"Peace starts here," is the key marketing slogan that UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East) uses in its videos, pamphlets, posters and other marketing and fundraising material. One UNRWA video clip depicts smiling Palestinian children against backgrounds that feature "peace" graffiti slogans sprayed upon streets, schools, and public settings in Gaza.
The video leaves you with the impression that UNRWA has successfully instilled a message of peace into the young Palestinian generation that has been under UNRWA's care since the agency's inception in 1950.
The reality on the ground is far different.
Operating under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNRWA is the only UN organization responsible for one select group of refugees. While the UNHCR is mandated to "promote durable solutions" for refugees worldwide, which include such alternatives as "resettlement in third countries" UNRWA has followed a fundamentally different policy.
Throughout UNRWA's sixty years, the agency has done nothing to promote creative resolutions to the Palestinian refugee problem. Instead, it has done everything possible to support the Palestinians in their "right of return" aspirations. The agency has fermented a policy that seeks to maintain the Palestinian refugee status. UNRWA is the only UN body that assigns the refugee definition not only to refugees but to their descendants as well. Thus, from the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948, UNRWA has now registered 4.7 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.
While the former Commissioner General of UNRWA, Karen AbuZayed, claims that UNRWA has helped create a "self-reliant refugee population," recent protests in Gaza indicate otherwise. In July 2011, UNRWA dropped the words "relief" and "works" from its website's logo, sparking massive outcry among refugees and Hamas leaders, who accused UNRWA of being part of a conspiracy to end their refugee status and deny them the "right of return" to Israel.
The agency tried unsuccessfully to explain that the changes were being done to redesign and upgrade the website on the 60th anniversary of UNRWA but the massive protests continued, with UNRWA capitulating to the protestors' demands. Indeed, this event goes to show just how much the Palestinian population has been rendered totally dependent both psychologically and socially on a refugee status -- a status that to begin with was supposed to have been temporary and now defines a way of life.
This way of life is further sustained by the UNRWA education system, one of the largest in the Arab world, which does not used textbooks of its own. Instead UNRWA schools use Palestinian Authority textbooks which teach anti-Israel attitudes, and implicitly encourage and praise waging Jihad -- Holy War against Israel -- and promote the refugees' return to 1948 homes. The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), has analyzed these books and found that peace is not mentioned at all. Israel is presented as a usurper, occupier and aggressor, and Jews and Israelis as cunning and deceitful.
Even more disturbing is that certain members of UNRWA's teaching staff embody the precepts taught in these schoolbooks and actually carry out jihadist activities themselves.
Take for example, Awad al-Qiq who was a respected science school teacher and deputy headmaster at the Rafah Prep Boys School run by UNRWA in Gaza. Al-Qiq, who taught at UNRWA schools for eight years, also worked by night as a leader of a rocket engineerign for Islamic Jihad. In response to al-Qiq's death in an Israeli airstrike in May 2008, Islamic Jihad hailed the science teacher as a martyr who would now find 'paradise.' The terrorist organization hung up a poster in the entrance to the UNRWA school he taught, praising al-Qiq's terrorist activities. His students praised his memory, as a "great educator, who departed as a great warrior."
Although UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness stated at the time that there "was zero-tolerance policy toward politics and militant activities in schools," one can only wonder how a chief terrorist was able to work in a school system for eight years without raising any suspicion.
Another noted Hamas leader and extremist, Sayed Seyam, was an UNRWA math and science teacher for 23 years from 1980 until 2003. Seyam was active in the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 and oversaw rocket and mortar attacks against Israel as a senior operative in the Hamas government. Another UNRWA employee, Suheil al-Hindi an UNRWA teachers' representative in 2003, applauded suicide bombings in a school in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. In 2009, UNRWA's teachers' union voted to allow Hamas to control the curriculum both in Gaza and the West Bank.
UNRWA schools have also produced some well known graduates including Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who recently condemned the US for killing Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, another Hamas leader. Rantisi, who attended UNRWA secondary school in Khan Younis, directed countless terrorist attacks against Israelis and repeatedly called for the murder of American troops in Iraq.
According to Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, there is no doubt that UNRWA has many employees who belong to Hamas in Gaza. Eid explains in a film produced by the Center for Near East Policy Research, Palestinian Refugee Policy: From Despair to Hope, that Hamas made clear to UNRWA that if the agency did not accept its members as employees, UNRWA would be kicked out of Gaza. "In order for UNRWA to survive, they accepted [Hamas's] conditions because they wanted to continue their activities, to continue corrupting Palestinians..." said Eid.
With UNRWA's annual budget of one billion per year, the United States, followed by several other western countries are the leading financial supporters of this organization. The USA contributed over half a billion dollars ($560 million) from 2009-2010 to UNRWA, followed by the European Commission. The UK, Norway, Netherlands and Spain were also among the top ten donors of 2010.
Much of UNRWA's budget goes to education. According to the agency's website, UNRWA earmarked 52 percent of it regular budget to education in 2009. Only 19 percent was given to health services and 10 percent to relief and social services that year. Arab donors covered only 1.5 percent of UNRWA's general fund that year ($7 million).
Until UNRWA's mandate is adjusted to conform to that of UNHCR's 'durable solutions,' Palestinian children under the agency's care will continue to be educated in a culture that promotes despair and hate in a system that works against their future.