The politics of knowledge production pervades research on Palestine and Palestinians. Over-research, under-research, and the power asymmetries that determine who gets to conduct research have all shaped the scholarly landscape in highly consequential ways. Yet in our work on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), we have also encountered another challenge—namely the tension that exists between academic critiques of UNRWA seeking to promote its positive transformation, and the risk that such research may inadvertently fuel the very real efforts to destroy the agency as a proxy for denigrating the Palestinian cause.
When we began our research at the beginning of the 2010s, UNRWA was perhaps best described as “hiding in plain sight.” Its situation was contingent and, in many ways, precarious. It relied on short-term voluntary funding that was subject to a high degree of conditionality. Its mandate was temporary and required renewal by the UN General Assembly every three years or so. But it did not, to borrow a term favored by the Israeli government, face an existential threat. This changed dramatically after the election of Donald Trump. Last year, the Trump administration defunded the agency, in a drastic volte-face after decades in which the US government had acted as its largest single donor. The total withdrawal of US funding left UNRWA critically underfunded and struggling to provide even the most basic services to the five million Palestinian refugees registered with the agency across the Middle East. While other governments have stepped in to help fill the funding gap, the agency remains critically under-funded. To compound matters, UNRWA has recently come under heightened scrutiny after an internal report was leaked to Al Jazeera, alleging corruption, nepotism, sexual misconduct, and bullying by the agency’s senior management. Anti-Palestinian critics of UNRWA, in both the Israeli government and the Trump administration, are drawing on this scandal to amplify their calls for the agency to be dismantled entirely.
All this comes at a time when Palestinian refugees in the Levant are facing some of the worst difficulties of their seven decades in exile. In Gaza, 620,000 refugees are surviving in abject poverty, while the unemployment rate is around fifty percent, one of the highest in the world.
Meanwhile, 120,000 Palestinians have become second- or third-time refugees after fleeing the war in Syria to seek shelter in neighboring countries or further afield in Europe. To make matters worse, Lebanon—long considered the worst host state for Palestinian refugees’ rights—has recently heightened discrimination against Palestinians in its labor market. In such a setting, research and critical analysis on UNRWA’s work is vitally needed. Yet academics seeking to carry this out find their efforts stymied by the political connotations that swirl around any critique of the agency. It can feel near-impossible to conduct a measured and nuanced analysis of UNRWA without inadvertently giving succor to those parties wishing to dismantle the agency in order to eliminate the rights of Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA’s senior management have long insisted that the agency’s work is apolitical and concerned purely with aid. Yet answers to the questions of what UNRWA does, how it operates and, crucially, why it operates in this way, reveal that the agency is unavoidably embedded in the politics of Palestinian dispossession. When it was established at the end of 1949, UNRWA was one component of a two-part UN regime put in place for the Palestinian refugees. The first part, the United Nations Conciliation Council for Palestine (UNCCP), was tasked with finding a political settlement to the refugee crisis, in line with existing international legal frameworks. Meanwhile, UNRWA was mandated to continue relief efforts on the ground and initiate job creation schemes in the Arab host states; this is the “Works” that goes alongside “Relief” in its title. While such activities were presented as purely humanitarian, behind the scenes UNRWA’s financial backers—Western states dominated by the United States and United Kingdom—were seeking to use job creation as a means of circumventing the political stalemate that impeded UNCCP’s work. Specifically, they saw job creation as a means for implementing the Palestinian refugees’ permanent resettlement in the Arab host states, in spite of the fact that the refugees themselves wanted to return to their homes—a right formally recognized by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 194. In other words, from the very beginning, UNRWA’s work was entangled with politics.
When the job creation schemes failed, in large part owing to resistance from the refugees and the Arab host states (except Jordan), UNRWA quietly dropped them while continuing to work on more standard aid services that gradually evolved from emergency relief to basic service provision. Education became its most prominent program, in keeping with the demands of the refugee communities; this was an early example of how the refugees continually campaigned for a voice in UNRWA’s operations. The expansion of the UNRWA education program also reflected the assumption among the agency’s donor states that access to education would boost (or at least not undermine) Western security interests in the region. Throughout the 1950s, as a negotiated settlement to the refugee crisis became less likely, UNRWA’s political significance grew. It was not merged with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after the latter was created in the early 1950s. Instead, it persisted as somewhat of an anomaly, mandated to serve a particular group of people. Critics claimed, and continue to claim, that this uniqueness reflects a long-term UN bias towards the Palestinians. In fact, the opposite is true. After UNCCP ceased to function in the 1950s, the Palestinians were left with no UN body working to find a solution to their plight. Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA is not mandated to pursue durable solutions. This leaves the Palestinians at a unique disadvantage among the world’s refugees.
Yet, as the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA also took on a particular significance. It came to symbolize the obligations of the international community—embodied in the United Nations—to the Palestinian refugees. This was especially important in a context where the need to find a just political resolution to their dispossession was being increasingly overlooked, or abandoned to the realpolitik of the Cold War period. UNRWA’s continued existence at least provided an ongoing international recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ unresolved plight.
