Refugees Unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians

By Hagopian, Elaine C. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Refugees Unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians


Hagopian, Elaine C., The Middle East Journal


Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians, by Benjamin N. Schiff. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995. xvi + 285 pages. Appends. to p. 298. Notes to p. 318. Bibl. to p. 325. Index to p. 337. $49.95.

Reviewed by Elaine C. Hagopian

Benjamin Schiff's book is a political history of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and its relation with the Palestinian refugees, as well as with the Middle Eastern host countries. Established by United Nations Resolution 302 (IV) in 1949, UNRWA was perceived immediately by Palestinians and other Arabs as an instrument of Western imperialism aimed at dissolving Palestinian national rights. Contrarily, other critics of the agency, especially post-1967 Israel, accused it of being pro-Palestinian. As Schiff points out, both perceptions had some validity. The variables that tilted the agency in one direction or the other had much to do with the identities of the major donors at any one time, and with what, in fact, was happening on the ground, be it in Jordan in 1970, in Lebanon during its civil war (1975-89) and the 1982 Israeli invasion, or in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967.

Schiff notes with acuity that it was as impossible to get the host countries to recognize the Convention on United Nations Privileges and Immunities (1946) that pertained to UNRWA's official responsibilities in the area, as it was for UNRWA's officials to behave in a politically neutral way at all times. After all, the Middle East was a volatile and conflict-ridden area, divided not only by regional power interests, but also by the interests of major external powers. Hence, during UNRWA's early years, the United States and Great Britain were the primary donors (72 percent and 19 percent, respectively, from 195262), and their goal was to work through UNRWA to facilitate major development projects that would employ Palestinian refugees and lead to their resettlement in neighboring Arab states. Consequently, de facto, repatriation was no longer an option. Such development schemes were tried and failed, leading eventually to an American/ British reduction of donations.

By the late 1950s, UNRWA settled into a routine of providing relief, health, and educational services. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967, UNRWA officials did a balancing act between working in coordination with Israel in the Occupied Territories to bring services to the Palestinians, and avoiding being perceived as collaborators with Israel to effect its policies there.

The 1980s, especially after the Palestinian Intifada (Uprising) began in December 1987, witnessed an expanded definition of UNRWA's mandate. UNRWA was "to undertake effective measures to guarantee the safety and security and the legal and human rights of the Palestine refugees in all the territories under Israeli occupation in 1967 and thereafter" (p. …

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