Kenneth Jacobson

Reform of UNRWA is long overdue

The story that recently emerged about 12 members of the UNWRA staff in Gaza participating in the massacre of Israelis on October 7 was both shocking and not surprising. 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was established after the first war between Israel and its Arab neighbors when, following Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, five Arab armies invaded the Jewish state in an effort to make its birth stillborn. Out of that conflict emerged the Palestinian refugee issue, in which many thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in Israel, most to avoid the consequences of the war, but some either because Arab leaders called on them to flee and let the Arabs murder the Jews, or because they were forced out by the Israelis. 

In light of the refugee issue, the United Nations established a body to facilitate humanitarian aid to refugees wherever they were, but mostly in Gaza. UNRWA not only provides aid to Palestinians, but also runs educational institutions for Palestinian children.

The underlying themes of UNRWA for decades were twofold: provide needed assistance to Palestinians and make sure that the refugee issue did not disappear. This latter point is particularly unique to the Palestinian refugee issue, since elsewhere around the world, where millions upon millions of refugee problems had surfaced during and after WWII, solutions were found to resettle refugees. Only in the case of the Palestinians, thanks to organizations like UNRWA, was the purpose not resettlement but sustaining a Palestinian sense of grievance and the need to use the refugee issue as leverage to generate support for a Palestinian state.  

The most egregious example of this primary goal was the fact that even when Palestinians had control of Gaza, they still kept alive refugee camps, rather than dissolving them into Palestinian society. 

Meanwhile, over the years, numerous reports surfaced about UNWRA’s educational system inculcating the children of Gaza with the most poisonous notions about Israel and Jews. And over the years there were calls for reducing funding to UNWRA and other steps to limit UNRWA activities. 

Still, just as no one expected the level of barbarism coming out of Hamas on October 7, few thought that UNRWA staff, as biased as they have been against Israel, would participate in the slaughter of Israeli civilians.  

Now that we look back on the history of Hamas, particularly its antisemitic charter, there is less surprise that they did what they did. And similarly, considering the barrage of anti-Israel messages coming out of UNRWA over the years lessens the initial surprise about the fact that at least 12 staffers participated in the attack. 

The question going forward: is UNRWA redeemable? What is necessary as long as the Palestinian issue continues unresolved is some sort of institution that provides assistance to the Palestinians. So if UNRWA is going to continue to play a role, it must be reformed. 

It must be adequately supervised so that all staffers that support Hamas are ejected from the organization. And most importantly, there must be an overhaul of their educational programs if there ever is to be a chance of peace.  

The poison that has come out of UNRWA played a role in setting the stage for October 7. The international community needs to revisit its role toward the Palestinians so that the atmosphere that made October 7 possible will no longer be maintained.

A changed UNRWA, and a changed Palestinian society absent Hamas, offer the best chances for peace and a secure future for Israelis and Palestinians.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Related Topics
Related Posts