Outside View: Where is UNRWA when it comes to the Syrian Refugees?

By ASAF ROMIROWSKY and ANAT BERKO, UPI Outside View Commentator

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- What does it mean when Bashar Assad's regime bombs the Yarmouk -- Syria's largest Palestinian refugee neighborhood? Driving dozens of formerly pro-government Palestinian fighters to defect and join the rebels. All of this begs a closer look at the Palestinians in Syria.

In September, following the death of an staff member of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Syria, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness stated: "An UNRWA staff member in Syria, aged 28 years, was killed while on his way to catch a bus to work. The death occurred in the area of Or'uba just outside the southern border of Yarmouk residential area. Yarmouk is home to approximately 1 million Syrians and more than 150,000 Palestine refugees."


The majority of Syria's 500,000 U.N.-registered Palestinian refugees are descendants of the original refugees of 1948. While not citizens, Palestinians in Syria have had more than their brethren in other Arab countries. They have been able to hold government jobs, attend state universities for free and serve in the military. As such, the Assad's regime has long painted itself as champion of the Palestinian cause.


By UNRWA calculations, virtually every Palestinian born since that time is also a refugee. That number now reaches into the millions. This is unprecedented in the history of refugee crises. In no other situation has a group been extended specific status that has been continually expanded to include subsequent generations over a period of decades.

There is no question that this was a tragic incident yet, it raises a fundamental question about the level of attention given to UNRWA's work within the borders of the state of Israel versus other Arab countries specifically, Syria under Assad which has been killing its own citizens for months now.

Case in point, during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and now again in Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was bombarded on a daily basis with accusations that it intentionally targets UNRWA schools with the goal of killing children.

Of course, this was a complete fallacy but UNRWA went out of its way to highlight this in order to depict Israel as coldblooded and inhumane despite the fact that those schools were indeed used as rocket launching pads hoping the Israeli military would retaliate.

The reality was the Israel indeed took hits in order to not put women and children in harm's way as it has always conducted itself.


In contrast, Palestinians have use their youths as human shields.

Enter Syria, where is the outrage? An UNRWA field worker is killed and there is barely a mention in the media whereas in Israel it engenders a slew of U.N. condemnations centered on its "crimes against humanity" and intentionally sabotaging UNRWA's operations and good work.

Moreover, we are now seeing Syrian-Palestinians who fled protesting outside UNRWA's offices in Lebanon asking for help.

The double standard is no accident given that Palestinian identity is linked to the Nakba narrative that mandates the creation of a Palestinian state only within Israel that is to say everything outside those borders where UNRWA operates should be a constant reminder that there is no option for resolution outside of "Palestine."

Syria is unique as it serves as a paragon of Palestinian support. Consequently, Palestinian activists argue that it was their integration into Syrian society facilitated by Assad's regime that made them join the uprisings.

As Yarmouk-Palestinian activist Abu Omar states, "We have never felt that there was a big difference between the Palestinians and the Syrians ['but we want our home in Palestine']."

UNRWA is an open-ended, educational, social welfare system for millions of Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But given what we see in Syria in what sense are any of these individual refugees?


UNRWA's success has been in transforming itself into the guardian of the refugees' isolation, preserving the uniqueness of the Palestinian refugees' identity as an entity that cannot be assimilated into any Arab country but ONLY into what is perceived as Palestine instead of the Jewish state. This dependency prevented the refugees from directly getting involved in politics, leaving UNRWA as their only voice in the "Arab Wilderness."

The idea that on the one hand Palestinians are part of the Arab world but on the other different and isolated from it enabled UNRWA to become the vehicle that represents their "otherness" and eventually led to the agency's politicization.

The tragic scale of the human-rights crisis in Syria -- more than 60,000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and murderous abuses on all sides -- has put the Palestinian situation in proper perspective especially when it comes to UNRWA. Had UNRWA truly been concerned about the welfare of refugees in the region it would look to Syria where there are real refugees who could benefit from their support.

UNRWA was founded for Palestinians and is run by Palestinians who monopolize and exploit a factious reality to a problem that could have been solved decades ago, as such it is time to reassess what UNRWA actually does and what it was intended to do.



(Asaf Romirowsky is a Middle East analyst, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anat Berko is a Jewish refugee from Iraq, a visiting professor at George Washington University, a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel and the author of "The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.")


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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