Oct 06, 1997 | By Mitchell G. Bard

WHEN THE UNITED NATIONS VOTED in November 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, violence quickly broke out and escalated to all- out war. One byproduct of that war was the creation of an international welfare program for Palestinian refugees, disproportionately funded by the United States -- a program that has persisted, inexplicably, for half a century. In fact, an entire division of the U.N. -- the Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA -- was created to provide short-term assistance to the Palestinian refugees until they could be resettled and repatriated. That short-term assistance mutated into one of the world's most entrenched bureaucracies.

It began as an act of temporary, pragmatic humanitarianism. Between 1947 and 1949, 400,000-700,000 Palestinians became refugees. On December 11, 1948, the United Nations adopted Resolution 194 which said that " refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so" and instructed the Palestine Conciliation Commission "to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation."

The U.N. recognized that Israel could not be expected to repatriate a hostile population that might endanger its security. The solution to the problem, like all previous refugee problems, would require at least some Palestinians to be resettled in Arab lands. The resolution met most of Israel's concerns regarding the refugees, whom they regarded as a potential fifth column if allowed to return unconditionally. The Israelis expected the Arab states to resettle the majority of refugees and to negotiate a compromise on the remainder in the context of an overall settlement. The Arab countries were no more willing to compromise in 1949, however, than they had been in 1947. They unanimously rejected the U.N. resolution.

The General Assembly subsequently voted, on December 8, 1949, to establish UNRWA with a budget of $ 50 million. The United States contributed $ 25 million and Israel nearly $ 3 million. The total Arab pledges amounted to approximately $ 600, 000. By 1996-97, UNRWA's expenditures were budgeted at $ 692 million; the agency had a workforce of more than 21,000 people. For the last four years, the agency's budget has had a deficit (at mid 1996, the figure was $ 45.2 million).

But in 1951, its director wrote in his annual report that he expected the Arab governments to assume responsibility for relief by July 1952 -- in effect, ending the need for UNRWA altogether. That didn't happen. By the mid-1950s, it was evident neither the refugees nor the Arab states would contribute to any plan that could be interpreted as fostering resettlement. The Palestinians considered "relief in general, and rations in particular, not as something to which they must show their entitlement, but rather as a right -- as a partial payment by the world at large for their involuntary expulsion from Palestine and continued exile from their homeland," the agency's director wrote in 1955.

This attitude was exacerbated by the fact that most of the refugees were better off materially under UNRWA's administration than they had been in their original homes. Consequently, many destitute inhabitants of the countries housing the refugees sought and received ration cards from UNRWA. As early as 1950, the agency discovered that births were always registered for ration purposes, but deaths were frequently concealed so the family could continue to obtain the rations of the deceased. This trend was institutionalized over time, making it impossible to determine the true number of refugees.

By the end of the 1950s, the number of refugees had nearly doubled. Their treatment was described by the UNRWA director in 1958: "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don't give a damn whether the refugees live or die."

This was evident when the U.N. tried to resettle 150,000 refugees from Gaza to Libya in 1950, but was rebuffed by Egypt. Syria was offered international funds to resettle 85, 000 refugees in 1952-54, but declined. Iraq was expected to accept a large number of refugees, but proved unwilling. Lebanon insisted it had no room for the Palestinians. Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians (to this day, Jordan is the only Arab country where Palestinians can become citizens).

Rather than venting their displeasure toward the Arab governments for restricting them to camps, the refugees reserved their resentment for Israel and the West, which they held responsible for the injustice done to them. Not surprisingly, the camps became breeding grounds for extremists. Today, the number of refugees on UNRWA's rolls -- more than 3. 3 million --is roughly four times what it was when the agency was created to solve the problem. And less than one-third of the Palestinians live in the 59 UNRWA-run camps.

For the first 20 years, the United States provided more than two-thirds of UNRWA's funds, while the Arab states contributed a tiny fraction. The United States is still the organization's largest contributor, donating more than $ 80 million, approximately 25 percent of the organization's receipts from governments in 1994-95.

Nor will a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, if there is a final settlement, solve the refugee problem UNRWA was created to deal with. The Declaration of Principles signed by the parties specifies that only Palestinians displaced in 1967 --approximately 300,000 -- are eligible to be considered for repatriation. There is no mention of the Palestinians who left Israel and the West Bank in the 1940s. Thus, unless the United States puts an end to this tax-payer-sponsored welfare system for Palestinians, it will continue indefinitely.

What will happen, then, to the 3 million or so Palestinians still considered refugees by the U.N.? What should have happened 50 years ago -- they will have to be resettled by Arab countries themselves.

Mitchell G. Bard is a foreign policy analyst and the author of Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps.

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