the Arab refugees will return to it. It has raised new generations that see themselves, from childhood, committed to “Free Palestine” from the river to the sea – not a peaceful state alongside Israel, but one state at the expense of Israel. This ideology provides fertile ground for terrorist organisations.

UNRWA has a list of registered refugees. It is important to note, they are not called refugees but “registered refugees” because they know that they are not real refugees according to any international standard. It also has a list of the real refugees of 1948 but refuses to disclose it – a truly questionable act for an international organisation expected to be transparent and accountable to the international community.

UNRWA provides Palestinians separate privileges that no other refugees are entitled to. Refugees from all other conflicts supported by UNHCR are resettled.

In fact, if they only wanted to, UNRWA could declare today that they have achieved their goal as all the refugees are settled.

Forty per cent of the 5.8 million registered refugees live in the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria under the governance of Palestinian leadership, many of them doctors, lawyers, teachers and businesspeople. According to the Palestinians themselves they live in Palestine, yet according to UNRWA they are registered as refugees from Palestine. The same Palestine that according to their aspirations, will be freed and replace the Jewish state.

Another 40 per cent are Jordanian citizens who mainly live outside the permanent neighbourhoods that are wrongly called “refugee camps” – they are middle and upper middle class that would not be considered as refugees under any international standards.

A worker prepares aid for distribution to Palestinians at an UNRWA warehouse in Gaza, October 23, 2023. Photo: AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah

The remaining one million or so are listed in Syria and Lebanon. Even though most of them have left these countries, UNRWA has not deregistered them, even when they became German, Swedish or Australian citizens. With the UNHCR, if you have citizenship or protection of a third country, you are no longer considered a refugee. If the Arab refugees of the 1948 conflict had been treated under the same standards as the Polish, German and Ukrainian refugees, they would not have remained refugees after one generation. UNRWA did not want that, as its agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Another absurd exception unique to Palestinian refugees is that the next generation automatically receives refugee status – which is how we ended up with fourth and fifth generation registered Palestinian refugees.

Many Palestinians are capable people who deserve better lives. They deserve a society and leadership that harnesses their energy and skills to build a prosperous society, instead of inciting hatred and calling for the destruction of Israel. Because UNRWA funds health, education and social welfare that the Palestinian government could and should, it frees (in Hamas’s case) public resources to build tunnels, obtain weapons and plan terrorist attacks on Israelis, or in the Palestinian Authority’s case, funds that go to “Pay for Slay”.

Considering the above, and recent evidence of large number of UNRWA employees endorsing and actively participating in the October 7 atrocities, UNRWA has lost any legitimacy and credibility it might have had.

Not only is it not fulfilling its original mandate to settle refugees, but it supports the ongoing refugee status and enables incitement, extremism and violence. If we have any chance for a better relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to start with changing the minds and hearts of people. UNRWA is an obstacle to this change.

Ayal Marek is president of the Australian Reform Zionist Association and a co-vice president of the Union for Progressive Judaism.

The above op-ed is based on extracts from a talk by Dr Einat Wilf at the Knesset committee and an AJN article referring to Hillel Neuer from UN Watch. For a more detailed insight refer to the book: “The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of Palestinian dream has obstructed the path to peace”, by Adi Schartz and Einat Wilf, and relevant research papers at

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