The Israeli Defense Forces announced Thursday that it discovered hundreds of weapons in a West Bank kindergarten run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This was only the latest bit of bad news for the UN agency, which has taken a lot of heat—deservedly—for serving as a willing partner to Hamas in Gaza since the terrorist group conquered the territory in 2007.
The latest UNRWA revelation, coupled with the organization’s horrible record, is important in the context of the “day after debates.” Gazans will need help after this war. Assistance must be provided. But UNRWA simply cannot provide that assistance. Another agency—any other agency—should do it.
UNRWA was established after Israel’s War of Independence. As a result of the war launched by the surrounding Arab states, some 800,000 Palestinians left their homes. In 1949, the UN established UNRWA to address the problem. In retrospect, it was bizarre that a separate agency was established solely to deal with Palestinian refugees, especially as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is now responsible for literally every other refugee population on the planet.
Over the years, it became clear why UNRWA was not operating within the construct of UNHCR. Rather than re-settling the refugees, UNRWA deliberately created more than 5.9 million of them. UNRWA’s numbers are mathematically impossible, of course. The original refugees numbered, at most, 800,000 in 1948. The widening numbers problem derived from UNRWA’s recognition of the descendants of the original male refugees—most of whom have passed away.
As UNRWA began cynically to multiply its clients, the agency played an important role in the anti-Israeli narrative. Textbooks used by UNRWA promote hatred and incitement against Israel and Jews. Palestinians living on UNRWA’s payroll became living symbols of the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the reality of Israel. The agency tacitly endorsed what the Palestinians call the “right of return” of all refugees—and their descendants—to their homes from 75 years ago in modern day Israel.
As the UN’s largest donor, the U.S. became UNRWA’s leading patron. Between 1950 and 2018, U.S. taxpayers contributed about $6 billion to UNRWA. Strangely, Washington never used its financial leverage to demand reform—not before Hamas took over Gaza, and not after.
It is by now undeniable that some Hamas members were on the UNRWA payroll, including one UNRWA teacher who reportedly held Israeli hostages. The Israelis have ascertained this during the waves of arrests in Gaza over the last three months. But you don’t need to interrogate anyone to know that. Hamas over the years has used UNRWA schools as human shields, building military tunnels under them, storing rockets within them, and firing rockets from their compounds. And all of this was before Congress began to hear about escalating waste, fraud, corruption, and poor management.
On January 14, 2021, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “UNRWA is not a refugee agency; it’s [sic] estimated <200,000 Arabs displaced in 1948 are still alive and most others are not refugees by any rational criteria.” He continued, “Taxpayers deserve basic truths: most Palestinians under UNRWA’s jurisdiction aren’t refugees, and UNRWA is a hurdle to peace. America supports peace and Palestinian human rights; UNRWA supports neither. It’s time to end UNRWA’s mandate.”
Three months later, in April 2021, the Biden administration renewed funding for the agency without addressing Pompeo’s concerns. A true debate about the agency has never been aired. The current war, not to mention the heated discussions about the “day after,” has made that debate crucial and urgent.
The three most important stakeholders here are the United States, Germany, and Israel. America is the top funder of UNRWA, and the White House is invested heavily in a “day after” that affords Gazans a political horizon. Germany is the second largest funder. Recent internal debates have surfaced about Berlin’s unwillingness to continue to fund the group. Finally, Israel must agree to any agency that operates inside Gaza once Hamas is removed. Israel’s Arab peace partners have a role to play, too, if they choose to take part.
When the guns fall silent, hopefully soon, Gaza will need a fresh start. It is now time to empower another aid organization that embraces the challenges of Gaza among its other files. This should be non-negotiable on the “day after.”