Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Jerusalem's Surprisingly Good Relations with UNRWA

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Jerusalem's Surprisingly Good Relations with UNRWA

Article excerpt

The relationship between the State of Israel and the U.N. Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) - an agency catering to an Arab population that could at best be described as unfriendly - is little known and little understood. Yet for UNRWA to operate effectively in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the bulk of its constituency resides, it must interact and collaborate with the Jewish state, which has exerted overwhelming influence on these territories since the Six-Day War of June 1 967. The result has been an uneasy marriage of convenience between two unlikely bedfellows that has helped perpetuate the problem both have allegedly sought to resolve.


Having taken over responsibility from UNRWA in July 1952 for the 17,000 Arab refugees who remained in its territory after the 1948 war (out of a 150,000-strong Arab population),1 Jerusalem had no intention of doing the same in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, which brought under its control a sizable Arab population that had some, if not all, of its needs met by UNRWA. Instead, the government decided to institutionalize its relationship with the U.N. agency, and on June 14, 1967, Israel's U.N. ambassador, Michael Comay, and UNRWA's commissionergeneral, Lawrence Michelmore, signed a formal agreement establishing recognition by the State of Israel of UNRWA's activity in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government committed itself to "nonintervention" in the U.N. agency's affairs in the humanitarian sphere but reserved the right to intervene in cases of national security. Specifically, the Israeli government agreed:

(a) To ensure the protection and security of the personnel, installations, and property of UNRWA;

(b) To permit the free movement of UNRWA vehicles into, within, and out of Israel and the areas in question;

(c) To permit the international staff of the agency to move in, out, and within Israel and the areas in question; they will be provided with identity documents and any other passes which might be required;

(d) To permit the local staff of the agency to move within the areas in question under arrangements made or to be made with the military authorities;

(e) To provide radio, telecommunications, and landing facilities;

(f) Pending a further supplementary agreement, to maintain the previously existing financial arrangements with the governmental authorities then responsible for the areas in question.2

From 1967 until the first intifada in December 1987, there were no extraordinary tensions or major disputes between UNRWA and the Israeli military administration. However, relations took a turn for the worse in IsraeliUNRWA relations in the late 1980s and early 1990s as violence erupted in the UNRWAadministered refugee camps during the first intifada. The Israeli authorities concluded that some of UNRWA's employees were members or supporters of terrorist organizations and that its facilities were being used to support and carry out terrorist activity.3 UNRWA's operations had become exceedingly politicized with the agency promoting anti-Israeli propaganda - including the use of deeply troubling textbooks demonizing Israel - and advocating an uncompromising stand on Palestinian demands. UNRWA vehicles including ambulances were used to transport terrorists and weapons for terrorist organizations.4 The Israeli authorities demanded the arrest of suspects in these activities, but UNRWA insisted that its employees enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Jerusalem also demanded the right to stop and search UNRWA vehicles, but the agency objected and filed complaints with the Security Council.5 To protect the country, Israeli leaders deployed defensive mechanisms such as imposing curfews and increasing the number of checkpoints and travel restrictions applying to Palestinian employees of UNRWA. The agency responded by complaining that these security arrangements interrupted daily life and education in the territories. …

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