Nor was UNRWA’s significance only symbolic. As the vast majority of Palestinian refugees have remained stateless and a large number are unable to access public services in their host states, UNRWA has issued what for many is their only formal identification, needed when seeking permission to travel, work or access vital services.
Recognizing this, in recent decades anti-Palestinian parties have increasingly targeted UNRWA as a proxy for the refugees themselves. The twenty-first century has seen continual US Congressional attacks on UNRWA, often based on the (erroneous) claim that it inflates the number of Palestinian refugees. Then in 2011, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a sustained PR campaign against UNRWA, depicting it as unjust and an obstacle to peace. Such ideas have gained traction as Israeli politics have increasingly shifted to the far right; in 2017, Netanyahu called for UNRWA to be shut down on these grounds. The Trump presidency has further empowered these extremist voices. Nikki Haley, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations from 2017-18, similarly accused UNRWA of inflating refugee figures and promoting an anti-Israeli bias. In leaked emails in January 2018, Jared Kushner planned a “sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA” on the grounds that it is “corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
Such attacks on UNRWA are undeniably political. In particular, criticisms about the number of registered refugees and endorsement of their right of return stem from opposition to the notion of refugee rights themselves, not the manner of UNRWA’s operations. The related discourse is polemic rather than academic, notwithstanding attempts to present it as the latter; political commentator Asaf Romirowsky and former Member of the Knesset Einat Wilf both position themselves as academics when criticizing UNRWA. Yet this discourse is often saturated in fallacies, with erroneous claims that UNRWA is the only UN agency to register descendants and endorse repatriation. In reality, however, in many countries of asylum, children who are born to refugee parents registered with UNHCR are routinely registered as refugees and thus access the services and protection offered by UNHCR and its operational partners. In short, there is nothing anomalous about the intergenerational status of Palestinians registered with UNRWA.
In view of all this, academics seeking to research the agency and write on its work from a more nuanced perspective must navigate a minefield. Work presenting any critiques of UNRWA, or acknowledging its political significance, risks fueling these politically-motivated attacks on the agency and by extension on Palestinian refugee rights. Particular risks can accompany longer academic analyses, where sentences can be taken out of context, flattened and reduced to remove any nuance. In response to our own writing, we have for example received comments and emails decrying UNRWA’s supposed anti-Israel biases and calling for its abolition. Such responses to work on UNRWA are not uncommon. Along with the very real risks that research on Palestine and Palestinians can create for academics—especially in the US context—this may deter researchers from writing analyses of the agency at all, for fear that doing so can have unintended and highly damaging consequences.
Yet academic work on UNRWA is vitally needed. It has been a constant presence in the Palestinian refugee experience since it began operations in 1950; its services and provisions have been undeniably important in shaping refugees’ lives and opportunities. Numerous leading Palestinian figures have graduated from UNRWA schools. Today, the agency is a lifeline to millions. Accordingly, scholarship on Palestinian dispossession is incomplete without incorporating analysis of UNRWA’s history—not least because the refugees themselves have often played a leading role in shaping it, in part through their significance in comprising the majority of its staff, although Palestinians are largely absent at the level of its senior management.
Moreover, the anti-Palestinian narrative is not the only critique of UNRWA, nor should it be. Criticisms of the agency from Palestinian refugees themselves have been one of the most persistent features of UNRWA’s history. These criticisms include the limitations of UNRWA’s mandate, the inadequacy of its services, and the pay discrepancies that exist between international and Palestinian staff (the latter form the numerical majority but senior management is largely dominated by Westerners). Although the agency’s mandate has evolved over time, the changes have not fully addressed the need for a pro-active approach to international protection—specifically the pursuit of durable solutions—that is by contrast embedded in UNHCR’s mandate. The resulting disadvantages for Palestinian refugees must be reckoned with if a just and durable resolution to the refugee crisis is to be achieved.
Related criticisms from Palestinians concern UNRWA’s restricted definition of who constitutes a “Palestine refugee” (the agency distinguishes “Palestine” from “Palestinian” refugees to clarify that it serves refugees from Palestine, as opposed to those who are necessarily Palestinian). Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA uses a needs-based definition that excludes significant numbers of Palestinians who were dispossessed in 1948, as well as the numerous instances of forced displacement that have followed since. Similarly, the geographical limitations of its mandate exclude Palestinian refugees who are registered with UNRWA but now live outside of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. In theory, they should be able to register with UNHCR once outside UNRWA’s fields of operation; in practice, their efforts to do so are often hindered by bureaucratic and political obstacles. Historically the resulting problems have been particularly visible in Egypt, where many Palestinian refugees remain stateless and unprotected. More recently, the issue has been highlighted by the plight of Palestinian refugees who have fled the Syrian war and sought shelter in places where UNRWA does not operate, such as Turkey, Iraq, or parts of Europe. As the majority of international relief programs for Syrian refugees in these countries have been organized via UNHCR, they are frequently inaccessible to the Palestinian refugees who have suffered just as much from the same war.
