The September 1st afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ included an item nearly thirteen minutes long on the topic of the previous day’s US State Department announcement concerning its intention to cease contributions to UNRWA.
Presenter Lyse Doucet introduced the item (from 30:06 here): [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Doucet: “The UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees – known by its acronym UNRWA – has lurched for many years from one financial crisis to the next. But now the agency supporting some 5 million Palestinians faces its greatest test. Palestinian officials as well as the UN are criticising a decision by its biggest donor the US to withdraw all funding. Israel welcomes the move saying UNRWA keeps Palestinian hopes alive of returning to their homes which now lie in Israel proper.”
Obviously uninformed listeners would not understand from that portrayal by Doucet that at most only a tiny proportion of those 5 million people could actually claim to have had “homes” over seventy years ago in what is now Israel.
Doucet first brought in the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell who noted that pupils in UNRWA schools had begun the school year, citing “526,000 pupils across the Middle East”, “711 schools” and “270,000 students” in the Gaza Strip.
Listeners then heard a reference to an aspect of the story rarely discussed by the BBC: that of UNRWA as an employer of Palestinians.
Doucet: “So and it’s not just schools; it’s also health facilities. I mean in effect entire families they depend on this for their sole source of income?”
Knell: “That’s right; of course UNRWA is also a major employer. 22,000 teachers in those schools that I’ve just mentioned. If you go to Palestinian refugee camps you will find that there are also clinics run by UNRWA that is providing many of the services such as rubbish collection.”
Knell went on to mention a story from July not previously covered by the BBC.
Knell: “…already we’ve seen protests, particularly in Gaza in recent weeks – a sit-in at the UNRWA headquarters there – as the first rafts of cuts have hit and about a thousand people were told that they were going to have their contracts ended.”
Doucet then introduced her second contributor.
Doucet: “But we do know that there are urgent meetings going on in the region including the Arab capitals…where millions of Palestinian refugees rely on UN support. And we reached UNRWA’s spokesperson Chris Gunness just as he was boarding a plane in the Jordanian capital Amman.”
BBC World Service audiences then heard Chris Gunness repeat talking points he used back in January when the US administration announced a cut to its UNRWA contribution. They also heard Gunness claim that his clients – rather than Yazidi, Syrian or Yemeni refugees living in temporary shelters – are “some of the most marginalized and fragile and vulnerable communities in the Middle East” with no challenge from Lyse Doucet.
[33:25] Gunness: “The impact will be absolutely devastating. It’s likely to be widespread, profound, dramatic and unpredictable because – let’s make no mistake – some of the most marginalized and fragile and vulnerable communities in the Middle East are going to likely suffer because of this. 562,000 schoolchildren receiving an UNRWA education every day. 1.7 million food insecure people. 3.5 [sic] patients coming to our clinics every day. We do assistance to disabled refugees, to women, to vulnerable children. The list goes on and as I say, the impact on them is likely to be utterly devastating.”
Doucet then asked Gunness “but what is your reply to the critics?” before playing part of an interview with Dr Jonathan Schanzer of the FDD heard in another BBC radio programme.
Schanzer: “This was a decision that was long time coming. For several years now we’ve been hearing about calls for reform within UNRWA. UNRWA has been slow to respond to the allegations that, for example, it has allowed Hamas to exploit some of its operations, that it has inflated the number of refugees making it virtually impossible for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace and that their budget has been over-inflated. Amidst these calls, UNRWA has dragged its feet and now the Trump administration, which is looking for really any excuse to cut budget, has found a new target.”
[34:52] Gunness: “Well it’s very interesting that just a few months ago the US administration was praising the high performance of UNRWA. They expressed praise for our reforms; we’ve been doing root and branch efficiency reforms – that was just a few months ago.”
If that sounds familiar it is because BBC audiences heard Gunness say the exact same thing in January:
“As far as reform is concerned, UNRWA has always been open to reform and the United States, most recently to our commissioner-general on a visit to Washington in November, was fulsome in its praise of UNRWA and its reforms.”
As noted here at the time:
“Despite the rosy picture painted by Gunness, past US donations to UNRWA have not come without conditions and criticism.”
Gunness went on:
Gunness: “On the specific allegations, whenever there’ve been accusations for example about militants leaving weapons in our schools or weapons components in our schools in Gaza, we were the first to come out and condemn and call for an investigation, which we did. When Hamas built tunnels under our schools we discovered them. We condemned it. So that allegation I reject absolutely.”
Having seen no BBC coverage of that latter story and others, listeners would of course be unaware of additional UNRWA related issues.
Gunness then repeated another previously made claim:
Gunness: “On the question of refugee numbers, the General Assembly have endorsed our methodology that we…err…confer refugee status through the generations exactly as the UN’s other refugee agency UNHCR does and the General Assembly has, as I say, approved this. If any single member state wants to try and bring that case, that accusation, to the General Assembly they’re very welcome to do that but our mandate remains. It cannot be changed unilaterally by a member state and, you know, as I say we’ve got the mandate. What happens now is we have less money to implement it but the mandate remains the same despite this decision by the Trump administration and we will do everything we can to implement it.”
