In the 1990s, I conducted a field study in the Deheisheh refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. Two types of houses stood side by side in the camp. There were small structures that had been built by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in the 1950s, to which a room or two had been added over the years; and there were spacious new homes of two or three stories. The small homes belonged to families of workers who were employed in Israel, the men in construction, the women in cleaning. The large homes were inhabited by families whose sons and daughters had been teachers – in Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian teachers in the desert kingdom? Just so. At the end of the 1960s, for example, nearly 60 percent of the female teachers in the Saudi educational system were Palestinian. They’d become teachers thanks to the efforts of UNRWA, which spearheaded an educational revolution among Palestinian refugees – a revolution that was ahead of its time in the Arab world. Now, with U.S. President Donald Trump threatening to eradicate UNRWA by withdrawing funding for it, it’s worthwhile to spotlight the impressive history of the agency, which changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. UNRWA’s future will be a test case for the international community’s commitment to the Palestinian cause. Critical observation of key developments in the agency past might also provide some insight in advance of the impending decision.
UNRWA was established in December 1949 against the background of the United Nation’s failure to implement General Assembly Resolution 194, which called for the return of the 1948 refugees to their homes at the earliest practicable date. The resolution, commonly referred to as the “right of return,” was based on recommendations by the UN’s mediator for Palestine, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, who was sent to the region at the height of the 1948 war, to try to stop the deterioration and promote a peace agreement.
The refugees were not mentioned explicitly in his writ of appointment. However, when he became aware of the number of refugees and their plight, he concluded that a solution to that problem was a condition for an agreement. The refugee issue became the core of his mission. Bernadotte imputed responsibility for the refugees’ fate to the United Nations because, in his view, the war would not have erupted had it not been for the General Assembly’s partition plan of November 1947 (Resolution 181, which called for Palestine’s division into two states). Accordingly, he believed that the United Nations was obliged to act toward the repatriation of the refugees and to provide humanitarian aid as long as they were kept away.
The recommendations by Bernadotte – who was murdered by assassins from the Lehi underground militia (aka Stern Gang) on September 17, 1948, the day after submitting a progress report on his mission – were adopted by the United Nations almost verbatim and became the foundation for the international community’s official position concerning the Palestinian refugees. However, from an early stage a disparity, which would subsequently grow, between the declared position and the ability and readiness to implement it, was apparent. Israel’s refusal to allow the return of a “significant number” of refugees, as called for by the United Nations Conciliation Commission – created under Resolution 194 – compelled the world body to adopt the humanitarian-aid option. Thus, UNRWA was created to alleviate “conditions of starvation and distress among [the Palestine refugees]” and was defined as a temporary aid agency whose activities did not conflict with Resolution 194.
At this time the total number of refugees, according to the UN Economic Survey Mission, was estimated to be about 726,000, with some 200,000 residing in the Gaza Strip, about 350,000 in the West Bank and approximately 180,000 in Lebanon and Syria (many first arrived in Lebanon and then migrated to Syria). Like many of the United Nation’s aid organizations, UNRWA’s operations were to be funded by voluntary contributions raised annually and not through a permanent annual budget – a mechanism that would hamper its capacities throughout the years. Intriguingly, it was the United States that ardently supported the agency’s establishment and became its chief funder: Policy makers in Washington sought then to assign the agency a role in blocking the advance of communism in the Near East. (The assumption was that a refugee who was not suffering pangs of hunger would be less likely to fall prey to the so-called red peril.)
In its first years, UNRWA concentrated on providing emergency humanitarian aid, diverting almost all its resources to that end. The agency established dozens of refugee camps in the main countries of Palestinian dispersion – in Jordan (on both banks of the Jordan River), the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule), and in Lebanon and Syria – where 40 percent of all the refugees, the vast majority of them peasants, resided during the first decade. UNRWA supplied tents and later basic living quarters for families, built and ran clinics and schools in every camp and community, and distributed monthly food rations (flour and basic commodities) to all registered refugees, including those living in towns, along with food supplements and milk for pregnant women and nursing mothers, infants and young children.
The aid was sufficient to ensure the refugees’ survival, but not enough to get them back on their feet. Only a small minority, mainly those with means and professions, were able to find employment in the Arab countries, which were then underdeveloped industrially and institutionally. The overwhelming majority remained unemployed and dependent on chance job opportunities.
However, whereas annual donations to UNRWA by the international community remained too low to generate substantial change in the refugees’ situation, no action was taken during the 1950s to promote implementation of Resolution 194. The United Nation’s double standard was certainly not lost on the refugees: Distrust of and even hostility toward the world body were common in those days. More surprising was the growing criticism within UNRWA’s own senior ranks of the injustice being done to the refugees.
One official who dared transform words into deeds was Dr. John Davis, an American diplomat who headed UNRWA from 1959 to 1963, and decided to shift the agency’s focus from relief to education. The only way to help the refugees, he believed, was to ensure that their sons and daughters received the education and training required to succeed in the modern job market.