Since 1967, some Palestinian refugees have also criticized the role that UNRWA has played vis-a-vis the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. One line of critique suggests that by continuing to deliver services in these areas after 1967, UNRWA has relieved Israel of its legal obligations, as occupying power, to provide essential services for the occupied population. Of course, defenders of UNRWA point out that any withdrawal of its services in the West Bank and Gaza would constitute a dereliction of the agency’s mandate, and risk leaving the refugees even worse off.
Historically, UNRWA faced a similar dilemma when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had previously provided a measure of protection for Palestinians in Lebanon, was forced out of the country in 1982. In the aftermath, UNRWA officials had to balance the positive consequences of assuming certain protection functions against the restrictions of its mandate, as well as the need not to undermine the legal obligations of key duty bearers including Israel and the Lebanese government. Examining how and why UNRWA responded to these dilemmas in the ways it did, and the role that the refugees played in lobbying for particular responses, is essential to understanding a key element of Palestinian refugee history that helped shape the contours of the contemporary situation.
All these criticisms and concerns are important and need to be part of the academic discourse around UNRWA, not least in order to ensure that the Palestinian refugees’ own critiques of the agency are not ignored. Doing so will help to re-center discussions about the agency around the rights of the refugees themselves. Yet these critiques are too often buried amidst the more powerful voices of parties denigrating the agency’s supposed pro-Israeli bias. Furthermore, the current climate surrounding the agency, and specifically the sensitivities around criticizing it, are likely to deter scholars from conducting badly-needed research into these issues, at a time when the topic is especially pressing.
To make matters worse, these political challenges are not the only problem facing academics who seek to research UNRWA. They are also confronted with the complication of access to data. UNRWA is the longest-running international refugee agency, and one of the oldest UN bodies, meaning that it has a considerable back catalog of documents. Yet accessing its archives can prove a challenge. Whereas many other UN bodies have organized and cataloged their records, UNRWA documents are stored in a somewhat precarious way at the agency’s Central Registry in Amman. The process for accessing these records is opaque and time-consuming, while the criteria for being granted access is unclear. Even researchers who are successful in gaining permission find their access is limited because UNRWA determines which files are relevant for a particular research topic, with researchers given no clear opportunity to query the selection. Given the potential importance of UNRWA’s records for future refugee claims, and more generally for illuminating the violations of Palestinian refugees’ rights that have occurred over the last seventy years, it is vital that these records are preserved and protected. The absence of a Palestinian national archive only makes this more important.
Beyond historical research, UNRWA’s strict neutrality policy may also deter staff from co-operating with researchers. Although the policy—which was at least in part developed to meet the demands of the United States Government does not explicitly prevent staff from talking with researchers, it does promote strict control over what staff can say about the agency in the media. For instance, the policy entails, “Monitoring of staff activity by management during work hours and, at all times, inappropriate conduct from media or other sources would be brought to the attention of management.” Given that the consequences of violating neutrality policy can include dismissal, staff members are understandably reluctant to speak with people external to the agency for fear that any criticism of the agency may be attributed to them in a public forum—with potentially career-destroying repercussions.
Finally, notwithstanding some highly supportive individuals who work for the agency, UNRWA lacks a centralized approach or clear process in working with academics. Like most UN agencies, its involvement in research tends to be through the paradigm of “policy relevance” whereby research is commissioned and supported by the agency if it asks and answers questions that policy-makers—including UNRWA’s donors—deem relevant. This reflects a broader trend among aid agencies and political institutions to only engage with academic research that produces “evidence” and demonstrates “impact”. Yet reducing the study of UNRWA’s function to reductive questions of “what works” overlooks the complex factors that led to these policies and programs being adopted in the first place. In other words, it tends to decontextualize and depoliticize the agency, thereby overlooking an unavoidable facet of its work.
The Way Forward
In a political climate dominated by right-wing extremist perspectives who consider even the mention of the word “Palestine” a provocation, well-informed analysis on UNRWA can be hard to come by. The comparative lack of critically-engaged research on the agency is also not helped by the myriad political and practical challenges that confront academics looking to conduct research on the organization. On the one hand, researchers face the very real threat that their studies may be used in unintended and destructive ways by UNRWA’s anti-Palestinian detractors. On the other hand, the agency is not always supportive of independent research.
Yet overall, these constraints are precisely why more, rather than less, research on the agency is so badly needed. Accurate and nuanced scholarship on UNRWA is essential if the academy is to confront the polemics that dominate much of the current discussion around the agency. Moreover, expanding the conversation about UNRWA through reasoned and critical analysis is an important and necessary step towards positively reforming the institution and re-centering its work around Palestinians’ rights. UNRWA’s significance means that its function must be incorporated into scholarship on Palestinian refugee history if the latter is to be comprehensive. Similarly, its structures must be properly interrogated as part of any work towards the realization of Palestinian refugee rights.