Interview'There's gross misconception of our refugee policy'

Top UNRWA official says he champions both Israel and Palestinian refugees

As a US diplomat, Peter Mulrean fought anti-Israel bias at the UN; today, he defends his agency against the draconian cuts of his former employer

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Peter Mulrean participating in a UN conference in Geneva on October 1, 2012. (US Mission Geneva)
Peter Mulrean participating in a UN conference in Geneva on October 1, 2012. (US Mission Geneva)

NEW YORK — Just a few years ago, Peter Mulrean was defending Israel in what is arguably one of the most hostile diplomatic environments for the Jewish state.

In 2013, as the US deputy ambassador to the United Nations Humans Rights Council in Geneva, he hailed Jerusalem for its “strong commitment and track record in upholding human rights, political freedoms and civil liberties.”

Today, Mulrean is a senior official at UNRWA, the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, arguably the most hated organization in Israel and one the US government recently called “irredeemably flawed.”

From his office just across from UN headquarters in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, Mulrean promotes the agency on the world’s largest international stage.

The director of UNRWA’s Representative Office in New York decries the recent budget cuts by the US administration and passionately rejects the often-made argument that the agency perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and stands in the way of a realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peter Mulrean, the director of UNRWA’s Representative Office in New York, at UN headquarters in New York, September 28, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

But he also still stands by the good things he used to say about Israel in his previous position.

“In both cases, I was doing my job. I was always, in both cases, a firm believer in the policies that I was pursuing,” he told The Times of Israel during a recent interview held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Mulrean, who served as the US ambassador to Haiti before he quit the foreign service last year after three decades, said that “on many occasions I came to the defense of Israel on different issues.” For instance, he said, he advanced Israel’s accession to the Western European and Others Group at the Human Rights Council in 2013.

Until that time, the Jewish state was not admitted to any regional group in the council, simply because the Asia-Pacific Group wouldn’t accept it.

“That was an injustice. Israel should not have been excluded from being a member of a regional group,” Mulrean said.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. I visited Israel many times. Israel is a fascinating country; it has many of the dynamic attributes of a democracy that are important, and we would like to see Israel succeed.”

At the same time, he added, “We would also like to see a place for the Palestine refugees who continue to be refugees for all of this time. Just as I believed in the work I was doing then, I believe in the work I am doing now. I believe it’s an important mission.”

There are currently five million Palestinian refugees “who are in a very difficult situation,” Mulrean went on, using UNRWA’s figure. (Were the agency to use the criteria routinely used by the UN’s main refugee body, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, for other refugee populations around the world, it is estimated that the total would be a little over half a million. Mulrean declined to respond to this point when it was raised, saying that he did not want to discuss speculative matters.)

“We want to see these people move on as well. We are not a political organization, we don’t have an opinion on what a solution should look like. But we hope a political solution comes so that both the Israelis and the Palestinians can get along peacefully and get on with their lives.”

FILE – In this Jan. 31, 2014 file photo released by UNRWA, shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, lining up to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria (UNRWA via AP, File)

Naturally, Mulrean was dismayed at the US decision in late August to withdraw all funding to UNRWA, when his ex-employer scolded his new workplace’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries” and its “simply unsustainable” business model.

America’s cuts “came very much out of the blue for us,” he said, noting that senior White House and State Department officials had expressed “satisfaction” with the agency at meetings held in Washington just months ago.

What we have to conclude it that it was a political decision, which is deeply troubling because this is politicizing humanitarian assistance

Indeed, on December 7, 2017, UNRWA and the US signed a new cooperation agreement, in which the administration said it was “committed to continuing its partnership with UNRWA to assist UNRWA-registered refugees and other persons falling under the mandate of UNRWA until a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement is achieved and UNRWA’s mandate ends.”

Just a few weeks later, the administration announced it would only give $60 million to the agency in 2018, $300 million less than it had given in previous years.

Then on August 31 of this year, the State Department announced that it was “no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years.”

“We can only assume it was for political reasons that the US cut the assistance to UNRWA,” Mulrean said, suggesting that the drastic cuts were connected to President Donald Trump’s December 6, 2017, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent falling-out between Washington and Ramallah.

Refugees protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UNRWA offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“What we have to conclude it that it was a political decision, which is deeply troubling because this is politicizing humanitarian assistance,” he charged.

“The US has traditionally been not only the most generous contributor to humanitarian assistance, but really one of the greatest defenders of humanitarian principles, one of which is that you make your decisions based on need and not on political agendas.”

During the interview, Mulrean, a soft-spoken native Bostonian, said several times that UNRWA is a humanitarian organization that espouses no political views, and takes no position at all on what a future settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should look like.

At the same time, he adamantly rejected claims, often made by supporters of Israel, that UNRWA is part of the problem as it bestows refugee status on the descendants of Palestinians who left their homes in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s creation.

Peter Mulrean welcomes then-US secretary of state John Kerry to Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 21, 2014 (AP Photo/Gary Cameron, Pool)

Critics argue that rather than trying to resettle those people in their current host countries — where most of those currently alive were born — UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian ethos of being refugees who will one day “return” to their homes in what is now Israel.

When it was put to him that if UNRWA were to adopt the same definitions the UNHCR applies, millions of Palestinians would lose their refugee status, Mulrean was hesitant to compare and contrast how different UN agencies define who is a refugee. He also declined to discuss other points critics of UNRWA routinely raise, ending the interview before this reporter could ask him all the questions he had prepared.

Mulrean did, however, adamantly disagree with the premise that Palestinians are given exceptional treatment.

“There seems to be a gross misunderstanding about what UNRWA does in terms of passing status down to generations, and what UNHCR does. Because UNHCR does exactly the same thing,” Mulrean insisted. “There are Afghan refugees, including children and grandchildren who have received refugee status.”

In “protracted situations” all over the world, UNHCR hands down refugee status from generation to generation, the former diplomat added.

Even UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said repeatedly that there is no substantial difference between the way the UN treats refugees from different areas, Mulrean said. “It is essentially the same.”

Read more about the complex legal question of Palestinians’ refugee status here.

Mulrean acknowledged that UNRWA, uniquely, deals with only one refugee population, while UNHCR is in charge of all the world’s remaining refugees. The reason for this anomaly lies in the fact that the UN General Assembly in 1949 voted to create UNRWA with the sole goal of assisting Palestine refugees, before the UNHCR was founded a year later to deal with other refugees, he said.

UNRWA was expected to operate “for a temporary period,” but the General Assembly has renewed its mandate every three years since then, Mulrean explained. The agency can only be shut down, or merged with UNHCR, if a majority is found for such a move in the General Assembly.

Refugee schoolchildren attend an official ceremony to return to school at one of the UNRWA schools at a Palestinian refugee camp Al-Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018. (AP Photo / Raad Adayleh)

Mulrean added that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ongoing not because of UNRWA’s refugee definitions but because leaders on either side have yet to find a political solution.

“It is not that refugees want to be born refugees, or want to remain refugees forever. It is the lack of a political solution that creates that,” he said.

“I completely reject the notion that it is UNRWA that perpetuates the refugee problem. It is the lack of a political solution that perpetuates the refugee situation,” Mulrean declared. “UNRWA was created to provide to services to these refugees until a just and lasting solution is found. That is what we will continue to do until the General Assembly tells us to do otherwise.”

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