Achieving this goal entailed a total revolution. UNRWA extended its basic education system from six years of schooling to nine, a move that required creation of separate middle schools for boys and girls in all the refugee communities (coeducational schools were usually created only in very small refugee communities). At the same time, four teacher-training colleges were established (two in Ramallah, and others in Amman and Tyre), together with five vocational and technical training centers (in Damascus, Gaza, Ramallah, Amman and Tyre). Since the donor states did not increase their funding, the agency was forced to underwrite the expenses of the new project through reallocation of resources: Expenditures for education (and health) were constantly increased at the expense of welfare outlays. At the height of this process, the distribution of food rations was abolished (with the exception of severe welfare cases) and funding for educational purposes rose to between 50 and 60 percent of the annual budget.
The results were soon apparent. By the end of the 1960s, UNRWA’s middle-school division produced about 80,000 graduates with nine years of schooling. And if, in 1960, only 9 percent of the middle-school students were girls, that figure had risen to 42 percent by the end of the decade – and the gap was eventually closed altogether. Middle-school graduates went on to government high schools and most of those who matriculated attended universities in the Arab world or enrolled in UNRWA’s teacher-training institutes. Within a decade of the transformation spurred by Davis, UNRWA succeeded in fomenting a far-reaching change in the education attributes of peasant refugee children; nearly all constituted the first generation of educated individuals in their families.
At the same time, the agency’s educational system effectively became autarkic (self-sufficient), with the teachers colleges providing faculty for the schools. The system’s expansion and the growing self-reliance contributed to the Palestinization of the agency – manifested not only by the constant rise in the number of refugees who were employed by UNRWA, but also by the gradual integration of professionals into a range of managerial positions in it. With the exception of the most senior positions, which continued to be held by international officials, UNRWA became an agency that both served the refugees and was operated and maintained by them.
Ahead of its time
UNRWA’s educational revolution was ahead of its time. In the 1960s, the universalization of primary education in government schools was still a long way off in the Arab countries, including those hosting the Palestinian refugees. The Arab world’s education system also suffered from two fundamental weaknesses. One was the disparity between urban and rural areas, which left most villagers – a prominent majority in Arab populations of that time – on the margins of education. The other was the gender gap: Very few girls attended school. Thanks to UNRWA, the children of the Palestinian refugees acquired a distinct educational advantage over their rural peers in the Arab countries. This was directly reflected in the particularly high representation of Palestinian refugees in institutions of higher education across the Arab world in the mid-1960s. In a study published in 1972, Dr. Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian scholar who would subsequently assume senior positions in Fatah and the PLO, estimated that the total number of Palestinian students in 1966 was 30,000.
In 1969, the ratio of Palestinian (tertiary-level) students to other populations more closely resembled the typical European profile than the Arab profile. According to the statistical yearbook of UNESCO, the United Nation’s educational and scientific organization, of every 1,000 Palestinians, 11.4 were students – more than in Britain (10.8), Greece (9.76) or Germany (8.3), and far more than in Egypt (7.1) or Syria (6.8). Another contributing factor to this trend was the fact that the radical Arab regimes, notably Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, allowed Palestinian students to attend state universities for free, as did their Egyptian counterparts.
The main promise of the educational advantage lay in its returns. Job opportunities in the Arab countries surged in the wake of a growing demand for a professional workforce – first in Jordan, where the thrust toward modernization was fueled by the large Palestinian population the country had acquired following the 1948 war, and afterward, more intensely, in the Persian Gulf oil states, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which lacked the human resources to develop their burgeoning petroleum industry.
The accelerated growth of the oil economies in the 1960s and ‘70s was based entirely on migrant labor, the vast majority of it from other Arab countries – whether in oil production and in creation and operation of infrastructure, or in bureaucratic offices, the public sector and the business community. The educational advantage of the Palestinian refugees placed them in the forefront of the professional migrant workforce in the Gulf: The majority was employed as teachers, but others were employed as accountants, engineers, administrators and so forth, and their relative proportion (and in some cases their absolute numbers) in certain fields exceeded that of every other nationality.
As labor migrants, the Palestinian refugees did not enjoy civil and social rights, and their stay in the Gulf States was limited to the expiry date of their work permits. They typically lived very frugally, sending almost all their earnings to their families back home. That, in turn, allowed the families to improve their living standard and support for their children’s higher education. The educational advantage created by UNRWA thus became an engine for social-economic upward mobility.
The effects of this process were still visible in 1992, the year I began doing field work for my doctoral thesis in the Deheisheh refugee camp. By that time, the labor migration of teachers, both men and women, from Deheisheh to the Gulf – a trend that had peaked in the 1970s and early ‘80s – was a distant memory, due to the steep decline in the demand for workers. Still, the difference between the living conditions of families whose children had worked in Saudi Arabia and those which subsisted from manual labor in Israel remained readily apparent. More than two decades of day jobs in Israel had not been enough to close the gap with the migrant teachers.
Indeed, in this period, which preceded establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its public sector, employment opportunities for Palestinians with college and vocational education were severely curbed by the Israeli military government. However, UNRWA continued to provide the refugees among with them a safety net, even if it was far from meeting their needs. In 1994, the agency was still the biggest employer of salaried professionals and semi-professionals (as opposed to day laborers), and fierce competition raged for jobs in the agency’s schools, clinics and community centers.
No less central is UNRWA’s contribution to changes in women’s social status. Until the second half of the 1960s, Deheisheh residents weren’t enthusiastic about sending their daughters to high school, and most of the girls in the camp acquired only primary education. The shift occurred thanks to the first girls who completed high school, went on to obtain a certificate at the UNRWA teacher-training college in Ramallah, and then found jobs and started earning money. (Almost always, they were backed by a communist brother, father or uncle, who provided necessary male support against the detractors.)
The pioneer teachers quickly became chief providers for their families, enabling them to extricate themselves from the survival-based way of life in which they had been trapped since the Nakba. By the 1970s, high-school studies for women had become a quite standard phenomenon – with graduates being channeled almost exclusively into practical fields, primarily teaching and subsequently nursing as well. With the spread of labor migration to the Persian Gulf, unmarried young women also began to work as teachers in Saudi Arabia, though always accompanied by a relative, usually an elderly father. They were employed via annual contracts in girls’ schools throughout the kingdom, generally in remote districts, endured harsh living conditions while they transferred their salaries to their families in the refugee camps after deducting basic living expenses.
The education, salary and role as chief providers did not put an end to the patriarchal rule the women endured, but definitely eased it. In most cases, these women married men of similar educational and employment backgrounds, raised far smaller families than the previous generation had, and followed a way of life very different from that of their mothers.
UNRWA’s decisive role in the educational-employment-social transformation of the second and third generation of refugees is unquestionable. With the necessary reservations – which are indeed multiple and significant – we can compare the transformative role the agency played for the rural refugees to that of a modern state. Nevertheless, UNRWA’s success in constituting a counterweight to the distress, deprivation and discrimination inherent in refugee status, did not solve the refugee problem or even bring it closer to a solution. The reason, simply, is that the Palestinian refugee problem is not a stand-alone issue. It’s part of a political-national problem and a protracted conflict, whose solution has never been within UNRWA’s capacities and authority.
Furthermore, the enduring nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly the more recent evolution of the power relations between its central players, had negative consequences for both the refugees and for UNRWA. The escalation in the military means that Israel employed to achieve political goals exposed the refugee communities – first in Lebanon, afterward in the occupied territories – to new attacks and disasters, which necessitated extensive humanitarian intervention. UNRWA was forced to regress, time after time, to its emergency-aid role. This dynamic peaked in the 18 years that have passed since the Oslo process hit a dead end and the second intifada erupted. In response to the uprising, Israel took measures aimed at bringing about the collapse of the PA and undermining the feasibility of an independent Palestinian state. These included extensive destruction of infrastructures, farmland and residential areas, atomizing the West Bank into noncontiguous enclaves, placing restrictions on movement, and imposing a siege on the Gaza Strip and cutting it off from the West Bank.
Within months, at the end of 2000, these measures brought about a steep decline in living standards and in all socioeconomic indices in the territories. The most serious blow was suffered by the Strip, where unemployment and poverty soared to unprecedented levels. In short order a humanitarian crisis ensued, which led to international intervention. UNRWA, with its longtime experience and expertise, became the leading player in maintaining the apparatus for channeling emergency aid to the occupied territories, which was instituted in 2001 and is still ongoing.
The agency’s budget was now split into two differentiated categories – regular and emergency – and its annual fund-raising efforts were divided accordingly. The emergency aid essentially remained very similar to the relief provided in the first decade of refugeehood and earlier periods of crisis: It allows those affected to survive but not to escape destitution. Only employment can reverse that situation, and as long as Israel persists in its policies, the prospect of those forced into unemployment returning to their previous jobs remains extremely low, and the likelihood of finding alternative employment is equally poor.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that maintenance of UNRWA’s emergency apparatus has by and large replaced international intervention for the sake of ending Israel’s occupation and realization of Palestinian independence – goals which, on the surface at least, enjoy a worldwide consensus. Worse still, adherence to this option for so many years has granted Israel ample time to strengthen its grip over the lands of the West Bank and further ruin the prospects for Palestinian territorial continuity and economic viability.
It is precisely this ongoing abandonment on the part of the international community that enables President Trump to step forward and try to change the rules of the game: namely, given the de-facto withdrawal from a commitment to solving the Palestinian problem, why not shrug it off altogether? It remains to be seen whether European leaders will stand up to the challenge posed by Trump’s brutal attack on UNRWA. Should they be up to it, a truly effective emergency plan will be needed, one that would – at last – rid the Palestinians of the yoke of Israeli occupation, and enable them to embark upon a new phase of their history. With proper funding, UNRWA could definitely play a pivotal role in facilitating this venture.
Dr. Maya Rosenfeld is an a sociologist and anthropologist. Her research focuses on Palestinian society and politics in the occupied Palestinian territories.