Speaking to the BBC World Service in January, Gunness claimed that:
Gunness: “The reason why UNRWA’s budget runs out when it does is because the number of refugees we serve goes up and up and up because without a political resolution of their plight, their children remain refugees and that is the case with UNHCR refugees and other refugee populations around the world.”
As was pointed out here at the time:
“Unlike its sister agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is responsible for millions of non-Palestinian refugees worldwide, it [UNRWA] does not have an active program for “local integration” of refugees where they now reside nor “resettlement” in third countries.”
“UNHCR confers derivative refugee status on the basis of family unity where there is a relationship of dependency. “As a matter of general practice, UNHCR does not promote the reunification of … grandchildren… unless they can be determined to be eligible under the principle of dependency.” This can mean financial dependency, “but also taking emotional dependency into consideration.” […]
It is true that, UNHCR’s basic standard is the nuclear family and that subsequent generations are given derivative refugee status only on an exceptional basis while UNRWA automatically grants grandchildren and great-grandchildren refugee status. But UNRWA defenders such as Gunness can argue that the two agencies are guided by the same basic principles.”
Once again a BBC WS presenter failed to challenge Gunness’ intentionally misleading presentation of that issue or to raise the relevant issue of ‘refugees’ that hold Jordanian or Palestinian citizenship. Doucet also refrained from questioning Gunness about the discrepancy between the number of registered refugees and actual refugees in Lebanon which came to light last year and an UNRWA official’s related claim that UNRWA’s figures do not necessarily reflect “deaths or relocation”.
Doucet next asked Gunness about alternative sources of funding and then went on to put a political slant on the story while ignoring the fact that when the US made its previous announcement concerning UNRWA donations in January, it specifically urged other nations to “step in and do their part“.
[36:58] Doucet: “It’s clear that Israel and also the new US administration wants to take the issue of refugees off the negotiating table. They want to look at the so-called peace process in a different way. Do you believe that you’re a victim of that?”
Gunness took that cue to deflect criticism of UNRWA and proceeded to provide an example of why many consider UNRWA to be a political lobbying body.
Gunness: “Certainly it feels as if, given the praise for our reforms, that there are other forces at work. But let’s be very clear: you cannot airbrush out of the equation 5.4 million people. These are individuals with rights, including the right to self-determination, to a just and durable solution and whatever else must happen, if there is to be a peace dispensation it must be based on international law, it must be based on UN resolutions and of course the refugees themselves must be consulted. As I say, they cannot simply be airbrushed out of history. These are people who’ve been a UN protected population for 70 years and we have a continuing obligation towards them.”
Doucet went on to ask Gunness about “the mood” in Amman where, she pointed out, there are “so many refugees…dependent on UNRWA funding” but without clarifying that the vast majority of them are Jordanian citizens. After Gunness had spoken of “real alarm”, “panic and alarm” and “dramatic and unpredictable consequences”, Doucet further pursued her point.
Doucet: “Jordanian officials are even warning that this could be explosive. There could be security consequences.”
After Gunness had spoken of “the consequences of having 2 million angry, ill-educated, hungry people in Gaza on the doorstep of Israel”, Doucet closed that conversation and re-introduced Yolande Knell and the theme of a link between the US decision to stop contributions to UNRWA and “what’s happening in the peace process”. Knell took up the baton, promoting Palestinian messaging on that topic.
At 41:36 Doucet brought up a topic rarely discussed in BBC content.
Doucet: “What about the criticism that neighbouring Arab states, you know, keep the Palestinians generation after generation as refugees, denying them rights, as a political bargaining chip with Israel?”
Failing to mention the Arab League decision of 1959 designed to do exactly that, Knell responded:
Knell: “Well it depends on the different countries. There has been the different response to the Palestinian refugee issue. Certainly Jordan would point out that it has given citizenship to many of those Palestinian refugees but those in Syria and in Lebanon, it’s important to remember, they are still considered to be stateless. They are kept as refugees and the governments of those countries have said that it would be against the Palestinian interests, against the interests of their nationalist struggle if they were to be absorbed as citizens in those countries. This is an extremely sensitive issue for Palestinians and there are lots of Palestinian people that have lived their life in limbo from one generation to the next. They have very much kept alive this hope of returning back to land which now is inside Israel – something which both Israel and the United States say is unrealistic but which the different parties including the Palestinians say can only be solved through negotiations; not by just taking an issue off the table.”
With no mention made of the real motivation behind promotion of the ‘right of return’ issue, Doucet brought what she described as “a very sensitive, a very crucial story” to a close.
As we see BBC World Service audiences heard unchallenged UNRWA messaging together with promotion of Palestinian talking points in a long item which once again did little to contribute to their understanding of the background to this story.
Unravelling years of BBC statistics on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon