Why Does the U.S. Provide Welfare to the Palestinians?

While the First Lady's remarks about a Palestinian state and her dalliance with a bid for a Senate seat have gotten banner headlines, she said something else that caught my eye, but escaped the notice of most others. During her visit to Gaza, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States was increasing its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) by 4.5 percent to $73 million. Several questions come to mind: Why does this international welfare agency for Palestinians still exist nearly 50 years after its creation? Why does the United States contribute anything to it when we are already providing hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians? And why isn't the Palestinian Authority using the billions pledged by the international community to care for its people?

UNRWA was created on December 8, 1949, to substitute public works for direct relief and to promote economic development. While the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries received no international assistance, Palestinians received millions of dollars through UNRWA.

By the mid-1950s, it was evident neither the refugees nor the Arab states were prepared to cooperate on the development projects foreseen by the agency as a means of alleviating the Palestinians' situation. The Arab governments and the refugees themselves were unwilling to contribute to any plan that could be interpreted as fostering resettlement. They preferred to cling to the hope that Israel would be either destroyed or forced to repatriate all the Palestinians. At the 1957 Refugee Conference in Syria, a resolution was adopted stating that "any discussion aimed at a solution of the Palestine problem which will not be based on ensuring the refugees' right to annihilate Israel will be regarded as a desecration of the Arab people and an act of treason" (Beirut al Massa, July 15, 1957).

The treatment of the refugees in the decade following their displacement was best summed up by a former director of UNRWA, Ralph Garroway, in August 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."

Little has changed in succeeding years. Arab governments have frequently offered jobs, housing, land and other benefits to Arabs and non-Arabs, excluding Palestinians. For example, Saudi Arabia chose not to use unemployed Palestinian refugees to alleviate its labor shortage in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Instead, thousands of South Koreans and other Asians were recruited to fill jobs. Kuwait employed Palestinians, but denied them citizenship, and, in the wake of the Gulf War, expelled more than 300,000 of them.

By the late 1990s, the number of Palestinian refugees on UNRWA rolls had risen to 3.5 million, five or six times the number that left Palestine in 1948. Though the popular image is of refugees in squalid camps, less than one-third of the Palestinians are in the 59 UNRWA-run camps.

Ironically, during the years that Israel controlled the Gaza Strip, a consistent effort was made to get the Palestinians into permanent housing. The Palestinians opposed the idea because the frustrated and bitter inhabitants of the camps provided the various terrorist factions with their manpower. Moreover, the Arab states routinely pushed for the adoption of UN resolutions demanding that Israel desist from the removal of Palestinian refugees from camps in Gaza and the West Bank. They preferred to keep the Palestinians as symbols of Israeli "oppression."

So now that the Palestinians control their own fate and have the opportunity to build housing and shut down the camps, what are they doing? Not much it turns out.

Netty Gross of the Jerusalem Report visited Gaza and asked an official why the camps there hadn't been dismantled. She was told the Palestinian Authority had made a "political decision" not to do anything for the more than 400,000 Palestinians living in the camps until the final-status talks with Israel took place.

Given the history, it is certainly no surprise that the Palestinian refugees are being used as political pawns. The only new wrinkle is that the other Arab states were the ones to use them in the past and now it is their own leaders.

Money has never been an impediment to solving the refugee problem. In addition to UNRWA, which has evolved into the worst example of a welfare program gone awry, the international community pledged $2.1 billion in assistance to the Palestine Authority in 1993 and another $3 billion in 1998. The United States has already distributed $375 million in direct aid and $125 million worth of loan guarantees and promised another $400 million in assistance — on top of the annual U.S. contribution to UNRWA.

You might ask where all this money is going if not to the hundreds of thousands of truly needy Palestinians in the camps. Well, Gross provided a partial answer when she drove away from the squalid camps and passed the palatial homes of two of the Palestine Authority's ministers.

No one questions the need to provide economic assistance to the Palestinians, but for 50 years UNRWA has stood as an example of all that is wrong with the effort to help the Palestinians. U.S. funding for this agency should stop immediately and it should be dismantled. The Palestine Authority should be required to account for the funds it has received from the international community and be told that it is now responsible for the refugees under its control. As for the Palestinians in other Arab countries, they should finally be allowed to become citizens of those states and become the responsibility of their governments.